Why North Korea Needs Its Nukes
Washington speaks of deterrence when it comes to Pyongyang, but Kim would never strike unless attacked first.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea sent 75,000 soldiers across its border with South Korea, the opening salvo of the three-year Korean War. The conflict, which the United States entered within days, served as one of the first proxy wars of the Cold War. And its bloody, but inconclusive, outcome in July 1953 reshaped U.S. foreign policy, including the country’s modern approach to nuclear deterrence. Seventy years on, deterrence is still the watchword for Washington’s approach to a nuclear Pyongyang—an increasingly misguided effort that should be reassessed.
In recent weeks, North Korea has been ramping up regional tensions. The coming months could well see Pyongyang stage a military confrontation with Seoul, or the country could test a nuclear weapon or send a missile toward the United States. Beyond the resulting physical danger, the latter two possibilities would pose a particular embarrassment for U.S. President Donald Trump, who declared Pyongyang’s nuclear threat to be over.
Trump may be the only person in Washington who believes that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is ready to surrender his nuclear arsenal. Kim himself has suggested nothing of the sort. After weeks in hiding, the North Korean leader reemerged late last month to chair a session of the Central Military Commission on “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence” of North Korea. The participants intended to put “the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation in line with the general requirements for the building and development of the armed forces of the country.” That does not sound like preparation for denuclearization.
On the U.S. side, a Pentagon report on “Nuclear Deterrence: America’s Foundation and Backstop for National Defense” lumps North Korea (and nukeless-Iran) together with Russia and China as justifying the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang’s tests, notes the Pentagon report, “pose a threat to the U.S. homeland and our allies.”
In reality, however, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a modest nuclear power, with an estimated 20 to 30 warheads and sufficient fissile material for an additional 30 to 60 nuclear weapons. The regime produces enough nuclear material for up to 12 weapons annually. This arsenal offers a potentially potent deterrent but far short of a serious offensive weapon against another nuclear power.
Drew Walter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, admitted as much last month, saying that North Korea is “not yet on the scale of some of our other nuclear-armed potential adversaries.” So, he said, “I don’t foresee very exquisite new capabilities to deter North Korea in that sense.”
There are good reasons to wish that North Korea would abandon its nuclear ambitions. However, it is unlikely to do so. And so it is critical for Washington to understand why Pyongyang wants nukes.
The Kim family dynasty is a malign regime that emerged from the Soviet occupation zone of Japan’s former colony after Tokyo’s surrender in World War II in 1945. Over the years, North Korea’s security situation steadily deteriorated. The North’s economy stagnated and its people starved, while Beijing’s post-Mao transformation and the Soviet Union’s collapse deprived the North of its military backers. In contrast, South Korea surged ahead economically while enjoying a security guarantee from the globe’s dominant power, the United States. Moreover, during and after the Cold War, Washington took advantage of its position to defenestrate disfavored governments almost at will. In such a world, nuclear weapons looked increasingly attractive to the North as a means to deter attacks and preserve its regime. No doubt, nukes provide other benefits, too: They offer international status, strengthen domestic support from the military, and provide a tool for neighborly extortion. But their main advantage is that the only sure way to prevent an attack by nations with an overwhelming conventional advantage is with nuclear weapons.
Which means it makes little sense for the United States to speak of deterring North Korea. Pyongyang would attack only if Washington struck first, because the result of any nuclear exchange would be North Korea’s annihilation.
So why has the United States spent years frenetically attempting to block the North’s plans, buttressed by threats and even strategies to attack the North to destroy its nuclear capabilities? In essence, U.S. policymakers have plotted to strike the country now to preserve the United States’ ability to strike it later.
That is the practical reality of U.S. doctrine. After the North invaded the South in 1950, only urgent American intervention prevented conquest by Kim Il Sung. China subsequently deployed hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” to rescue its neighbor, and the war ultimately stalemated near the original border. An armistice but no formal peace followed. And U.S. forces remained, necessary to secure a country ravaged by war, badly behind economically, and unstable politically under an aging autocrat.
