Why We Must Recognize North Korea

The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.

This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.

On June 21. 2017  United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” [1] Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.”[2] South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.

But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.

No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.

Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal  a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.

Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.[3]

At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.

No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.

This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies.  My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.

Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with  rogue nations.  She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.

These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.

Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] http://www.teletrader.com/news/details/39290551?ts=1499882856534

[2] https://koreas.liveuamap.com/en/2017/7-july-tillerson-says-trump–and–putin-had-a-pretty-good

[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat  This is the source for all figures save those labeled “author’s estimate”.

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What Otto Warmbier’s Death Says about the North Korean System

The tragic passing of Otto Warmbier on Monday, June 19, says a lot about the North Korean system. His case is highly unusual because North Korea tends not to treat its foreign prisoners with physical brutality such that they sustain any permanent injuries. We still do not know what exactly happened to the 22-year old college student during his approximately one and a half-year long detention in North Korea, beginning in January last year. After he was returned to America only six days before his death, Warmbier’s doctors said he had lost a severe amount of brain tissue during his time in North Korea and said that MRI scans showed he had most likely suffered a brain injury shortly after he was convicted to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. They found no clear signs of beatings, torture, or the like. North Korean doctors claimed he contracted botulism, took a sleeping pill and never woke up, but American doctors found no evidence of botulism.

But whatever happened to Warmbier during his time in North Korean captivity, it is not unusual for people to be treated in inhumane ways by the North Korean system. Even though we know nothing about exactly how Warmbier was treated in captivity, the fact that the North Koreans kept him for so long after his state became life-threatening itself shows a lack of care for humane considerations when political ones are at stake.

For all the jokes that people outside the country crack about its leader and cult of personality, some may forget that North Korea remains a harsh police state. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been subject to treatment equal to, or worse than, what Warmbier was put through. North Korean labor camps are filled with people imprisoned for actions that would never be considered criminal in any Western justice system, but which the North Korean state deems to be politically offensive, such as smuggling in culture from the outside world. In no other state than a brutally totalitarian one could a young man be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner, which is what happened to Warmbier. North Korean authorities claimed that he had conspired together with a church in his home state to overthrow the system of the country, but they offered little evidence.

It is also difficult to discern any strategic logic in the North Korean handling of the case. In the past, North Korea has released several Americans from captivity after high-level visits by American public figures. For example, American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were freed from North Korean captivity in August 2009 (they were originally captured in March the same year) after former President Bill Clinton made a visit to Pyongyang to bring them home. When then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited Pyongyang in 2014, to bring home jailed Americans Kenneth Bae and Todd Miller, he described the disappointment of the North Koreans he interacted with that he was not there to give Pyongyang any diplomatic victories:

“The debate and dialogue started immediately in the car with Mr. Kim,” Mr. Clapper continued. “They were expecting some big breakthrough. I was going to offer some big deal, I don’t know, a recognition, a peace treaty, whatever. Of course, I wasn’t there to do that, so they were disappointed, I’ll put it that way.”

By contrast, North Korea’s mistreatment of Otto Warmbier served the regime no discernable purpose. On the contrary, the impression now is that North Korea did not at all release him on humanitarian grounds, like it claimed, but that the regime simply did not want him to die on their soil. It is difficult to see any North Korean gain in what happened, and meanwhile, the losses are clear. Tourism, a small industry that Kim Jong-un has wanted to nurture, will probably suffer a drop, not least in American visitors. About 5,000 Westerners visit North Korea each year, and around 1,000 of them come from the United States. Since the two aforementioned American journalists were imprisoned in 2009, a total of 14 Americans have been jailed in North Korea. Currently, three remain. Young Pioneer Tours, which brought Otto Warmbier to North Korea, has already announced that they will not take Americans on their tours in the future. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. government will introduce measures to further discourage or outright ban travel to North Korea, like it long did with travel to Cuba (a measure that may soon be reinstated). Each tourist that spends money on a trip to North Korea by extension (since all tour operators inside North Korea are tied to the state) helps fund the regime’s activities, including its nuclear and missiles programs. Some argue that tourism to North Korea can build cultural bridges and foster mutual respect: as an interesting aside, in a show of support of South Korean policies of rapprochement, the U.S. government said in 1988 it would strive to make group travel and exchanges to North Korea by Americans easier.

