As U.S. President Joe Biden begins his administration, North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un are better placed in world affairs than was the case when Biden became vice president in 2009 or when Donald Trump became president in 2017. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have made rapid and substantial advances on each of these milestone dates of successive U.S. administrations. Consequently, each new administration has faced an increasingly limited range of options on North Korea.
According to the best-guess estimate by the Federation of American Scientists, North Korea has a stockpile of 20-30 nuclear warheads and sufficient fissile material for up to 60 warheads. It has medium-range ballistic missiles already deployed and intermediate-range and intercontinental missiles in development, having demonstrated ICBM capability already in 2017. In acquiring this nuclear-weapon capability, three generations of Kims have shown extraordinary resilience against international pressure and domestic privations.
Three Kim-Trump summits failed to achieve any concrete progress in reversing North Korea’s nuclear program or dismantling its nuclear infrastructure, although no further nuclear tests have been carried out since 2017. But the summits did confer a measure of legitimacy on North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and on Kim as its leader. The reputational damage to U.S. standing in the world under Trump, the economic damage to North Atlantic countries from coronavirus and lockdowns, the deepening internal divisions and steady erosion of self-confidence in the West and the chaotic transition to the Biden administration have all served to consolidate and strengthen the relative gains in power and influence of China.
All this means that Biden has a very weak hand in dealing with the problem of North Korea. He is likely to depersonalize the relationship and return to more traditional modes of diplomacy in dealing with Pyongyang. Yet, the return of a familiar Asia-literate team doesn’t signal a return to the “strategic patience” of the Obama years. In early January, Kim promised to expand North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in both numbers and quality, with “super-large warheads” and long-range ballistic missiles, and said plans for a nuclear submarine were nearly complete.
Biden’s first option is to do nothing. As indicated by the flurry of executive orders signed by him since being sworn in, he is deluged with issues that require urgent attention. The temptation will therefore be strong to downgrade North Korea as a priority item on the policy agenda. This will work so long as Kim refrains from fresh provocations, such as a nuclear or ICBM test. One serious downside is the creeping normalization of North Korea as a nuclear-weapon possessor state, one that we learn to live with whether we like it or not.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the United States could launch military strikes on North Korea. But the problems with this option have grown over time. What would be the purpose? To send a message that North Korea’s pariah status is unacceptable to the world, punish it for its record of misbehavior, denuclearize it by force or go all in for regime change? It’s hard to see anyone other than characters like former national security adviser John Bolton applauding a military strike for the first two reasons.
As for the goals of denuclearization by force and regime change, the obstacles to identifying all of Kim’s nuclear assets (warheads, bomb production infrastructure, delivery vehicles), locating them precisely and destroying them in a successful surprise first attack are truly formidable. Korean President Moon Jae-in has invested heavily in building bridges across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) as the most likely pathway to peace on the peninsula and his senior adviser Moon Chung-in has publicly berated Bolton as “paranoid” for sabotaging Seoul’s peace efforts. He also described former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “Bolton’s ally.” In addition, the known and predictable human and economic costs of a military strike are horrendous, without even factoring in the unintended and perverse consequences that flow from large-scale military action.
The ensuing war could directly involve four nuclear-armed states (North Korea, the United States, China and Russia) as well as South Korea, Japan and possibly Taiwan. Back in 2017 when Kim and Trump exchanged heated rhetoric and war seemed a real possibility before they went into bromance mode at the summits, a U.S. Congressional Research Service analysis reported that 30,000 to 300,000 people would die in South Korea in the first days of a new war resulting from the use of the North’s massive conventional artillery trained on South Korea and held on hair-trigger alert. If nuclear, biological and chemical weapons were used and the conflict theater expanded beyond the peninsula, the casualty level would escalate dramatically to affect “upwards of 25 million people on either side of the border.”
Meanwhile, if North Korea’s nuclear status is seen to have been normalized, it could trigger a cascade of proliferation across Northeast Asia. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have the technical and material resources to go down the nuclear path. Fortunately, there are also substantial countervailing political, economic, reputational and, in Japan, public opinion constraints. Repairing alliance relations that were badly frayed under the erratic Trump will also help to dampen interest in nuclear breakout. However, the Moon administration is unlikely to agree to be drawn into an anti-China alliance strategy and so some friction could remain in Seoul-Washington ties. Thus the nuclear abstinence equation is fluid and not set in stone.
As for North Korean denuclearization, it is dead and should be buried. This leaves the mixed strategy of deterrence, containment and engagement, prioritizing peace and stability while holding on to denuclearization as a vision that doesn’t drive current strategy. With buy-in from regional partners, engagement should focus on a grand bargain whose elements include: a freeze-for-freeze, meaning a suspension of U.S.–South Korean military exercises in return for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing programs; calibrated sanctions relief as a reward for measurable cutbacks in the North’s nuclear activities; formal diplomatic recognition of and relations with Pyongyang by the United States; and a formal peace treaty to supersede the armistice that has been in operation since 1953.
Long-term, the two most realistic pathways to North Korean denuclearization are a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula first that paves the way through trust-building to eliminate all nuclear weapons and infrastructure; or a global agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons in a phased and responsible manner.
Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Senior Research Fellow, Toda Peace Institute; and a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General.
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