North Korea has now barged into the global nuclear-weapons club by conducting a nuclear test.  The six-party talks designed to get Pyongyang to relinquish its ambitions for a nuclear arsenal have effectively failed.  Even if North Korea can be induced to return to those talks (which Pyongyang has boycotted for a year), the prospect that they will achieve meaningful results is small.

In the days and weeks to come, there will be much discussion about how the United States should respond, given the apparent failure of diplomacy.  That is certainly an important issue, but an equally important consideration is how Washington should not respond.

The military option is especially rash, and, fortunately, the Bush administration does not seem inclined to go down that path.  Some hawks, including Sen. John McCain, have previously suggested that the United States consider launching air strikes against North Korea’s nuclear installations and missile sites—an incredibly high-risk strategy.  Pyongyang might well conclude that a limited attack designed to degrade its nuclear program is merely a prelude to a full-blown U.S. assault to oust Kim Jong Il’s regime, to which North Korea could respond with attacks on targets in South Korea and Japan, triggering a general war in East Asia.

And it would be a nasty one.  North Korea has an army of more than one million troops poised to invade South Korea.  She also has enough artillery pieces to fire some 300,000 shells per hour into the Seoul metropolitan area, home of nearly 50 percent of South Korea’s population.  And North Korea has rockets capable of reaching targets (including U.S. bases) in both South Korea and Japan.  Although North Korea would ultimately be defeated, that would be small consolation to the families of the South Koreans, Japanese, and Americans who would perish in the conflict.

The current strategy of imposing U.N.-mandated economic sanctions enforced by a de facto air and naval blockade on North Korea is almost as dangerous as launching air strikes.  The sanctions themselves are likely to be ineffectual.  Constraining the imports of luxury goods (such as Kim Jong Il’s expensive cognac) and restricting the travel of the “Dear Leader” and his cohorts will prove more annoying than lethal.  Banning the import of heavy military hardware and restricting financial transactions will hurt a little more, but such measures are unlikely to cause Kim’s regime to abandon the high-priority policy of continuing the quest for nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang is not likely to do something rash in response to such pinpricks, but the blockade provision is another matter entirely.  Security Council members will not use that term, of course, because a blockade is an act of war under long-standing principles of international law.  Moreover, North Korea has stated on numerous occasions (even before the current crisis) that she would indeed consider a blockade an act of war.

Although many of the statements coming out of Pyongyang over the years consist of froth and blather, this warning may be different.  Stopping and boarding North Korean ships might be an intolerable humiliation to Kim’s prickly and paranoid regime.  No rational person wants North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but it is even worse to risk war by engaging in a clumsy attempt to prevent Pyongyang from developing nukes.  Enforcing a blockade threatens to do just that.

America’s default policy option should be to rely on deterrence.  The United States has deterred other unsavory and volatile regimes in the past, notably Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.  Indeed, China acquired her nuclear capability on the eve of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s.  That spasm of fanaticism made China as weird a place as North Korea is today.  With thousands of nuclear weapons in our arsenal, we should be able to deter North Korea from attacking the United States and from even contemplating the transfer of nuclear material (much less a nuclear weapon) to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.  To eliminate any doubt on that score, Washington should convey the message directly to the North Koreans that such behavior would be a regime-ending event.

Deterring Pyongyang from using its new nuclear status to bully its neighbors, though, is more problematic, since 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.  Indeed, preventing bullying behavior in the region should not be America’s responsibility at all.  It should be up to North Korea’s prosperous and capable neighbors, Japan and South Korea, to defend themselves.

Such defense might require building their own nuclear deterrents.   Kim Jong Il’s regime is counting on the United States to prevent Japan and South Korea from even considering the option of going nuclear.  Pyongyang would then have the luxury of a nuclear monopoly in Northeast Asia (except for its ally, Beijing).

Instead of putting a leash on Japan and South Korea, U.S. officials should inform Pyongyang–and Beijing—that, if the North insists on crashing the global nuclear-weapons club, Washington will urge Tokyo and Seoul to make their own decisions about whether to acquire strategic deterrents.  Even the possibility that South Korea and Japan might do so would come as an unpleasant surprise to both North Korea and China.

A decision on nuclear weapons would be a difficult and politically sensitive issue in both Japan and South Korea, and the United States should not exert pressure one way or the other.  It is sufficient for Washington to inform those governments that the United States would not object to their developing nuclear weapons.  In addition, the United States needs to let Seoul and Tokyo know that we intend to withdraw our military forces from South Korea and Japan.  In an environment with a nuclear-armed North Korea, those forward-deployed forces are not military assets; they are nuclear hostages.

Faced with a dangerous, nuclear-armed neighbor and a more limited U.S.-military commitment to the region, Japan or South Korea (or both countries) might well decide to build a nuclear deterrent.  Although the Japanese public seems reluctant to go down that path, the attitude in South Korea is different.  A public-opinion poll taken shortly after Pyongyang’s nuclear test showed that a majority of respondents believed that South Korea should develop her own deterrent.

The prospect of additional nuclear-weapons proliferation in Northeast Asia is obviously not an ideal outcome.  But offsetting the North’s looming illicit advantage is better than having Asia’s democracies huddle under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.  Moreover, the real danger arises from proliferation when repulsive rogue states such as North Korea get such weapons, not when stable, democratic countries such as Japan and South Korea do so in self-defense.

The one chance of getting North Korea to abandon her current provocative course is if it becomes clear to Pyongyang that it may have to deal with nuclear neighbors and would, therefore, not be able to intimidate them.  Indeed, Pyongyang might face the prospect of confronting more prosperous adversaries who could easily build larger and more sophisticated nuclear arsenals than North Korea could hope to do.

A better option than deterrence and defensive proliferation, though, would be to prod and entice China to rid the international community of Kim Jong Il’s regime.  That is not to suggest that the PRC invade and occupy the country.  The strategy needs to be a more subtle one of subversion.  China is ideally positioned to make the attempt since she provides the bulk of North Korea’s food and energy.

Thus far, however, Beijing has been reluctant to put any serious economic pressure on Pyongyang.  China worries that, if she undermines Kim, the North Korean state will unravel, much as communist East Germany did after losing Soviet support during the final stages of the Cold War.  Such a development could have a number of unpleasant consequences for China, including a major influx of refugees.

An especially unpleasant prospect for Beijing is that China would then face a united Korea allied to the United States.   That would mean the end of the North Korean buffer between the U.S. sphere of influence in Northeast Asia and the Chinese homeland.  Even worse, it could mean a U.S.-military presence on the Chinese border.

We cannot do much to neutralize the problem of refugee flows, but the United States can allay China’s other concern.  Washington should assure Beijing that, if China subverts Kim’s government and the North Korean state implodes, the United States will not exploit the situation.  Instead, we would withdraw our forces from the Korean Peninsula and end the alliance with South Korea.  That alliance is a wasting asset anyway, since Seoul increasingly aligns its foreign-policy positions with those of Beijing rather than of Washington.  An amicable divorce is long overdue, and we would at least gain something for taking that step.

Such an offer might prove irresistibly tempting to Chinese leaders, since it would mean that China would be the most influential power on the Korean Peninsula in the foreseeable future.  Moreover, PRC officials already must be pondering whether it is worth preserving North Korea, given Pyongyang’s recent conduct.  Kim had previously ignored Beijing’s warnings not to conduct new missile tests.  His regime has now ignored even stronger Chinese warnings not to conduct a nuclear test.  China may well be ready to eliminate her troublesome client–if the United States makes it worth Beijing’s while.  We should at least explore the option, since it would be a relatively painless way of ending the North Korean nuclear threat.