As North Korea ramps up its preparation for an announced test of a nuclear weapon, the international community is up in arms. The US has urged North Korea to back away from its promise to test, stating that the US will not live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. As the US plans how to impose sanctions on an already-isolated Hermit Kingdom, the New York Times is urging President Bush to return to the negotiating table in a serious effort to determine North Korea's price for abandoning its nuclear program. On the other hand, the Washington Post encourages China and South Korea to take firm stand by punishing North Korea for its behavior to force it back into talks.
The stakes are, of course, high. First, North Korea is certainly one of the most erratic and abomindable regimes ever to exist. Possessing an overt arsenal of nuclear weapons with the capability of devastating major cities of its neighbors, North Korea could certainly become emboldened towards a more aggressive foreign policy. Second, proliferation by North Korea will create strong pressures on other countries in the region -- namely Japan and South Korea -- to develop a nuclear arsenal of their own. Such actions would create wide-ranging instability in Asia and must be avoided at (almost) any cost. Third, North Korea has demonstrated its affinity for criminal dealings to prop up its pathetic economy: The major sources of income for North Korea are believed to come from counterfeiting US currency and the drug trade. It is certainly not inconceivable that North Korea would sell enriched plutonium, if not an actual weapon, to a terrorist group.
So, what to do? The answer really lies in the assessment of North Korea's preferences vis-a-vis the status quo. States can be understood to view their interests in relation to the status quo. Most states perceive that their security and interests can best be protected and promoted by adhering to the existing rules and norms of the system. Some states believe that the status quo fundamentally threatens their security and interests, and thus they seek, at best, to promote their interests by means outside of the accepted norms and, at worst, to overthrow the status quo. The former types are known as "status quo" states, while the latter are "revisionist." Note that status quo and revisionist are not synonymous with "good" and "bad" or "friends" or "enemies." For example, two states may not "like" each other and may very well be locked in serious confrontation; however, if they pursue that competition within the existing rules of the system, they are status quo. The strategy selected to deal with a state greatly depends on its fundamental type.
If two states are in a crisis scenario, and the "complaining" state is status quo, its aims will be limited. That is, the nature of the system is seen as part of its security and interest; such a state can be dealt with through negotiations. However, if the complaining state is revisionist, negotiations will likely only increase the state's demands as it perceives weakness. This is the classic "Munich" analogy: appeasing aggressive, expansionist states now only makes them stronger in the long run. If North Korea is a revisionist state, negotiations, economic incentives, and other "carrots" will only postpone the inevitable confrontation by both emboldening and strengthening North Korea. If, however, North Korea is status quo, then negotiations may actually address its legitimate security concerns, while a muscular confrontation may, in fact, threaten the state and back it into a corner.
So, which type is North Korea? This is, perhaps, the most difficult question of them all. On the one hand, North Korea, while no angel, isn't the sort of international menace that, say, Iran is or pre-invasion Iraq was. There is no evidence of North Korean connections to international terrorist and there have been no cross-border invasions since 1950. On the other hand, North Korea demonstates no willingness to participate in the international institutions that go a long way to encouraging states to see their national interests as synonymous with the international order.
My sense is that North Korea is fundamentally a revisionist state, and that the only thing that has kept it hemmed in has been US power. A North Korea possessing nuclear weapons would be a difficult beast to keep caged, in addition to the wider implications and problems that would be caused for the other countries in the region. When North Korea's beyond-abysmal human rights record is thrown in to the mix, it's hard to understand how North Korea could perceive its national interest to be in line with that of the international community. The time has come for the UN, China, South Korea, Japan, and the US to take a firm, unyielding stand towards North Korea: Give up your nuclear arsenal or face serious consequences, including the shut-off of all monies and energy from China and South Korea, along with possible military action from the US. It is simply unacceptable for North Korea to be allowed to develop a nuclear arsenal.