HONOLULU — Some people are scratching their heads over the standoff over North Korea’s clandestine nuclear-weapons development program. They point out that by the early 1990s, it was thought that Pyongyang already had one or two nuclear warheads. They note that the fundamental strategic calculus has not changed: North Korea’s use of those weapons would mean the end of the regime and the state as it currently exists. In other words, deterrence still works. Finally, they argue that the United States has said it won’t attack North Korea and North Korean leaders know that attacking the South would be suicidal, so the risk of a nuclear war is nonexistent.

So what’s the big fuss? The North Korean crisis threatens to expose as a myth an idea that has served as the foundation of the international order. The idea is that nuclear weapons have no utility. Since the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, came into effect, governments have maintained that nuclear weapons have no real use or value; thus, there was no point in developing such arms — and spending and wasting all that money. If such weapons have no utility, then giving them up, in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology (which is part of the NPT deal), was easy. But if they do have value, then the bargain starts to look lopsided.

The big danger is that the North Korean crisis shows that those weapons do indeed have value. North Korea has been caught cheating on its international obligations; it has chemical and biological arms, is a known missile proliferator and has been tied to terrorism and criminal activities in the past. Iraq is suspected of many of those things, but hard evidence is lacking. And yet, war drums are beating in the Middle East, while the U.S. downplays the military option on the Korean Peninsula.

Someone like North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could be forgiven for looking at the U.S. responses to the North Korean and Iraq situations and concluding that it is only the North Korean claim that it already has such weapons that has forced the Bush administration to favor a diplomatic solution when dealing with Pyongyang. The Bush administration has seemingly endorsed that logic by arguing that Baghdad has to be stopped before it develops weapons of mass destruction and uses them to its advantage in the region. (Both the original analogy and the Bush administration argument are flawed, but the logic is still seductive.)

The dangers don’t stop there. While the risk of undermining the entire nonproliferation order is a fairly abstract one, there are more concrete concerns. The immediate risk is the destabilization of the Northeast Asian security order. At a minimum, governments in Seoul and Tokyo would have new doubts about the ability of the U.S. to manage regional security affairs. In South Korea, in particular, there are likely to be concerns that U.S. intransigence contributed to this situation.

While it is unlikely that South Korea and Japan would decide that a nuclear-armed North Korea would require a similar move on their part, either government could decide that such a response was justified. And if one chooses that option, it would shorten the odds that the other would feel inclined to do so. The prospect of Japan going nuclear — a very low probability — would change the security calculus in Beijing in well.

Rising insecurity in China would be felt elsewhere. In less guarded moments, Indian leaders admit that their nuclear-weapons program has been driven more by the perceived threat from China than by that from Pakistan. If Beijing’s “minimum” security needs rise and China expands its nuclear arsenal as a result, then India’s deterrence threshold could rise as well. That might prompt a similar response in Islamabad, unleashing another arms race in South Asia.

It is unclear how U.S. thinking would change in the event of widespread nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia. The mere existence of a nuclear-armed adversary would not change the American strategic calculus; the U.S. faced just that situation throughout the Cold War.

The chief issue is how U.S. allies would regard the U.S. presence on their territory if they had nuclear capabilities. South Koreans might view the U.S. presence as more vital than ever, since a nuclear standoff between the two Koreas would enhance the value of conventional forces.

If the Japanese took the nuclear option — again, a very low probability — the most likely result would be a reworking of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. The alliance would probably continue; both sides benefit too much to give it up. (To put it more accurately, both sides would lose too much by ending the alliance.) Still, a Japanese nuclear capability would alter the need for the U.S. troop presence in Japan, and the security bargain would have to be restructured accordingly.

It’s tempting to dismiss these dangers as merely theoretical. Still, the risks are real, and if any of these scenarios were to be realized the costs would be high. It is vital, then, that the world put the nuclear genie back in the bottle.

That requires two steps. The first, and most immediate, is addressing North Korean concerns without providing support for the view that nuclear weapons have a political utility. In particular, nuclear blackmail has to be exposed for what it is. The entire international community should ensure that Pyongyang is not rewarded for cheating on its international obligations. Given proliferation’s impact on the entire region’s security, that isn’t unreasonable. When Pyongyang is ready to accept those responsibilities, then the U.S. should be prepared to discuss security guarantees that North Korea seeks.

Shoring up nonproliferation norms requires more than just defusing the crisis of the day. Another part of the NPT bargain was the agreement by the nuclear-weapons states — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France — to shrink their arsenals and eventually move toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Some call that pie-in-the-sky idealism, yet few doubt the world would be a better place without such weapons. This view is idealistic, but the readiness of those states to cling to and modernize their nuclear arsenals suggests that those weapons have utility after all. Thus, as a second step the nuclear-weapons states need to cut their arsenals, significantly, verifiably and irrevocably.

Progress toward a nuclear-weapons-free world is the only way to strengthen the belief that those weapons have no utility. After all, myths are only persuasive when everyone shares them.

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