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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Will “Chaos” Save America And The Peace? The Coming Battle Between Trump’s Zealots and America’s Pragmatists

The Trump administration’s week one roll-out of executive orders should not be seen as a shock. In all cases, whether building a wall across the Mexican border, issuing a travel ban on seven countries, or reigniting debate on torture, President Trump delivered on campaign promises. These promises have provoked American resistance in ways not seen since the 1960s. Protests opposing nearly every Trump action have sprung up across the country and even around the world.

More surprising than Trump’s executive orders has been the lack of coordination across his administration. New appointees, namely Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly appears to be in disagreement with the policies being executed by his agency. Detentions and deportations at airports have been surrounded with confusion and it appears the Department of Homeland Security’s lawyers, which govern the Customs and Border Patrol, were overpowered and ignored by Trump’s inner circle pushing the travel ban. When referring to Stephen Miller, the Trump administration’s aggressor for the travel ban, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe said,

You’ve got a very young person in the White House on a power trip thinking that you can just write executive orders and tell all of your Cabinet agencies to go to hell.” Scarborough said Washington is in an “uproar” this morning because Miller decided “he was going to do this without going through the regular agency process.”

The Trump administration’s fumbled coordination and implementation of his first executive orders smells of irony in retrospect to his railing on the Obama administration as a disorganized “disaster”.

The week concluded with even more surprising news – the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA Director and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs were removed from full membership of the National Security Council and replaced with White House strategist Stephen Bannon. Key national security posts essential to decision making were substituted for a political strategist. Trump meanwhile brought back a discussion on torture but then used new Secretary of Defense Mattis’ objection to the tactic as his reason for backing away from such calls.  

All of this points to the power of an inner circle close to Donald Trump pushing an ideological agenda not receptive to feedback. Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, Stephen Miller, and Jared Kushner are pushing their power and a new vision for America focused on toughness, ideology, and action. These ideological zealots have been accompanied by the scorned and fiery National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and a line of national security advisors pushing for a “War on Radical Islam” – notably Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares.

Organized and operating without the need for Congressional approval, this aggressive strain of White House advisors have raced forward with policies while those implementing those policies have been awaiting confirmation or just assuming their cabinet posts. These ideologues have also been essential in selecting Trump administration appointees they can control and influence, many of which appear to be figureheads, supporters, and donors loyal to the new administration but light on qualifications and experience for their new positions –- notably nominees Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Betsy DeVos for the Department of Education.

Pragmatists with years of governance and leadership experience will soon match the zealots of Trump’s inner circle as they come on board to lead key national security positions. Retired Generals James Mattis at the Department of Defense and John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security, while known for their battlefield prowess, have much cooler heads and will seemingly run headlong into the ideological Bannon inner circle.

These retired generals have been accompanied by a string of billionaire appointees. The ultra wealthy leading parts of the administration, in one sense, beg the question of how a small group so unlike the masses can adequately represent the best interests of the American citizenry. However, these businessmen and women achieved great success by being excellent decision makers — weighing the consequences of their choices, plodding carefully trough tough decisions, leading large organizations, carefully executing strategies over long periods of duration. Rex Tillerson, the incoming Secretary of State, may very well have the skills to effectively negotiate in ways John Kerry has proven incapable, but shockingly had yet to discuss Russia policy with Trump just a week before inauguration. Vincent Viola, the nominee for Secretary of the Army, I know personally to be a thoughtful, dedicated American recognized for his prudent business sense. These veteran leaders and successful businessmen will require inclusive consultation and it’s unlikely they will blindly follow orders counterproductive to American security.

For example, Mattis and Tillerson need Muslim majority partners to pursue terrorists, especially when America loathes deploying hundreds of thousands of troops again to the Middle East. Trump’s hasty and messy travel ban confirms jihadist narratives of America’s war on the Muslim world, alienates Muslim majority countries providing essential counterterrorism support on our behalf, and will also likely grow terrorist ranks in the process. It’s hard to imagine Mattis and Tillerson will further policies that make their jobs more difficult.

Trump’s pace of executive orders will slow in the coming weeks and his appointees, just assuming duty, will face challenges to their legitimacy trying to defend and explain policies not of their creation. I imagine this will set the stage for a coming battle inside the Trump administration between those believing they have the world figured out – “The Zealots” — and those that know from experience what to do – “The Pragmatists.”

America’s adversaries are unlikely to waste much time before testing this erratic administration and pursue their interests. When America’s enemies advance, who will win out in the administration? The ironically cooler-headed “Chaos” Mattis or the astonishingly angry Bannon?

If it’s the latter, and Trump’s “Zealots” reign supreme, America should prepare for war, which may be exactly what the inner circle seeks as conflict often brings allegiance when it’s against a foreign adversary — i.e., the “rally `round the flag” effect. But let’s hope it’s the former, and the “Pragmatists” can keep things calm, weigh options, and pursue America strength through patience, partnerships, and principles.

My guess: we’ll know which side wins the war inside the Trump administration in the summer of 2018. Past administrations with strong internal rivalries usually see the first causalities of bureaucratic war emerge during year two when they’ve lost favor with the White House. The first appointees and strategists we see exit the Trump administration because “they achieved what they set out to do” or “to spend more time with their family” will be the public sign to America as to who wins the battle between the “Pragmatists” and “Zealots.”

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