The Bush administration is developing plans to ratchet up its sanctions on North Korea—including the possible imposition of an air and naval blockade—if that nation takes new steps in advancing its nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans have already withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted, then temporarily shut down, a dormant facility that can produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. According to a press report, many administration officials predict the inevitability of North Korean resumption of long-range missile testing and the reprocessing nuclear fuel to make weapons—especially if the U.S. attacks Iraq and world attention is diverted. Yet initiating sanctions or a blockade is a dangerous course and could ultimately involve the United States in a simultaneous war with North Korea.

Bush administration officials are said to be mulling sanctions against banned activities like smuggling drugs or proliferating materials to build nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Also being considered are banning remittances of funds to North Korea from Koreans living in Japan. Short of a provocative blockade, stopping drugs or materials for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would require the unlikely cooperation of the recipient parties. Stopping remittances would only make the already starving nation even more desperate, which could cause aggressive behavior overseas to deflect domestic attention from the economic woes.

The United States should refrain from aggressive efforts to counter nuclear proliferation—which ultimately, and counterintuitively, accelerate it—including the use of punitive sanctions or blockades.

The North Koreans have ominously warned that the imposition of new sanctions would be an act of war. And they have potent means to retaliate. Their million-man army is poised on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and could be used to invade Seoul, a city containing almost 50 percent of the South Korean population. But with Seoul less than 30 miles from the DMZ, the North Koreans don’t even have to invade to devastate South Korea’s capital city. The north’s massive force of artillery and short-range missiles could rain fire on the city-perhaps with already existing nuclear weapons. And Japan is also vulnerable to longer-range North Korean missiles. That reality explains why South Korea and Japan are less enthusiastic than the Bush administration about a hard-line policy toward the north, including the imposition of new sanctions.

And if new sanctions didn’t cause a war on the Korean peninsula, U.S. air and naval interdiction of North Korean shipments of missiles and nuclear materials certainly would. In the international community, a blockade is considered an act of war. So if the U.S. government begins such interdiction, it should assume the worst.

Moreover, in addition to being dangerous, sanctions or a blockade will not be effective in getting North Korea to end its nuclear and long-range missile programs and scrap the weapons. According to the CIA, North Korea probably already has one or two nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them to the West Coast of the United States. When Secretary of State Colin Powell was trying to justify a softer U.S. policy toward North Korea than the harder line approach taken toward Iraq, he correctly noted that once North Korea had nuclear weapons a few more was just icing on the cake.

The United States must recognize that its own actions have consequences, and that a major reason that Kim Jong Il wants nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is to keep the Bush administration from attacking North Korea. During the Clinton administration the North Koreans told former Defense Secretary Bill Perry as much. Perry was sent to Pyongyang to negotiate a freeze on North Korean tests of long-range missiles. The North Koreans had observed that the United States was bombing a non-nuclear Serbia for its human rights violations in Kosovo. The North Koreans told Perry that they feared being labeled “human rights abusers” and having the same fate befall them.

Then after seeing the Bush administration threaten to invade Iraq—another non-nuclear power—and lump Iraq, Iran and North Korea into the cartoonish “axis of evil,” the already paranoid Kim Jong Il has apparently concluded that he must continue and accelerate his nuclear and missile programs to forestall a U.S. invasion. Generally, senior military officers need to empathize (rather than empathize) with their adversaries—even ones as authoritarian and brutal as the regime in North Korea. The United States needs to appreciate that even despotic regimes have legitimate security concerns.

The United States wants to stop or at least slow down the proliferation of nuclear weapons but continues a muscular global foreign policy (even after the Cold War has long gone) that causes nations to redouble their efforts to get such armaments. According to the Department of Defense, twelve nations have nuclear programs that are extant or emerging threats to U.S. and allied security: Most of those nations, after seeing the fate of non-nuclear states such as Serbia and Iraq, have every incentive to accelerate their nuclear programs and cloak them in secrecy.

The United States is going to have to face up to the sobering reality that despotic regimes will get nuclear weapons. Although autocratic, those regimes’ principal goal is to survive. The dominant U.S. nuclear arsenal, with thousands of warheads, can deter weak “rogue” nations like North Korea that possess only a few warheads-much as it did the greater threat from a rival superpower for more than 40 years. Imposing sanctions or blockades will only poke a hornets’ nest that is better left alone.