Commentary / Japan

North Korea goes permanently nuclear — does it matter?

by Denny Roy

Contributing Writer

North Korea’s possession of an arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles increasingly looks permanent. The U.S. government will continue to refuse to officially recognize this reality, mostly out of deference to Tokyo. However, the region has settled into a new status quo.

Pyongyang’s apparent strategy is to indefinitely delay substantial steps toward denuclearization while trying to coax disproportionate concessions from the United States. Fortunately, the emergence of a nuclear North Korea has not proved catastrophic. Most of the serious anticipated dangers have not come to pass.

The international community has largely accommodated North Korea’s new status as a de facto nuclear weapons state. After ignoring U.S. President Donald Trump’s bluffs in 2017, in January 2018 Kim Jong Un proclaimed that his country had completed development of a nuclear missile and would henceforth focus on producing an arsenal of them. Instead of Kim getting an international cold shoulder for his actions, the world rewarded him with a spectacular breakout from his previous diplomatic isolation. He met with Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, and Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.

Accordingly, North Korea’s recent behavior exhibits confidence rather than desperation. During the Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi in February, Kim’s government rejected a U.S. proposal for partial denuclearization in exchange for partial sanctions relief.

Since then, Pyongyang has acted like North Korea is the superpower and the U.S. is the fragile weakling. The North Korean government has warned that if Washington is not more accommodating by the end of this year, it may abandon negotiations altogether. Mocking the U.S. goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” a Pyongyang official demanded “complete and irreversible withdrawal of the (U.S.) hostile policy” toward North Korea.

After unilateral reductions in military exercises on the peninsula as a goodwill gesture by the U.S., the North Koreans insisted that the U.S. military also cancel the planned Vigilant Ace training drill. North Korea has employed its time-honored tactic of coupling its demands with saber-rattling as a means of intimidating the other side to make a deal favorable to Pyongyang. This year North Korea has carried out 12 missile tests, including one for a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Kim Jong Un is extremely fortunate in that no North Korean leader has had, or is likely to have in the future, such a favorable combination of leaders in both the Blue House and the White House. In Seoul, two consecutive conservative administrations, both of which took tough positions on relations with the North, have given way to Moon’s liberal government. Moon demonstrably favors reopening the flow of economic benefits to North Korea without preconditions. He has said publicly that sanctions against North Korea should be lifted before Pyongyang denuclearizes. Pyongyang will not likely see a more North Korea-friendly South Korean president ever again.

Similarly, in Washington, Kim enjoys the extreme anomaly of an American president who professes respect and “love” for Kim; criticizes the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a poor deal for Washington; and calls U.S.-South Korea military exercises “provocative,” repeating a North Korean propaganda point. Trump has been willing to overlook North Korea’s test-launches of short and medium-range ballistic missiles, a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that the U.S. government championed. At the Singapore summit in 2018, Trump accepted the treacherous North Korean formulation of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which is a North Korean shorthand for removing South Korea from coverage by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

China and Russia have clearly relaxed the enforcement of economic sanctions against North Korea. During his five meetings with Kim, Xi likely reiterated that China will continue to provide North Korea with an economic safety net, even if this means China takes some heat for failing to meet its international obligations.

The world is not forcing Kim to denuclearize, but neither is Kim getting much leverage out of his new capability.

First, and most importantly, North Korea is deterred from using its nuclear weapons against an adversary. The threat of swift and massive U.S. retaliation, sufficient to end the regime and to erase North Korea’s juridical existence as a separate state, is credible enough that Pyongyang would not contemplate a nuclear attack unless invading armies were closing in on Pyongyang. Neither Washington nor Seoul has any intention of putting Kim in that situation.

Second, Pyongyang is not using its nuclear weapons to blackmail either Seoul or Tokyo, a much-feared scenario. As in the years before it had nuclear weapons, North Korea often threatens war, but generally in a defensive context — i.e., we will fight with everything we have if attacked. There has been no case of Pyongyang saying “give us what we want or we will nuke you.”

Third, there is no “domino effect.” No other non-nuclear countries have decided to get nuclear weapons as a consequence of North Korea’s proliferation.

Finally, for the outsiders who would rather see two Koreas than one, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons may have the benefit of helping to stabilize an otherwise beleaguered regime. Achieving a credible nuclear deterrent gives Kim a domestic success to offset the regime’s continued failure to bring prosperity to the North Korean people. It may also remove a perceived need by the regime to pursue a belligerent foreign policy as a means of compensating for its vulnerability to attack by South Korea or the U.S.

The net result may well be to extend the life of the Kim regime and to delay Korean reunification — a tragedy for much of the North Korean population but welcome to the countries on North Korea’s periphery.

The possibility of North Korean nuclear proliferation to other countries remains a worry. Pyongyang is implicated in past nuclear technology transfers to Syria and Libya. Despite much speculative media reporting, however, there is no reliable evidence that North Korea has shared nuclear technology or equipment with Iran.

On balance, North Korea acquiring a nuclear arsenal has had surprisingly little impact on regional dynamics. North Korea is still a fundamentally weak country with limited integration into the global economy. And it remains an irritant, rather than a serious threat, to its neighbors.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.