Let North Korea Keep Its Nukes

It's the only solution that has any hope of success.


On Feb. 29, the newest round of negotiations between the United States and North Korea ended. The North Korean side has agreed to freeze its uranium-enrichment program and refrain from long-range missile testing in exchange for food aid from the United States.

The Western media has predictably expressed hope (admittedly, limited and conditional) about the revival of nuclear talks, and the U.S. State Department has described the negotiations as a "modest first step."

Yes, it was a "step," and not the first in the seemingly endless nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea — but toward what?

The United States’ official stance is unwavering: Its stated goal is the complete, irreversible, and verifiable nuclear disarmament of the North. This position has not changed over the past 20-odd years. In the meantime, the North has successfully tested plutonium devices, conducted a number of long-range missile launches (admittedly not so successful), and started an impressive uranium-enrichment program. We have never been as far from denuclearization as we are today.

This shouldn’t be surprising: U.S. policy is hopelessly unrealistic. Under no circumstances will the North Korean government consider relinquishing its hard-won nuclear capabilities. And why should it?

The North’s nuclear capability provides a deterrent that ensures that the leadership in Pyongyang won’t suffer the sorry fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Pyongyang’s leaders assume, probably correctly, that the two dictators would still be alive and in power had they developed nuclear weapons. Once upon a time, in interacting with the North Korean dignitaries, Western diplomats would frequently cite Qaddafi’s decision to surrender his half-baked nuclear program as a shining example to emulate. North Korean diplomats were not impressed, and they have been proved right.

From North Korea’s perspective, nuclear weapons have been a great investment. They are a key means for the North to receive generous and all but unconditional aid from the international community, important for the regime’s survival because its dysfunctional economy cannot be reformed due to internal political constraints.

The North’s nuclear blackmail has worked brilliantly. Look no further than the recent deal: an agreement by the North to slow down its nuclear developments in exchange for a large volume of unconditional aid. Denuclearization cannot be made attractive because Pyongyang understands that by possessing a nuclear weapons capability, it can demand aid through negotiations.

Not only is the carrot useless, but so is the stick. Outside pressure and international sanctions won’t persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Because only a post-Kim Korea might conceivably surrender its nukes, regime change could work, but the human and financial costs of a military operation would be prohibitively high.

Sanctions fail because China will be unlikely to participate in a sanctions regime. Even with genuine Chinese cooperation, the main victims will be normal North Koreans, whose survival ranks fairly low on the regime’s agenda. Effective sanctions would merely result in the death of countless North Korean farmers, not a reversal of Pyongyang’s policies. In the long run, such pressure might bring a revolution — but not before a million or two people starve to death. Even this is uncertain: If pressed, the regime will pretend to take steps toward denuclearization and start receiving aid again, bringing us back to where we are today. For the governments of democratic countries, sanctions have made sense to show voters that something is being done, but as a policy sanctions have failed completely — and likely will again.

The only practical solution is for the United States to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea — and wait until the regime crumbles under the weight of its own inefficiency.

North Korean diplomats clearly state that their current aim is a deal about nuclear arms limitations. North Korea seems willing to freeze its nuclear program, stop producing additional nuclear weapons, and stop perfecting existing delivery systems as long as it is allowed to keep its current stockpile of plutonium and existing stock of nuclear devices. In exchange, Pyongyang wants its carrot: regular delivery of food aid and two light-water reactors.

Such a solution seems unacceptable to Washington because it amounts to an admission of North Korea’s nuclear status. It is rightly seen as a dangerous precedent. North Korea is the only state that has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and proceeded to successfully develop nuclear weapons. If it is allowed to do so with impunity, other rogue states might follow.

Rewarding Pyongyang monetarily for such a small step is unpalatable, not to say repugnant, to many in Washington. It would be seen as rewarding a parasitic blackmailer. But politics is seldom a choice between good and bad; more often it’s the choice between two evils. A nuclear compromise as outlined above might indeed be the lesser evil.

Whatever the United States does, the North Korean nuclear program is not going to disappear — at least as long as the Kim family retains control in Pyongyang. Instead, the program is likely to become more sophisticated and dangerous. Over the past few years, North Korea’s nuclear technicians have worked hard to manufacture enriched uranium. They probably have done so because a uranium program is far more difficult to control and contain and hence can be sold to the United States at a higher price. (Indeed, it seems likely that the uranium program from the very beginning was conceived as a rapidly appreciating export item, to be eventually swapped for U.S. aid.)

If the United States continues to insist on the complete denuclearization of North Korea as the only acceptable solution, we will see the continued expansion of the North’s nuclear programs. There will be proliferation incidents, too — as North Korean adventures in Syria and Myanmar testify.

Sooner or later, one would expect the United States to relent and provide the North with regular "compensation" for its willingness to freeze its nuclear program, without surrendering its existent nukes. Commitment to eventual denuclearization could feature prominently in the official statements for face-saving reasons.

Such a deal is not likely to happen soon, but if the Kim family stays in power in Pyongyang for another decade or two, this seemingly unthinkable compromise may be grudgingly accepted. The recent nuclear deal might indeed be the "modest first step" in that direction, even though its American participants do not yet realize it.

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