WASHINGTON – When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile this week — what its boy tyrant called a “gift to the American bastards” — the response from the Trump administration was fairly conventional.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson correctly called it an escalation. He brought the matter before the United Nations Security Council. And he assured, “We will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because not tolerating a nuclear North Korea has been a pillar of U.S. policy since the peninsula’s first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of this regime is an admirable goal; a government is hardly a model of restraint if its prisons are so vast they can be seen from space. And a few years ago, it might have even been an achievable goal. But in 2017, it is at best quaint and at worst delusional.
The sad truth is that North Korea is dangerously close to going nuclear, and almost every expert who has studied the problem understands there is nothing the U.S. can do about it.
The North Koreans are much closer to going nuclear than they were when the U.S. negotiated a flawed interim deal in 1994, known as the Joint Framework Agreement, to halt their progress.
Pyongyang has already detonated nuclear devices on five occasions. The North also has continued to make progress on ballistic missiles. The latest test went farther and higher than previous ones had. It’s only a matter of time until the regime of Kim Jong Un will perfect this technology, along with the relatively easier task of shrinking a nuclear device to fit on a warhead.
North Korea will arm itself with nuclear weapons, because the regime knows that its survival depends on it. In the first round of nuclear negotiations, there was a credible threat of force against North Korea. The deal offered for the last quarter century was essentially: We let you survive if you give up your nukes.
Today, that offer is no longer credible. North Koreans delivered this message as recently as last month to a group of Western experts who met with them in Sweden in what is known as Track 2 diplomacy. Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and expert on North Korea, explained it to her counterparts at an event last month at the Asia Society.
“The North Koreans emphasize over and over, denuclearization is completely off the table,” she said. “We are smoking something if we think this is something that is achievable. They say it’s not negotiable, it’s over, it’s done, this is not something we can talk about.”
Terry went on to say her North Korean counterparts said, “We are so close to completing the nuclear program, we are so close to perfecting this nuclear arsenal, we did not come this far to give it up.” She added that they gave the examples of Libya and Iraq as regimes that abandoned nukes only to face regime change later.
It’s not just Terry who at this point is persuaded the goal of a denuclearized North Korea is not attainable. Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Perry, told a group of journalists last month in Washington that the best the U.S. could hope for now would be a freeze on North Korea’s program, similar to the one the Obama administration negotiated with Iran. But again, this would not roll back the considerable progress the regime has made. What’s more, he said he would not recommend today a pre-emptive strike against the regime’s arsenal. This is in part because North Korea has thousands of mortars capable of hitting Seoul, but also because a military strike wouldn’t be able to take out the country’s entire nuclear infrastructure.
Perry is less gloomy than other experts. Michael Auslin, the Williams-Griffis fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, was blunt. He told me: “Negotiations won’t work.”
Auslin explained that over a quarter century, Pyongyang has used the negotiations to buy time and extract concessions from the West. Among the concessions the North Koreans have gained from the negotiations are being removed from the U.S. list of regimes that sponsor terrorism, shipments of food and fuel, the promise of light water plutonium reactors and the removal of crippling economic sanctions.
Despite all of these carrots, the regime has cheated on the commitments it has already made. The George W. Bush administration discovered this in its first term when it learned of North Korean work on a uranium enrichment facility. In 2002, an envoy for the regime acknowledged it in talks, and the Bush administration pulled out of the 1994 joint framework negotiated by Clinton.
The truth is there are no good policy options today for North Korea. It’s doubtful that regime change is even possible. The U.S. government is culturally ill-equipped to foment insurrection inside such a notoriously closed society. And an invasion of North Korea would be about as popular in America today as cancer.
It’s possible that sabotage and other forms of cyberattacks could delay the North’s nuclear capability. What about working with China? President Donald Trump acknowledged Wednesday morning in a tweet that his desire for China to apply more pressure on North Korea has not worked.
“There is no good existential answer to North Korea,” Auslin told me. “It’s not just about negotiations. It’s about the entire set of political, economic, social, security threats we face.” He said at this point the regime had accomplished a stalemate, and was close to achieving a checkmate against the West.
That’s not the kind of thing Americans like to hear. We dream big. But in foreign policy, it’s important to be realistic. The Trump administration has an opportunity to level with the public in a way prior administrations did not. If you want to stop North Korea from getting a nuke, that requires war. If you’re not prepared to go that far, stop pretending the U.S. can achieve its goals with more talking. It won’t work.
Eli Lake was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times and New York Sun.