For years, the United States and East Asian nations have proceeded on the assumption that a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is feasible. A settlement would entail Pyongyang’s renunciation of its nuclear ambitions in exchange for diplomatic and economic concessions by the other participants in the six-party talks.
But what if the underlying assumption is wrong? What if Kim Jong-Il’s regime is merely stalling, while building nuclear warheads and a reliable missile-delivery system? North Korea’s recent missile tests and nuclear test, as well as Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the six-party talks, suggest that such a scenario is likely. What is our “Plan B” if the six-party talks fail?
Some think Plan B should involve imposing stronger multilateral economic sanctions and intercepting North Korean ships that might be carrying nuclear or missile materials, using the Proliferation Security Initiative as justification. The Obama administration seems to favor that approach.
Both elements of the strategy have problems, however. Pyongyang has warned that it would view searches of its ships as an act of war. It would be risky to call that bluff. And while Beijing reluctantly supported a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution in June, Chinese leaders remain wary, arguing that harsh economic sanctions will make Pyongyang less cooperative.