North Korea’s agreement to end its nuclear weapons program came out of the wild blue yonder and appears to have dissipated just as quickly. The always-quirky North Korean regime agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and program, return at an early date to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and submit to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. In exchange, they receive a light water nuclear reactor (less useful for making nuclear weapons) and a nonaggression pledge from the United States. No sooner had the ink dried on the agreement, however, than an anonymous North Korean Foreign Ministry official said that North Korea would not give up its weapons program until it received nuclear reactors from the United States.

Such a reversal indicates that the U.S. should not expect an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear program, in spite of the Bush administration’s recent conversion to a less confrontational posture with North Korea. Three years ago, the administration discovered that North Korea was conducting an illicit uranium enrichment program that violated an agreement with the Clinton administration to halt all its nuclear weapons efforts. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration had used the threat of war to coerce the North Koreans into the agreement in the first place. Until recently, the Bush administration continued the hard-line U.S. policy toward North Korea by using belligerent rhetoric, including lumping North Korea into the “Axis of Evil” with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Bellicose U.S. behavior toward North Korea and other “rogue” states during recent administrations has reinforced North Korea’s intrinsic paranoia. The Clinton administration bombed Serbia during the conflicts over Bosnia and Kosovo and launched air strikes on Iraq to get rid of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration invaded Iraq to do the same. North Korea could see that non-nuclear Serbia and Iraq got no respect from the United States and quickly redoubled its efforts to develop the only military capability that could keep the superpower at bay—a credible nuclear arsenal.

Iran has read the tea leaves much the same way and has done much the same thing. Apparently, the mullahs were also conducting a secret nuclear program that was exposed. Under scrutiny, they have since frozen uranium enrichment activities but are threatening to renew them if the matter is referred to the U.N. Security Council for the possible imposition of economic sanctions.

Both North Korea and Iran are negotiating with the United States and other nations in East Asia to receive aid and buy time for their nuclear weapons program to continue without being hampered by either more economic sanctions or U.S. attacks. In all likelihood, these countries have no intention of giving up their quest for an ultimate safeguard against an attack. At least theoretically, it is hard to deny them that security measure, given that the declared nuclear powers have pledged to give up nuclear weapons under the NPT but have no intention of doing so.

Yet in neither case does the United States have a realistic military option to eliminate all nuclear-related facilities. Any attack short of an all-out invasion of either country will not take out all, or probably even most, of their nuclear capabilities or infrastructure, which have been hidden, buried deeply, or placed in heavily populated areas to guard against air strikes.

So the United States must face the unfortunate reality that quirky or extremist regimes will have—or already have—nuclear weapons. But the United States allowed radical Maoist China to get nuclear weapons in the 1960s and then successfully used deterrence as a strategy. Unlike terrorists, radical nuclear powers do have home addresses that can be held at risk using the world dominant U.S. nuclear arsenal, thus deterring any potential nuclear attack on the United States.

The real threat is that some of these new atomic states will sell nuclear technology or know-how to anti-U.S. terrorists, who are even more radical, have no home address, and thus cannot be as easily deterred. Better U.S. relations with these states would provide fewer political incentives for them to sell the technology to such terrorists and facilitate U.S. purchase of the technology before these sales occurred.

Better relations with Iran and North Korea should be possible. Although they may threaten the U.S. Empire, neither is really much of a direct threat to the United States. If the United States had not invaded Iraq, Iran’s neighbor, and was not defending a South Korean nation that is wealthy enough to provide its own security, it would have little cause to come into conflict with either faraway nation. Iran’s oil is important, but Iran makes huge profits on such exports and thus has every incentive to sell to the world market, even without U.S. intervention.

U.S. administrations, the American foreign policy establishment, conservative hawks and arms control doves all wring their hands over new countries trying to develop nuclear weapons, but none of them ever seem to realize that U.S. military interventions overseas are creating powerful incentives for countries to acquire such weapons to gain some respect from the superpower. Regrettably, in the long run, both Iran and North Korea will probably be and remain nuclear powers, but it’s not too late to reduce the likelihood that other nations will go down that path. If the United States meddles less into the affairs of other nations, those countries will have less incentive to develop nuclear weapons. Thus, U.S. nonproliferation policy should begin at home.