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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On North Korea: Nukes or Negotiation

North Korea's nuclear facility at Yongbyon, which had been "frozen" under international inspection since 1994, was reactivated this January for the production of plutonium. Just last week the North Koreans announced that they intended to use the resulting plutonium to make nuclear weapons, which only confirmed what we always believed.

If it keeps on its present course, North Korea will probably have six to eight nuclear weapons by the end of the year, will possibly have conducted a nuclear test and may have begun deployment of some of these weapons, targeted against Japan and South Korea. By next year, it could be in serial production of nuclear weapons, building perhaps five to 10 per year.

This is a nightmare scenario, but it is a reasonable extrapolation from what we know and from what the North Koreans have announced. The U.S. administration to this point has refused to negotiate with North Korea, instead calling on the countries in the region to deal with the problem. The strategy underlying this approach is not clear, but the consequences are all too clear. It has allowed the North in the past six months to move from canned fuel rods to plutonium and, in a few more months, to nuclear weapons. And the consequences could extend well beyond the region. Given North Korea's desperate economic condition, we should expect it to sell some of the products of its nuclear program, just as it did with its missile program. If that happens, a nuclear bomb could end up in an American city. The administration has suggested that it would interdict such transfers. But a nuclear bomb can be made with a sphere of plutonium the size of a soccer ball. It is wishful thinking to believe we could prevent a package that size from being smuggled out of North Korea.

How did we get into this mess?

For several decades North Korea has aspired to have nuclear weapons. During that period successive administrations have, through a combination of threats and inducements, curtailed their program but never their aspirations. In the late 1980s the first Bush administration saw the potential danger and persuaded the Soviet Union to pressure North Korea to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subject its nuclear facilities to international inspection. The North Koreans complied, but they stalled long enough to give them time to make and store enough plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs before the inspectors arrived.

Shortly after the Clinton administration took office, they tried again. As spent fuel was being taken from the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the North Koreans ejected the inspectors and began preparations for reprocessing. This would have given them enough plutonium for five or six additional nuclear bombs. President Bill Clinton considered this sufficiently dangerous that he declared reprocessing a "red line." In response, I had the Joint Chiefs prepare a plan to use military force if necessary to prevent this outcome. When Kim Il Sung offered to negotiate the issue, Clinton responded that he would negotiate only if the North Koreans froze all activity at Yongbyon during the negotiation. In the end, military force was not necessary. The agreement that ended this crisis was far from perfect, but in its absence North Korea could today have 50 to 100 nuclear weapons.

But the North Koreans never gave up their desire for nuclear weapons. Even as they complied with the freeze at Yongbyon, they covertly started a second nuclear program at a different location. U.S. intelligence discovered signs of this program and last fall confronted the North Koreans, who did not dispute the charge. The administration responded by stopping fuel oil deliveries called for under the old agreement, to which the North Koreans responded by reopening Yongbyon and racing to get nuclear weapons.

There are three basic approaches for dealing with this dangerous situation.

The administration can continue to refuse to negotiate, "outsourcing" this problem to the concerned regional powers. This approach appears to be based on the hope that the regional powers will be able to prevail on North Korea to stop its nuclear program. But hope is not a strategy. If their hopes are not realized and North Korea continues on its present course, it will soon have a significant nuclear arsenal. And while the regional powers could play a role in resolving this crisis, they are unlikely to succeed in the absence of a clear U.S. negotiating strategy in which they can participate.

A second alternative is to put economic pressure on North Korea and hope for "regime change." Or the United States could take military action to bring this change about. But while the regime may one day collapse, with or without economic pressure, there is no reason to believe that it will happen in time -- the nuclear threat is imminent. Taking military action to force a timely regime change could result in a conflict comparable to the first Korean War, with casualties that would shock the world.

The third alternative is to undertake serious negotiations with the North Koreans to determine if there is a way to stop their nuclear program short of war. The administration is clearly reluctant to negotiate with the North Koreans, calling them loathsome and cheaters. It is easy to be sympathetic with this position; indeed, the only reason for considering negotiation with North Korea is that the other alternatives are so terrible. The administration, seeing the danger, has said that it "would not tolerate" a North Korean nuclear arsenal. The North Koreans responded to this declaration by accelerating their program. The conflict between our views and their actions is a formula for drifting into war. It is imperative that we stop that drift, and the only clear way of doing that is by negotiating.

Any negotiations with the North Koreans are likely to be difficult and protracted, so they should be predicated on a prior agreement that North Korea will freeze its nuclear activities during the negotiations. For negotiations to have a chance of success, they would need to have a positive dimension, making it clear to North Korea that forgoing nuclear weapons could lead it to a safe and positive future. But they would also need a negative or coercive dimension, both to induce North Korea to take the right path and to give us and our allies more credible options if diplomacy should fail.

President John Kennedy said it best: "We should never negotiate from fear, but we should never fear to negotiate."

William J. Perry was U.S. defense secretary from 1994 to 1997. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.