Did he or didn't he? At the moment, it is unclear whether North Korea's despot, Kim Jong-il, succeeded in doing what he claimed occurred on Monday -- entering the "nuclear club" by detonating underground a small atomic or nuclear weapon. Whether Mr. Kim's Stalinist state actually accomplished that feat, or tried to do so and largely failed, or simply lied about the source of the seismic tremor detected by various Western scientists (producing it via conventional high explosive instead of by splitting atoms), one thing is now clear: The danger posed by such a regime with nuclear weapons can no longer be ignored.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much what the world -- including both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States -- has largely done to date, even as the threat of a nuclear North Korea has metastasized. The problem, of course, is that we have been encouraged to mistake diplomatic activity, or at least the pursuit of negotiations, for doing something useful to mitigate that danger. What amounted to bilateral negotiations under Bill Clinton and multilateral negotiations with North Korea under George Bush have done something, all right -- in fact, four things, none of them desirable.
First, negotiations with North Korea have served to legitimize one of the planet's most odious regimes, putting it on a par with the free world and undermining those who aspire to join it. Second, negotiating with Pyongyang has played into Kim Jong-il's hands, buying time for his pursuit of deadly agendas and capabilities at our expense. Third, our willingness to negotiate with tyrants such as Mr. Kim emboldens them. They have low regard for those with no power and nothing but contempt for those who have power but refuse, or lack the will, to use it. Fourth, the act of negotiating with adversaries such as Mr. Kim conjures up an unwarranted sense of security among those who should be readying themselves to deal decisively with the enemy.
The last thing to do now is to compound the cumulative, negative repercussions of this ill-advised approach by redoubling our efforts to bribe North Korea into rejoining the so-called six-party talks or, worse yet, by acceding to its demand that the United States reward its aggressive behaviour by treating with Pyongyang directly. Instead, we should be making the focus of our efforts the elimination of Kim Jong-il's regime.
Toward that end, we should take a page from the playbook that Ronald Reagan successfully followed to bring down a far more formidable foe -- the Soviet Union. Specifically, we should pursue the following steps:
Join with Japan, Australia and others who share our view of the danger posed by North Korea to deny Pyongyang the financial life support it must have to survive. International corporations operating in the North should be given a choice: Do business with Mr. Kim or with the free world. Those who opt for the former should be denied government contracts, subjected to financial sanctions and import controls and made the focus of divestment initiatives such as those that ultimately brought down the South African regime 20 years ago.
Greatly ramp up the U.S. effort to deploy the sort of effective anti-missile defences first sought by Mr. Reagan in 1983. Thanks to Mr. Bush's leadership, the United States now has the latitude to protect its people against ballistic missile attack. Regrettably, that effort has so far been mostly confined to a limited, land-based missile defence system. In light of the North Korean threat, America needs to augment this initial deployment by immediately modifying its navy's Aegis fleet air-defence ships so as to afford them the capability to shoot down ballistic missiles of various ranges -- whether launched from places such as North Korea or from tramp steamers off North America.
Finally, we must stop pretending that Kim Jong-il's regime is one with which we can safely live. Mr. Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire" and demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. A corresponding campaign is needed now to establish that a regime that has murdered two million of its own people through starvation and that brutally represses the survivors is an international pariah, one that cannot be further tolerated. Rather than legitimizing the regime by negotiating with it -- even in multilateral settings, to say nothing of bilateral ones -- every effort should now be bent toward discrediting this vile dictatorship, holding accountable those who perpetuate it and encouraging freedom throughout the Korean peninsula.
Ronald Reagan demonstrated almost two decades ago that the peoples enslaved by the Soviet superpower need not be consigned to such a state in perpetuity. So, in our time, every effort must be made to end the tyrannical misrule of the nuclear club's newest, and arguably most dangerous, member: Kim Jong-il.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, held senior positions in the Reagan defence department.