To this day, however, it is unclear what positive impacts tourism and engagement with North Korea has brought. For long, talks have periodically been held between North Korean and U.S. envoys and both current and former government officials, in unofficial settings. In recent times, they have focused on issues such as American detainees in North Korea, while North Korea has continued its nuclear and missile tests, reaching increasingly high levels of sophistication. American advocates of talks and negotiations with North Korea will face an even more difficult environment after Warmbier’s passing. There has been scattered chatter about the possibilities of a summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Most of it has been founded in naïve hope and mere speculation. Prospects for U.S. government engagement with North Korea seem even more dire now since the White House would be unlikely to want to grant favors to a regime whose treatment of one of its citizens caused the latter’s death.    

Perhaps some in the North Korean power apparatus argued for his release far earlier, while more hardline forces refused until his health deteriorated to a point of no return. The North Korean healthcare system is far from any Western standards. At this point, however, all reasoning about the causes for North Korea’s actions are purely speculative. Perhaps, we will only know about the decisions that led to Warmbier’s death if the North Korean secret police archives are opened one day in the future.

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North Korea Moves to War Footing

It seems like we’ve all seen this movie before.  North Korea feels affronted and blusters; South Korea and the United States respond with negotiations and a concession or two; China and Russia seek a peaceful resolution (plus the survival of their buffer neighbor); and Japan just wants the problem to go away, which it does—until the next time North Korea feels affronted.

But this time North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has ratcheted up tensions beyond the country’s usual bluster.  On March 11 North Korea invalidated its sixty-year armistice with South Korea.  And after the participation of two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers during a joint exercise between American and South Korean forces, on March 29 Pyongyang declared a “state of war” between it and South Korea, threatening to strike not only its southern neighbor, but also the United States (nominally Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii, since North Korean missiles can only reach that far).  With a modern military of its own, South Korea has vowed to respond if attacked.  And, of course, there are about 25,000 American troops stationed in the country, too.

So what strategy should the United States pursue in this latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula?  Surely, in crafting its approach, Washington should keep in mind its most important long-term interest in the region which, in my opinion, is the strengthening of the American alliance with South Korea and Japan.  That alliance is crucial to counterbalance a rising China and resurgent Russia in Northeast Asia.  But to arrive at a practical strategy for this crisis, it is informative to start by considering some strategic extremes and what effect they may have on that alliance:

The United States could advance an escalatory strategy to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot continue to bluster at every perceived slight.  And if war comes, so be it.  The United States has adequate anti-ballistic missile defenses aboard Navy warships to defend Hawaii and Army air defense batteries could be dispatched to protect Alaska and Guam.  Of course, Seoul may not feel as secure if North Korea launches a large-scale conventional attack or nuclear weapons against it; but more likely Pyongyang will take more limited military action.  Such an outcome would likely lead South Korea and Japan to further bolster their defenses, though perhaps not with nuclear weapons (unless North Korea uses them first).  And a militarily stronger South Korea and Japan could better maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia, removing some of the burden from the United States.

At the other end of the spectrum, the United States could adopt an appeasement policy—giving North Korea what it wants in exchange for a de-escalation of tensions—and return to waiting for Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse.  While appeasement may not please the American ear, it is an option that would remove the specter of armed conflict and would be practical if one believes that time is on one’s side.  Of course, there may be a big knock-on effect: America’s guarantee of extended deterrence would ring a bit hollower in South Korea and Japan (not to mention in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia).  Still, South Korea and Japan would likely further bolster their defenses, this time probably with nuclear weapons.  In this case, the balance of power outcome in Northeast Asia might still resemble the former, but the level of trust among South Korea, Japan, and the United States would likely suffer.

Ultimately, the approach the United States will take is likely to fall in between the two extremes.  The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” is one.  It seeks to break the cycle of North Korean bluster by simply waiting for North Korea to back down and seek negotiations without any concessions from South Korea or the United States.  Kim Jong-un is now putting that strategy to the test.  In the meantime, the United States deployed F-22 fighters to South Korea on Sunday.

However this crisis ends, South Korea and Japan are likely to strengthen their armed forces.  In the long run, that should benefit the United States, if it can keep the alliance strong.  So, in dealing with this crisis, Washington would be wise not to take an approach without first learning and integrating the views of South Korea and Japan—because not only will they bear most of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of any strategy to deal with North Korea, but also the United States would benefit from avoiding any approach that may create divisions between it, South Korea, and Japan, and in doing so inadvertently weaken the alliance that is so vital for the broader regional balance of power.

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