That world long ago disappeared. South Korea took off economically in the 1960s. Democracy arrived in the late 1980s. Today, the South possesses twice the population and enjoys an economy 53 times as large as the North. Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior. And the country could buy, build, hire, or acquire whatever else was necessary in its own defense. Yet the United States still maintains a permanent garrison of about 28,500 personnel, backed by abundant forces throughout the Pacific and in the homeland.
As long as North Korea possessed only conventional weapons, the United States’ deterrent presence was credible. It was believable that Washington would enter a second Korean War to defend the South and almost certainly go on to liberate the North. Although the fighting undoubtedly would be desperate and fierce, the result would not be in doubt. Unlike in 1950, China would not intervene militarily against America.
A nuclear North Korea upends the military balance. The North’s arsenal, with the possibility of being able to reach the United States, ensures the regime’s survival irrespective of Washington’s policy.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, its arsenal allows several forms of protection. First, it removes any possibility of Washington launching a preventive war to eliminate the North’s nuclear program. Some war advocates contend that North Korea could be prevented from retaliating or persuaded not to do so, but trusting hope over experience in this way is far too risky. Second, even conventional U.S. intervention in any Korean conflict would become problematic. If Washington threatened Pyongyang with defeat, the North Korean leadership would have little reason not to threaten nuclear attacks on the American homeland. The threat to incinerate American cities almost certainly would be sufficient to force Washington to back away from the peninsula.
Why, then, would Kim yield his weapons voluntarily?
U.S. policymakers talk of making North Korea believe it is less secure with nukes than without them. But none of the arguments advanced seems vaguely plausible. The United States’ ruthless approach to regimes on Washington’s naughty list—most notably Libya’s Muammar
al-Qaddafi, who abandoned his missile and nascent nuclear efforts only to be later overthrown with American assistance—highlights the vulnerability of any government without nukes. Trump further degraded U.S. credibility by tearing up the Iranian nuclear agreement. What is to prevent Trump or his successor from changing the terms once Kim has yielded his nukes?
Instead, Washington would be wise to implicitly accept North Korea as a nuclear state and shift its focus from denuclearization to arms control. If the United States could move toward a world that limits Pyongyang’s arsenal, safeguards the possibilities for proliferation, and requires active inspectors, this would be a success. These goals would be difficult to achieve, but they are far more realistic than denuclearization.
To broker an agreement, Washington should propose a series of discrete deals trading specific sanctions relief for disarmament steps that would promote stability and peace while pushing along the road toward denuclearization. The latter objective could guide ongoing policy even though it is unlikely to ever be achieved.
The United States would also be wise to lessen the circumstances under which the North might feel forced to resort to nuclear arms. Seoul should take over its own defense, including developing conventional weapons that would give it deterrent capabilities against Pyongyang. After a reasonable time for South Korea to adjust its force structure, American forces should return home, and the Mutual Defense Treaty should be turned into a cooperative pact between equals. Most importantly, there should no longer be any presumption that the United States would intervene in a future Korean conflict and certainly not set as its objective the elimination of the North Korean state.
Lastly, Washington should be open to a decision by South Korea to construct its own nuclear deterrent. A majority of South Koreans currently support the idea, although the political class so far has been more reluctant. There are obvious downsides, but the risk to U.S. cities from the North’s growing nuclear arsenal outweighs such considerations. A South Korean bomb would also help constrain China. Ultimately, Washington must decide how much cost and risk it is prepared to accept to try to police East Asia as Chinese power further expands.
Inertia is a constant in government but is particularly dangerous in foreign policy. Three decades ago, there seemed to be a possibility of persuading North Korea to drop its nuclear program. That moment is long gone. It is a nuclear state with expanding delivery options. And the bilateral relationship is again turning hostile, with North Korea threatening the United States with “a new round of the Korean War.” An appropriate response to Pyongyang requires a significant change in U.S. policy. At the very least, such a transformation deserves serious debate.