Foreign Policy's Bennett Ramberg wrote a recent article, arguing for the re-deployment of American nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula in an effort to check North Korea's nuclear program and belligerent foreign policy. China might balk, Ramberg postulates, but such a move would also temper South Korea and Japan from developing their own nuclear programs in turn. Such a development would make the already complex security situation in South East Asia even more complicated. However, re-introducing nuclear weapons to South Korea would have counter-productive effects and worsen and already volatile reality with nuclear proliferation in the region.
Having a mini-version of MAD happening in one of the world's critical regions, where a game of atomic chicken could functionally lead to a domino effect of military nuclearization is a reality that would immeasurably heighten the risk of a conflagration and — potentially — a nuclear exchange.
Ramberg makes one excellent point, that Washington has to accept, that North Korea is a nuclear power. Refusing to do so is a long-term liability, because after North Korea and Iran, other countries will acquire long-range strike capability that can potentially make the United States a target. In such a world, refusing to engage nuclear countries in trying to figure out way to effectively manage nuclear proliferation and the potential development of weapons creates more enemies than friends. Perfect security is inherently impossible and so, having more friends than enemies should be the net balance of foreign policy, including Washington's.
Diplomacy has not worked in the aftermath of the 1991 withdrawal of American bombs from South Korea, as the North has gradually removed itself from international agreement and frameworks to eventually develop weapons, a space program and re-open a nuclear facility at Yongbyon in the face of international opposition and scrutiny. Ramberg dismisses diplomacy at this point as ineffectual, and deploying nukes as the only option left. It is finer than that, however, because heightening tensions and then refusing to talk until the next time the media mentions nuclear war, is not diplomacy.
In order to move forward on North Korea, diplomacy begins with accepting the fact that we cannot stop the spread of nuclear technology and foreign policy must reflect changing realities. In this case, refusing to accept the reality is irrational, because it serves nobody's interest: Pyongyang will continue to show its belligerence, the six-party talks will continue to lead to a dead-end and the risk that the Korean peninsula will explode in war remains high. In the end it is conversations, not guns that settle conflicts.