North Korea has a history of testing new U.S. administrations, and experts anticipated leader Kim Jong Un would see how soon-to-be U.S. President Joe Biden responded to a provocation sometime soon after he took office. Kim didn’t wait for the inauguration, announcing last week that the United States remained his country’s “biggest enemy” and that his government would not give up its nuclear arsenal. As provocations go, it wasn’t much, but Biden better prepare for more. North Korea will not let the new administration make it a low priority. Kim will demand Biden’s attention and force difficult choices on the administration about its North Korea policy.
In a speech to the Congress of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), Kim charged the United States was hostile to North Korea and insisted, “No matter who is in power in the United States, the true nature of the U.S. and its fundamental policies toward North Korea never change.” That obliged the North “to tirelessly strengthen or national defense capabilities in order to deter military threats from the United States and achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.” Kim said his country would develop long-range missiles that can be launched at land or sea, and “develop the nuclear weapons to be lighter and smaller … while continuing producing tactical nuclear weapons and super-large nuclear warheads.”
All these moves would be in the service of defense and diplomacy. Weapons were intended, he said, to “drive diplomacy in the right direction and guarantee its success.” But, Kim added, North Korea would not “misuse” its nuclear weapons and his policy would match that of the Biden administration, “responding to force with force, and to good will with good will.”
Little of this is new. The context has been transformed, however. North Korea now has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons — 30-40 warheads is the consensus estimate with the ability to make 6 or 7 more each year — and the means to put them on targets, even a long distance away. Worse, the world is accustomed to this situation. In other words, the status quo is a nuclear-equipped North Korea; disarming it has become the activist policy.
At his 2018 Singapore summit with Donald Trump, Kim committed to “work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Trump took that as a pledge to disarm; he was mistaken. Evans Revere, a former diplomat who has labored for years on this problem, is bluntly dismissive of that position: “‘Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ does not mean North Korea’s denuclearization and never has.”
Rather, explained Revere, Pyongyang wants “acceptance of its nuclear weapons program by the United States, and U.S. willingness to engage in ‘arms control talks’ that might halt or constrain some elements of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program.” In statements and in private meetings, North Korean officials have made it clear that their interpretation of denuclearization includes the “end of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea, the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the ROK and Japan and the elimination of the ‘nuclear threat’ posed by the U.S. tactical and strategic arsenal,” he added.
Twenty-seven years after Pyongyang was caught cheating, the world continues to struggle with the North Korean nuclear issue. I see four ways to frame the problem. The first is as a “disarmament” problem. Having violated its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Pyongyang must disarm itself of its nuclear weapons. This is the traditional approach, made real in policies like “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) by the George W. Bush administration or the “final, fully verified denuclearization” that the Trump administration pursued.
The second approach is that of “arms control/nonproliferation,” a view that acknowledges that North Korea violated the NPT but concedes that getting the regime to give up those weapons is a fantasy. Therefore, the smart policy is to work with Pyongyang to ensure that it does not proliferate weapons, components or the knowhow to make them, to ensure that the arsenal is safe and secure, and to cap its program at the lowest possible level. This policy bows to reality, but it leaves a bitter taste.
The third approach argues that this situation isn’t a problem and that proliferation isn’t a bad thing. Some prominent political scientists assert that more nuclear weapons might help keep the peace. The logic of this argument encourages self-help (proliferation) by nonnuclear powers and to me suggests the end of alliances: Why would a nuclear power extend a deterrent to allies with their own nuclear capability?
The fourth and final frame is that of “regime change.” Like the nonproliferation approach, this argument accepts that the current Pyongyang government can’t be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons. But those advocates won’t accept a nuclear North Korea; instead, they want action — overthrow of the regime.
Each argument has drawbacks. “Dismantlement” has been tried for decades and failed miserably, despite efforts ranging from maximum pressure to the embrace of the “Sunshine policy.” “Arms control” accepts violation of the NPT, risks emboldening Pyongyang to discard other international obligations, defenestrates the governments and institutions that insisted the North honor its commitments and would likely encourage other governments to copy North Korea. “No problem” has many of those same problems. It would certainly be the death knell for U.S. credibility in Northeast Asia. In closed-door meetings, Japanese participants have warned that a U.S. policy shift that accepted North Korea’s nuclear status would force policymakers in Tokyo to reconsider their commitment to nonnuclear status. And “regime change” threatens war with a nuclear adversary.
As the Biden administration contemplates those options, it must navigate three grim realities. First, North Korea will not give up its weapons. It believes it needs them for national security; to defend itself but also to ensure that Pyongyang commands international attention and can threaten instability to win over potential protectors (like Beijing or even Seoul). Moreover, it has sacrificed too much to acquire them, and they are the only thing that the North has that the South does not.
Second, absent a gross provocation that cannot be waved away, Pyongyang will enjoy Chinese and Russian support. Both see the country as a distraction for the United States and a means to test U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia. China doesn’t want instability or a thriving capitalist democracy on its border. Beijing will ensure that Pyongyang survives and a buffer exists.
Third, North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons will create regional instability. The government has proven unable to feed its people and its economy is a basket case. Kim warned in his KWP speech that the country is struggling with “a series of the worst of worst unprecedented crises.” A failing state with nuclear weapons is a crisis in the making. And it is likely to encourage other countries to proliferate.
Revere argues that the only policy with a chance of succeeding is one that changes the North Korean calculus, demonstrating “to the DPRK leadership that nuclear weapons will not only not preserve the regime, but will lead to its downfall.” This demands a maximum pressure campaign that imposes “massive pressure and bone crushing isolation and pain on North Korea.” It means sanctions on the economy, on third-country businesses and officials, freezing foreign assets and implementing a real quarantine. Militarily, there would be an expansion of joint exercises and the introduction of new tactical assets into the theater along with demonstrations of U.S. military power. Finally, there would be covert actions to destabilize the economy, doing to North Korean companies and institutions what its hackers do to the West. The goal, explained Revere, is to take “the North Korean economy to the brink and show Kim that his current path will only lead to the end of his regime. He is nothing if not rational. I believe he would make the right decision.”
It’s a scary proposal, one that risks war, or short of that, splitting the U.S. from its regional allies, especially South Korea, which prefers engagement. Japan too would be nervous, especially given the belief in Tokyo that the North’s nuclear weapons target this country. There is no indication that the Biden administration has the stomach to lean that far forward, especially given other priorities. And if there is any doubt about the U.S. commitment to staying the course, Kim will try to wait it out.
Uncomfortable as it makes me, the logic seems unassailable. If Kim cannot be convinced that a nuclear arsenal imperils rather than protects his regime, the world must prepare for a permanent expansion of the nuclear weapons club.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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