How to Learn to Live With a Nuclear North Korea
The best chance for getting Pyongyang to give up its weapons is actually letting it have them.
The United States has spent 25 years trying to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. It has failed.
North Korea long ago crossed the nuclear threshold. It is now at the stage of fine-tuning nuclear weapons and developing long-range delivery systems. The government has embedded nuclear weapons in the nation’s constitution; North Korea means business in saying that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, no matter how many carrots the United States can possibly offer.
Nuclear weapons, in other words, are here to stay in North Korea, unless the United States uses military force to remove them — a dangerous and bloody undertaking.
Yet the United States still has an indirect way to deal with the North Korean provocations. It can entertain a long-overdue but usually dismissed course of action: answering North Korea’s call for normalizing relations and removing the animosity between the two nations. In this scenario, the Trump administration would make a couple of things utterly clear to the North’s leaders. First, that their provocations are suicidal: If they launched a nuclear strike on the United States or its allies, South Korea and Japan, they would be annihilated. Second, if they stop the provocations, Washington will formally end the Korean War with a peace treaty and normalize relations — even if the North remains a nuclear power.
This option is not a politically palatable one at the moment. Nor is it a panacea for the problems Washington has with Pyongyang. But it would free the United States from being the primary target of North Korea’s nukes and missiles and the primary responder to North Korea’s provocations. And with the removal of the basic animosity and the establishment of direct contacts between the two governments and peoples, the United States would put not just North Korea, but also the entire Korean Peninsula, on the path toward lasting peace.
Roads not taken
There were previous chances to stop the North’s route toward being a nuclear power by normalizing relations. The first miss occurred during the dramatic changes in the aftermath of the Cold War. Russia, the successor of the imploded Soviet Union, took the initiative to normalize relations with South Korea in 1991, ostensibly in return for economic incentives. China surprisingly followed suit immediately, putatively for the same reason. The two big powers also sponsored the two Koreas to become full members of the United Nations in 1992 (prior to that, the Koreas were only observers). Meanwhile, the United States failed to take similar action to normalize relations with North Korea, instead preserving the Cold War system in northeast Asia.
It was Henry Kissinger who, as national security advisor in the 1970s, proposed the idea of “cross-recognition” of the two Koreas by the two opposing camps — the Soviet Union and China on one side and the United States and Japan on the other — as a solution to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula. No one seriously entertained Kissinger’s idea at the time, nor did anyone foresee the vast changes that would follow the end of the Cold War.
Had the United States normalized relations with North Korea, and put a formal end to the Korean War by a proper peace treaty, North Korea would have had no need to pursue nuclear weapons. Indeed, feeling abandoned by Russia and China and facing continued hostility from the United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, North Korea felt extreme concern about its national survival; as a result, it viewed nuclear weapons as a necessity.
The United States lost a similar opportunity during last decade’s six-party talks to use the normalization of relations to put the North Korean nuclear weapons program away for good. Yet while North Korea asked for normalization of relations, the United States insisted on first getting North Korea to the path of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament” (CVID) and even taking the first steps toward it. The United States failed to see that CVID was the ultimate goal, and thus making it a precondition before dealing with North Korea’s security concern was doomed to result in a stalemate. After all, how can one expect a weaker state like North Korea to disarm first? The stalemate and deep-seated distrust eventually led to the collapse of the six-party talks. Then entered the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy, which made no progress toward the U.S. goal, but left North Korea to build up its fighting capabilities.
It is now more reasonable for the United States to move on from its original goal. In bringing North Korea to the negotiation table, Washington should not make a North Korean promise to denuclearize as a precondition. Pyongyang will never accept this, and diplomacy will be stifled in the cradle.
Washington, for its part, needs to see normalization of relations in the right light. It is not a reward to one’s enemy, but rather a recognition of the reality of a functioning government and a country under its administration. It indicates that the two countries respect each other’s sovereignty and agree to have regular and direct contacts between the governments and the peoples. Save for France and Estonia, Europe has already normalized ties with North Korea. It is overdue for the United States to do the same.
Getting to normal
Normalization of relations does not mean endorsement of the other side’s conduct nor does it have any implication for policies of regime change or improvement of human rights conducts in the other nation. They are entirely separate issues.
But with normalization of relations the United States will be in a better position to deal with North Korea on any issue of mutual concern. Human rights organizations will have the opportunity to address concerns in North Korea directly, rather than observing from the outside. Moreover, U.S. companies and brands could also conceivably move into North Korea. Direct economic interactions between the United States and North Korea might bring about changes that the United States has long pressed for but could not achieve.
Living with a nuclear North Korea does not mean endorsing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, much like the cases with India, Pakistan, and Israel. They are all in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The difference in North Korea’s case is the unending animosity and the direct threat North Korea’s nukes and missiles pose to the United States. If the bitterness is removed, the North’s nukes become less of a problem.
Once Washington normalizes its relations with North Korea, there is every reason to expect Seoul and Tokyo will follow suit. When President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in February 1972, Japan, sensing the wind blowing the other way, normalized relations with China six months later. It took the United States another seven years to do so, with President Jimmy Carter acting against enormous domestic opposition.
The U.S. normalization of relations with North Korea should not come at the expense of the U.S. security commitments to South Korea and Japan. But if the normalizing of relations spurs Pyongyang to rethink reunification in peaceful terms, it could save the United States from the indirect responsibility of protecting its allies.
Living with a nuclear North Korea does not mean the United States will stop trying to persuade Pyongyang to give up its weapons. But with the United States no longer the “archenemy” of North Korea, it would not have to bear the brunt of North Korea’s nuclear weapons problem. North Korea’s nuclear weapons will become a problem for China first and foremost, not the United States. Such a shift may be a precondition to earning China’s full support in any quest for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
The basic truth is that states acquire arms when they see war coming, imminent or remote; they lay down arms when they no longer feel the threat. The United States is now in a position to hasten that latter, happier outcome.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
David Lai is a research professor of Asian security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College