Reckoning with the Reality of North Korea's Nuclear Arsenal
There is no shame in acknowledging when a policy has failed.
The Financial Times reports on the analysts recommending that the U.S. recognize that North Korean disarmament is a fantasy:
The US should admit defeat in its campaign to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and focus on risk reduction and arms control measures instead, experts have urged.
The case for shifting from disarmament to arms control is a strong one, and several experts have been making that case for many years. Ankit Panda is quoted in the article, and he has laid out the argument for setting more realistic goals for diplomacy with North Korea in his book, Kim Jong Un and the Bomb. Van Jackson has extensively described what an arms control alternative to current policy could look like. As Jackson puts it at the end of his 2019 report, “A policy of arms control with North Korea is a more realistic, and less destabilizing, alternative to a policy of denuclearization.”
The U.S. has spent the last sixteen years trying to force the genie of North Korea’s nuclear weapons back into the proverbial bottle, but this is never going to happen so long as North Korea believes that its arsenal is essential to its security. The North Korean government has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of changing its mind about the importance of having a nuclear deterrent, so it is necessary to accept that the U.S. is not going to succeed in reversing North Korean proliferation. Once the U.S. and its allies are able to face this reality, it will be possible for them to set achievable goals that at least have some chance of being reached.
Panda makes an important point in the conclusion of his book:
Yet coexistence should not frighten Americans, South Koreans, or Japanese. It is not legitimation of North Korea’s nuclear status; it is a reckoning with reality. Coexistence is not automatic or easy. It requires coming to terms with the basic fact that, just as the United States and its allies deterred North Korea for decades before it had nuclear weapons, so too does North Korea deter its adversaries today from pursuing a forcible change to its leadership. Kim’s “treasured sword” is here to stay. The world should do all it can to ensure that it remains sheathed.1
The U.S. and its allies will often defend continuing with the current policy of trying to compel disarmament by saying that giving up on denuclearization will undermine the nonproliferation regime. This comes up in the FT article:
US and Korean officials insisted that even a tacit acceptance of North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed state would have dangerous consequences for global non-proliferation efforts.
This objection makes a kind of superficial sense, but it doesn’t hold up very well under closer scrutiny. For one thing, the U.S. and its allies already do tacitly accept North Korea’s status in practice even if they refuse to acknowledge it in their official policy statements. The U.S. and its allies wouldn’t really be giving up that much by admitting that disarmament is no longer in the cards. Every day that North Korea retains and expands its nuclear arsenal offers more evidence that the U.S. and its allies are prepared to live with that arsenal rather than taking an enormous, catastrophic gamble to try to eliminate it. If insisting on denuclearization has become a “farce,” as Panda says in the article, it is wiser to put an end to the farce and admit the truth of the matter.
If the U.S. did this, the damage to the nonproliferation regime would not be that great. North Korea is not the only state to develop nuclear weapons outside the confines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the success of these other states in building up their nuclear arsenals has not significantly weakened the international norm against nuclear weapons proliferation. Since North Korea quit the NPT almost twenty years ago, no other state has followed suit. The intense international isolation and punishment that North Korea has experienced over the decades are hardly an advertisement for imitating North Korea by seeking nuclear weapons. It is significant that the Iranian government continues to reject the North Korean option despite the U.S. decision to renege on a nonproliferation agreement that Iran was fully complying with. The fear that abandoning North Korean disarmament might be interpreted as a green light for would-be proliferators is exaggerated, and the U.S. should not allow this fear to tie its hands and prevent it from making necessary changes to its policy.
This may be the most telling quote in the article:
“Most senior US officials working on North Korea policy now privately recognise that denuclearisation isn’t going to happen, but can’t or won’t say it publicly,” said Chad O’Carroll, founder of the Korea Risk Group consultancy.
It is understandable that there is reluctance to admit that the goal of disarmament is now completely out of reach, but it is the only way forward if the U.S. wants to break out of its current all-or-nothing approach that always leaves it with nothing. We know that bad and failed policies often survive long after they should have been scrapped because maintaining the status quo is the path of least resistance and making significant changes carries political risks, but North Korea policy is crying out for serious revision. Persisting in a failed status quo is hardly risk-free, since it does nothing to constrain North Korea’s arsenal and makes effective diplomacy with them on any issue practically impossible. The U.S. and its allies would have a better chance of making progress through negotiations if they agreed to drop demands that they know in advance North Korea will never accept.
The key to any arms control negotiation is a recognition that the U.S. and its allies will have to compromise and make their own concessions. That is unpalatable, but it is necessary for any diplomatic effort to succeed. In the North Korean case, shifting to an arms control approach may seem like setting a much lower bar, but it is a bar that the U.S. and its allies at least have a shot of clearing. As things stand now, the bar is set extremely high and our policy has no means of vaulting over it. Instead of condemning ourselves to perpetual failure, the U.S. and its allies should adjust to the reality that confronts them.
There is no shame in acknowledging when a policy has failed, and there are few policies that have failed so completely as the effort to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. The true folly would be to persist in a futile course of action as the U.S. and its allies have been doing for all these years.
Panda, Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: p. 313.