North Korea, a small country with no economic potential to speak of, has for two decades been a major irritant to the international community. Its nuclear weapons program puts the international nonproliferation regime at risk and threatens to provide assorted rogue states and terrorist groups with the nuclear technology they have long sought. In April, Pyongyang conducted a missile test, and a nuclear test followed in May. In July, however, Kim Jong Il signaled a readiness to talk by inviting former U.S. President Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang and retrieve two American journalists detained in North Korea since March. Still, this dramatic event was no indication that North Korea is planning to give up its nuclear program.
In considering the North Korean nuclear question, U.S. policymakers and experts typically fall into two camps. The optimists believe that negotiating with Pyongyang will set North Korea on the path of Chinese-style political and economic reforms, help it become a "normal state," and convince it to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The pessimists insist that only relentless pressure will cause Pyongyang to denuclearize. The optimists (such as Christopher Hill, who once led U.S. negotiations with North Korea and is now ambassador to Iraq) favor talks and compromise. The pessimists (such as John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) prefer coercive sanctions. Pyongyang's recent provocations seem to confirm the pessimists' view for now, but at other times the optimists have seemed vindicated, and the pendulum has swung back and forth frequently over the years. In any event, neither camp's approach is likely to work.
The optimists' position rests on two false hopes: that Pyongyang, like Beijing in the late 1970s, might oversee a process of economic reform and that, with patience and goodwill, the international community can convince it to abandon its nuclear program. But Kim and his entourage believe that Chinese-style reforms are not a viable option -- and they are probably correct. Market reforms in North Korea would
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