The Bush administration plans to make significant additional cuts in the size of US troop deployments in South Korea. Such reductions may leave North Korean leaders with the impression that it is their recently enhanced nuclear capabilities that are driving the American withdrawal and embolden the reclusive state to take provocative actions in the months before to the US election.
The historic events in Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea have raised several key questions that help frame the proliferation debate over the future direction of U.S. non-proliferation policy.
Recent events in Pakistan and Libya are directly affecting the Bush Administration's approach to North Korea's nuclear program. The disclosure of A.Q. Khan's elaborate efforts to uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons technology and the decision by Col. Khadaffi to abandon his WMD programs have reinforced the Bush administration's perception that their tough approach is paying dividends.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) recently admitted that it was pushing back plans to put up a space-based missile defense test bed to at least 2008. But that does not mean the agency has given up on developing orbiting interceptors for shooting down enemy missiles in their boost-phase, shortly after their launch.
If the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia can reach a basic understanding on how to handle North Korea, the effort to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and accept a reasonable "more-for-more" agreement, while not easy, should enjoy a reasonable chance of success.
The announcement that the United States, North Korea and China will hold talks next week in Beijing over North Korea's nuclear program is a welcome development and an apparent victory for the Bush administration's decision to oppose direct, one-on-one talks with Pyongyang.
While the world's attention is riveted on Iraq, the United States cannot afford to ignore the brewing crisis in Korea. The Bush administration's approach to North Korea is quickly moving from the inexplicable to the irresponsible. If it continues on the current course, America could soon find itself confronted with the unpalatable choice between a nuclear-armed North Korea and war.
While it is not certain that North Korea would negotiate away their nuclear programs and fully abide by any agreement, such a resolution was and remains a possibility. By refusing to aggressively pursue a negotiated approach, the Bush administration has essentially green-lighted North Korea's nuclear program and may be encouraging the North to take even more drastic steps in the future.
Beijing provides critical energy and food aid to Pyongyang. Indeed, without Beijing's economic support, conditions in North Korea are likely to deteriorate dramatically. Logically, China ought to be the country the US should court actively to increase the diplomatic pressure on North Korea and reduce the tensions over Pyongyang's dangerous nuclear programmes.