For years, the United States and East Asian nations have proceeded on the assumption that a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is feasible.  A settlement would entail Pyongyang’s renunciation of its nuclear ambitions in exchange for diplomatic and economic concessions by the other participants in the six-party talks.

But what if the underlying assumption is wrong?  What if Kim Jong-Il’s regime is merely stalling, while building nuclear warheads and a reliable missile-delivery system?  North Korea’s recent missile tests and nuclear test, as well as Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the six-party talks, suggest that such a scenario is likely.  What is our “Plan B” if the six-party talks fail?

Some think Plan B should involve imposing stronger multilateral economic sanctions and intercepting North Korean ships that might be carrying nuclear or missile materials, using the Proliferation Security Initiative as justification.  The Obama administration seems to favor that approach.

Both elements of the strategy have problems, however.  Pyongyang has warned that it would view searches of its ships as an act of war.  It would be risky to call that bluff.  And while Beijing reluctantly supported a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution in June, Chinese leaders remain wary, arguing that harsh economic sanctions will make Pyongyang less cooperative.

China also fears that too much pressure could cause the North Korean state to implode.  Beijing still wishes to preserve North Korea as a buffer between China and the U.S. sphere of influence in Northeast Asia, and an implosion would lead to the sudden emergence on China’s border of a unified Korea allied to the United States.  It might also lead to a massive flow of North Korean refugees into China.  That is why Beijing remains reluctant to use its economic leverage as North Korea’s principal source of energy and food to compel Kim’s regime to halt its nuclear-weapons program.  Without Chinese cooperation, coercive economic measures will have little impact on Pyongyang.

U.S. leaders insist that North Korea abandon her quest for nuclear weapons and gradually become a normal member of the international community, or face ever-greater isolation.  But that strategy could prove quite dangerous.  If isolation fails to convince North Korea to abandon her nuclear ambitions, we could end up with an extremely bad combination.  Isolating a country that possessed nuclear weapons would exacerbate tensions and increase the possibility of a fatal miscalculation.  Equally troubling, if Washington and its allies imposed further economic sanctions on an already impoverished North Korea, the incentives would increase for Pyongyang to seek revenues from other sources—especially by selling its missile and nuclear technologies to any paying customer—state or nonstate.

Others think Plan B should be to accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state.

There is a credible argument for this approach.  The United States has deterred other bad nuclear actors in the past, most notably the Soviet Union and Maoist China, and our vast strategic arsenal would likely deter Kim Jong-Il.  But this approach, although more practical and prudent than military force or robust sanctions, is not without its own problems.

We may well be able to deter a nuclear attack on the United States, but deterring a nuclear Pyongyang from bullying its neighbors is more doubtful.  North Korean leaders might well wonder if the United States would really risk war (including attacks on American targets in East Asia) merely to protect third parties.

Moreover, relying on deterrence still leaves room for dangerous North Korean mischief in other respects—particularly with regard to her worrisome proliferation activities.  Pyongyang’s apparent nuclear assistance to Syria raises a disturbing question: What other countries—or nonstate actors—might also be among Kim’s clients?

Another Plan B would focus on inducing China to undermine Kim Jong-Il’s regime and promote the emergence of a more pragmatic government in Pyongyang, along with the explicit condition of keeping the country nonnuclear.  Such a bargain would include a commitment from Beijing to promote the reunification of the two Koreas within the next generation.  The price in terms of concessions from the United States would not be cheap.  At a minimum, Beijing would probably want a commitment from Washington to end its military presence on the Korean Peninsula and, in all likelihood, to phase out its security alliance with South Korea.  That would require the United States (and Japan) to accept a significant expansion of Chinese influence in Korea.

But to some extent, that is already happening.  Trade between South Korea and China is expanding rapidly, and Seoul’s policies on relations with Japan and the status of Taiwan align more with Beijing than with the United States.  Even a united Korea is likely to be close to China diplomatically and economically.  Striking a bargain with China regarding North Korea would get us something worthwhile in return for relinquishing an already waning strategic and political asset.

In any case, U.S and East Asian officials need to be thinking about a Plan B now.  It is not prudent simply to hope that the six-party talks will produce an effective solution.  Given North Korea’s record, that is merely the triumph of hope over experience.