Kim Jong-il waves from a limousine as he leaves a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Vladivostok, Russia, August 23, 2002.
Itar Tass / Reuters

Revelations of a North Korean secret drive to develop nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment have validated the suspicions of many skeptics in the Bush administration about Kim Jong-Il's uncooperative intentions. If what these skeptics were pursuing with North Korea--as I argued in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs--was "hawk engagement," then what can be said about the next logical steps?

First, the Bush administration's resistance to any dialogue with Pyongyang until it unilaterally resolves questions about its uranium enrichment activities is hardly unreasonable. All subsequent engagement with North Korea--including its breakthroughs with South Korea, Japan, and Europe--was made possible by the North's perceived good faith intentions to comply with its 1994 nonproliferation commitment to the United States under the Agreed Framework. Now that North Korea has shown it all to be a lie, the clock cannot simply be turned back.

Second, some have rationalized the North's blatant confession as a cleverly-disguised attempt to "retail" its new threat and thus draw a reluctant Bush administration into negotiations. Maybe so, but why should anyone have faith in a new nonproliferation agreement? Kim Jong-Il's credibility in Washington is not at zero, it is less than zero.

Third, prosecuting a war to deal with this problem is too ugly to contemplate. However, if Kim Jong-Il chooses not to unilaterally make efforts at resolving international concerns about his new weapons program, then the U.S. alternative is isolation and "malign neglect" of the regime.

As I argued in Foreign Affairs, a strategy of isolation or malign neglect would cut off economic assistance and political contact with North Korea until the regime either changed its behavior or collapsed of its own weight. It would also disrupt to the extent possible any attempts by the North to import or transfer weapons materiel for bomb-making purposes. Augmenting this formal strategy of isolation would be more proactive humanitarian measures, including the continuation of food aid, designed to help and engage the North Korean people. The United States should also take the lead in resettling North Koreans who have the courage to escape from the country.

Why won't such a strategy cause Kim Jong-Il to lash out and undertake crash development of its nuclear programs? Such concerns were justifiably voiced in the 1994 crisis that ultimately led to the Agreed Framework. Since then, however, Kim Jong-Il has won diplomatic ties with the EU, economic ties with South Korea, and a potential normalization settlement with Japan among other gains. If faced with the choice of cooperating on the nuclear program or facing total isolation, North Korea has too much to lose by heading down the latter path.

Different times require different thinking. In 1994, engagement was the level-headed consensus policy option as any other alternative would have led prematurely to war. Today, engagement is no longer credible. And preemption is not worth the candle. If Kim Jong-Il chooses not to pick up the cooperation ball, the only true "moderate" option is isolation.

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  • Victor D. Cha is Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Director of the American Alliances in Asia Project. He is the author of Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle.
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