A Dangerous Fixation on Denuclearization

This fixation on compelling their disarmament has left us with a much better-armed North Korea and no peace treaty.

A new Chicago Council survey finds that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of negotiating a peace agreement with North Korea, but only if North Korea disarms:

For example, 76 percent of Americans support negotiating a formal peace agreement with North Korea to officially end the Korean War if North Korea suspends its nuclear weapons program. If North Korea is allowed to keep its nuclear weapons, support for such a deal drops to 24 percent.

North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons, so making a formal peace agreement contingent on that is a good way to guarantee that there will be no peace agreement. Since North Korean nuclear weapons are going to be with us for the foreseeable future, it would make a lot more sense to stabilize the relationship with a formal peace agreement. The U.S. has spent the last 15 years trying to cajole North Korea into giving up its nuclear deterrent, and this fixation on compelling their disarmament has left us with a much better-armed North Korea and no peace treaty. We have had things in the wrong order all along. The U.S., North Korea, and South Korea need to agree on peace first, and then it may be possible to have a more productive negotiation on arms control.

Most of the public has internalized the official line that there will be no diplomatic progress with North Korea on other issues until they give up their weapons:

Another possible step is for the two countries to establish diplomatic relations. But only a minority support taking this step if North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons program. And if North Korea does continue to build its nuclear weapons program, 70 percent favor isolating and pressuring North Korea with economic sanctions.

When another state has nuclear weapons, it is in our interest to have normal relations with them to manage the relationship and to defuse crises if they should occur. Having diplomatic relations with other states is not a favor that we do for them. It is how our government advances our own interests and stays informed about what is happening inside the other country. Trying to isolate North Korea is how we got to where we are, so it is discouraging to say the least that a large majority thinks that it makes sense to keep beating our head against this particular wall.

The good news, such as it is, is that there is not much public support for launching an attack on North Korea:

Just 35 percent of Americans support taking military action to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

I suppose it’s something that only a third of Americans want the government to wage an illegal war that would likely kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people, but this isn’t all that reassuring. One would hope that most Americans would be against doing something as insane as this, but there is still far too much support for an attack. Perhaps the respondents would have given a different answer if they appreciated how dangerous attacking North Korea would be, but it is worrisome that there is still a significant bloc that buys into the logic of preventive war and forcible disarmament almost twenty years after the invasion of Iraq. It needs to be driven home to the public that attacking North Korea could easily result in their use of the nuclear weapons that they have, and perhaps then more Americans will see the benefits of normal relations and a peace agreement.