North Korea's revelations of a long-suspected illicit uranium enrichment program, construction of a new, larger nuclear reactor, and its unprovoked artillery attack on South Korean territory raise the stakes in an already dangerous situation. It is time to think strategically, not tactically, and for resolve, not appeasement.
North Korea's benighted regime is corrupt, brutal, incompetent, and violently aggressive. The scale of its crimes against the Korean people is evident even from outer space at night as a black armband of poverty across the Peninsula, surrounded by the bright lights of prosperity burning from China and South Korea. Very likely over a million people in the North starved to death during the 1990s due to Pyongyang's twin policies of juche (self-reliance), and meeting military needs first. Political prisoners are held in camps scattered throughout the North, but in a very real sense, nearly all of its citizens are prisoners of the state.
The North Korean regime could not exist without support from China. Beijing provides trade, aid, and political sustenance sufficient to keep the failed state from complete collapse. It does so to avoid a flood of refugees or political instability which might spread to China. Moreover, this tragic situation is made dangerous by North Korea's behavior overseas.
In the 1980s, North Korean agents committed acts of terrorism, including bombing an airliner and attempting to assassinate the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma. North Korea kidnapped dozens of Japanese and South Korean citizens to exploit them for intelligence purposes. Pyongyang is the leading exporter of ballistic missiles to dangerous regimes, most likely was the source of some of the material shipped to Libya's nuclear program, and helped Syria to build a covert plutonium production reactor, which could have been used to produce nuclear weapons, had it not been destroyed by Israeli jets in September 2007. Twice recently, North Korea has attacked the South with military force. These actions are inconsistent with international peace and security.
The newly unveiled uranium enrichment program is a particularly dangerous development. It gives the North another path to make fissile material for nuclear weapons-and might provide a further revenue source from illicit sales. It is very unlikely that this program grew to its present size-reportedly 2,000 centrifuges in a "stunning" modern facility-in the months between the departure of U.S. and international inspectors in the spring of 2009 and now. A more plausible explanation is that the newly-revealed facility is the fruit of a long-suspected program, undertaken in violation of numerous international agreements.
An early temptation will be to view the situation tactically-to ask what can be done to calm the crisis? This is a sensible impulse; preventing war is a worthy goal. Strategic considerations, however, are also important. Consistent with its paramount interests in avoiding political instability and refugee flows, China will be eager to calm the situation. The United States and its allies must take the case to Beijing that long term stability on the Peninsula can only be guaranteed by truly ending the Korean War. Eventually -- like all dynasties -- Kim's will end. The choice for Beijing is thus whether it will continue heroic measures to maintain a terminal patient, thereby extending the North Korean people's misery and threats to international security, or alternatively plan for and work toward a peaceful, stable, democratic, and reunited Korean Peninsula. Beijing's apparent acquiescence to dynastic succession in North Korea was a mistake. In light of recent developments, China has the opportunity to correct that mistake, and Washington has stronger arguments to persuade Beijing to do so. More at: