Confronting North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Can it be stopped?

October 30, 2006
Liz Tempesta

Questions surrounding North Korea and its nascent nuclear weapons program took center stage Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Just hours before the North Koreans announced they would return to the Six-Party Talks, a panel of defense experts and analysts discussed the range of policy options available to the U.S.

“What has transpired in North Korea in the last couple of weeks is one of the most significant setbacks for Americans and international security of recent years,” said Ash Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project and moderator of last night’s event. Carter posed two questions to the panel: What does the future of North Korea look like and what do we do now about the situation there?

General John Tilelli, Jr., senior advisor for the Preventive Defense Project at Stanford University, doesn’t see change in North Korea’s future. He said, “I think denuclearization and a nuclear-free peninsula is a goal that we all have, but to assume that North Korea will voluntarily denuclearize is hope and…hope is not a method.”

Stephen Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, agreed with Tilelli’s assertion stating that, “The US needs to get real about the situation in East Asia.” He added, “I think American policy in North Korea is driven by wishful thinking more than by reality. We have toyed with the idea of a North Korean collapse for a long time, but we should abandon it,” he said.

Although many agree that the U.S. needs to engage North Korea through diplomacy rather than through military action, past negotiations have yielded little if any progress. Anne Wu, research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said cooperation from Washington will be key to any deal.

“North Korea needs to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons,” she said. But Washington, she added “needs to join in political and economic engagement with North Korea.”

Choi Young-Jin, current ambassador to the United Nations for the Republic of Korea, doubts that other nations can affect North Korea’s current regime. He believes that “North Korea is so isolated from the outside world that regime collapse, regime change, regime improvement, cannot be induced.” He added, “If it happens, it will happen because of North Korea.”

Putting aside doubt and wishful thinking, there was little argument around the importance of stabilizing the situation in North Korea.

“North East Asia is the center of gravity to the United States and making stability in the region is very important and in the best interest of the Unites States of America,” Tilelli remarked.

To watch the video of this event, visit the Forum archive- http://iopforum.harvard.edu:8080/ramgen/fr20061030northkorea.rm

Photo: Jon Chase, Harvard News Office

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General John Tilelli, Jr. and Anne Wu image

General John Tilelli, Jr. and Anne Wu discuss the appropriate responses to North Korea's nuclear breakout.