The Next North Korea Debate

The Next North Korea Debate

Americans tend to think that all problems can be solved by the right policy, properly applied. But some problems may not have any real solutions. The North Korea problem — underscored by the country’s recent fifth nuclear test, which moved it a step closer to having an operational miniaturized warhead that could fit on a medium range ballistic missile — may be one of them.

North Korea is the only state in the world that has tested nuclear weapons in the 21st century. This fifth test comes eight months after the country’s previous nuclear test and had a much larger yield (approximately 10 kilotons). It also follows nearly two dozen ballistic missiles tests so far this year, including submarine-launched missiles that could give Pyongyang a second strike capability. In the past month alone, two North Korean missiles have fallen in Japanese waters (within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone).

History of Failure

What to do about it? The history of the past quarter century is littered with failed diplomatic deals that North Korea sabotaged and walked away from. But the 1991 North-South reconciliation accord still provides a good basis for resolving tensions between the two Koreas.

Four U.S. presidents, from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, have tried and failed to denuclearize North Korea. After Bush began engaging North Korea at high levels, the Clinton administration followed, reaching a 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze and then dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. That collapsed in 2002 when the United States accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium enrichment program.

Then, in September 2005, the George W. Bush administration, through China-led six party talks (between China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States), reached an agreement to denuclearize North Korea. After a promising start — with five working groups addressing every issue of interest to Pyongyang, from energy and economic aid to a peace treaty — the North decided to walk away.

Then it was Obama’s turn. Despite the fact that Pyongyang answered his offer of an “unclenched fist,” a 2012 agreement fell apart in days, when Pyongyang disagreed with the U.S. interpretation of the accord.

So where does that leave efforts to address the nuclear problem? Not in a good place. North Korea is accelerating efforts to operationalize a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit on medium and long-range ballistics. In addition to the Musudan medium-range missile (range: 1,864 miles) and the KN-08, a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (range: 3,728 miles) still under development, North Korea has about 200 operational Rodong nuclear-capable missiles with a 800-mile range — long enough to hit U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan. Clearly, the threat is real and growing. The good news is that getting ICBMs that actually work with a high degree of confidence is very difficult: North Korea is, in my estimate, probably three to five years or more and numerous tests away from achieving that capability.

That said, U.S. extended deterrence still works: Pyongyang is not suicidal. Indeed, it sees one key purpose in its nuclear program: insuring regime survival. North Korea wants to deter any possible U.S. and/or South Korean attack. That may remain true regardless of what capabilities the North attains.

Looming Questions

But a big question remains unanswered, triggered by a qualitatively greater threat. Once Pyongyang has an operational warhead and functional ICBM that could reach Guam, Alaska, Hawaii, or maybe even San Francisco, does the deterrence equation change? Would Seoul and Tokyo still have confidence in U.S. deterrence? Would the United States have enough confidence in its deterrent to live with a de facto nuclear capable North Korea, as with China and Russia?

That is the next debate: If the threat rises to a new level, should denuclearization be put on the back burner, and instead, should the world be willing to abandon sanctions and accept a nuclear North Korea in exchange for halting the advance of its nuclear and missile programs?

At present, the Obama administration policy of “strategic patience” makes sense. The United States is willing to engage with North Korea as soon as it lives up to its commitment to the September 2005 Joint Statement. But North Korean officials have said recently that the 2005 deal is “dead,” and that the North is now a nuclear weapons state. Thus, denuclearization is not negotiable. So, even putting aside North Korea’s track record of ripping up agreements — which raises serious questions about whether it is a serious interlocutor — there is no basis for dialogue.

Why? For starters, the Kim Jong Un regime’s very identity is so bound up with nuclear weapons that he changed the country’s constitution to declare North Korea a nuclear state. The bureaucratic inertia of four decades investment in the development of nuclear weapons and deep mutual distrust between the United States and North Korea are a powerful combination precluding denuclearization.

But the steadily growing North Korean threat is the beginning of a new debate. If the North achieves these new capabilities and builds its arsenal from what is now an estimated 10 to 15 weapons to something much larger, do Japan, South Korea, and the United States — as well as Russia and China — need to rethink the goal of denuclearization?

North Korean officials, as well as Chinese officials on occasion, have called for diplomatic talks that could lead to a peace treaty, with the idea that nuclear weapons would then be up for discussion. Among some Asia-watchers, there is a sense of panic and an urgency to “do something,” leading to sympathy with this approach to engagement. This would be a dumb mistake.

First, there is no chance that the United States and its allies would sign a peace treaty with a nuclear Korea. Why? The 2005 Joint Statement, from which Pyongyang walked away, included a peace treaty — in the context of denuclearization. What Pyongyang has in mind is not denuclearization, but rather arms control talks to freeze its current nuclear and missile programs.

It would be absurd to sign such a piece of paper — a sort of modern Kellogg-Briand Pact — with a nuclear North Korea. Why reward aggression and rogue behavior?

Appeasement a Bad Idea

The case against taking such a path is powerful. First, legitimizing a nuclear North Korea would reward aggression and destroy the credibility of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Second, after the fourth nuclear test, public opinion was strongly in favor of South Korea obtaining its own nuclear weapons. That popular opinion is likely to grow much stronger after this fifth test. Accepting a nuclear North Korea would make it more difficult for Seoul to resist the nuclear temptation. And if the South went nuclear, how would Japan respond to this chain of proliferation?

The whole point of U.S. policy (and that of and Japan and South Korea and the United Nations Security Council) is to refuse to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Along with increasing pressure on Pyongyang, part of the underlying logic of U.N. Security Council sanctions is to make clear that the world will not accept the North as a nuclear weapons state.

Expect to hear arguments in coming months and years that the ominous, growing North Korean threat makes freezing the country’s nuclear and missile arsenal worth the price of legitimizing iy.

A good answer is to point out that compared to the international sanctions against Iran, U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang are still relatively modest. In its response to Pyongyang’s defiant actions, the U.N. Security Council has an opportunity to close the loopholes in the sanctions applied after the fourth test. It is time to remove North Korea’s access to the international financial system: Take away Kim’s credit cards. There is time before Pyongyang acquires the capabilities that may change the current equation. Going down such a path is preferable to appeasing a nuclear North Korea.

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Nikkei Asian Review.

Photo credit: KNS/AFP/Getty Images