Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Korea: It’s Not About Nuclear Weapons
Korea: It’s Not About Nuclear Weapons

Korea: It’s Not About Nuclear Weapons

The current meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, we must never forget, is about Korea above all. She was a unified country under the Choson dynasty from 1392 until 1910 when imperial Japan annexed her. After World War II two American colonels found the 38th parallel on a map, and suggested it mark the limit of Soviet advance, a suggestion that all adopted, which led to the sort of division common in the Cold War—East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, for example. Both of those countries are now united. Korea is not.

Therefore the real agenda of the talks, for the Koreans at least, who are the primary players in fact if not in the news,  is somehow to advance reunification. This is  a headache of a problem, but one that is never far from the minds of the people of the peninsula. This is in spite of the familiar  nomenclature that distinguishes North Korea from South Korea, or in Chinese gives the two distinct country names (Chaoxian for the North, Hanguo for the South), a status quo that is dangerous while satisfying no one.

Mr. Kim, clearly the prime mover for these talks may understand, that to bring such unification closer, North Korea must somehow re-situate herself in the international community. That means creating a situation where she is a balance point among several countries. This will involve extracting herself from near total dependency on China the price of which is pervasive Chinese control; drawing closer to her non-Communist Asian neighbors, to the United States, to Russia, and above all to South Korea. If this feat can be accomplished, then Pyongyang will no longer be the captive of larger great power competitions, which means it is able to reduce tension with the South.

In other words, this meeting is not about nuclear disarmament or security guarantees, though they will form much of its substance while receiving disproportionate media and analytical attention. A more accurate appraisal is that the meetings are about repositioning the Korean peninsula politically so that its two halves can gradually draw closer together as the single nationality they are.

Heresy, it may seem, to say this is not about nuclear disarmament. Consider, though: North Korea is a nuclear power but a relatively minor one. Her threat to the United States is small (though to South Korea, very large). It is puzzling that even though North Korea’s ability to land even one nuclear bomb on the United States is to be doubted, China could in an hour fire hundreds, most of which would find their target, leaving our country in ruins. Yet do we speak constantly of the “Chinese nuclear threat”? Do we insist on “Complete Verifiable Irreversible Disarmament” (CVID) as a precondition or even talking to China or placing an embassy in Beijing?  Absolutely not.

This bias against North Korea, this higher bar than even for China, makes no strategic sense. It is perhaps only explicable by an American conviction that Pyongyang is uniquely demented and evil and dangerous, while China (which tested a rocket carrying a live nuclear warhead in 1966) is by comparison sober sane and responsible, so not a worry. This caricature is of course preposterous. China’s recent international behavior, claiming and so far keeping, more territory than did Hitler at his peak, gives the lie to any idea of Chinese responsibility or even rationality. North Korea is a hellish country, but so is China, and far more dangerous.

July 13 of 2017 I wrote for Geopoliticus “Why We Must Recognize North Korea,” arguing that we needed an embassy in Pyongyang so therefore should immediately and unconditionally recognize them and get on with the kinds of discussions for which embassies are designed. One of our most eminent Korea specialists told me that this was “complete out of the box thinking.” Many agreed with him. But  radically innovative, “out of the box”? To have an embassy in a foreign capital? That is simple and long-standing diplomatic convention. Right now we have embassies in every foreign capital I believe, save (for reasons difficult to explain)  Teheran, Taipei and Pyongyang. In Taipei we have a a functional equivalent; in Teheran an American interests section in the Swiss embassy, but nothing comparable in Pyongyang, though the Swedes help out.

No matter what follows the meeting, for Mr. Kim to sit down with Mr. Trump will be, in reality, the equivalent of diplomatic recognition, and even if all flounce out in anger, I hope an embassy will follow nevertheless. The fact of the meeting will be a huge victory for what I believe is Mr. Kim’s instinct to reposition his country, as well as for us, to whom it will become regularly accessible.

We must, however, realize that our military demands are unrealistic. Our focus should be on reducing the threat to the South. This process has many possible dimensions but one is to eliminate the thousands of artillery so near they can make Seoul a lake of fire. By the same token, we should ensure that South Korea is strengthened, not weakened, by our actions.

“CVID” is certainly impossible. After Ukraine gave up her nuclear weapons under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances  of 1994, in return for worthless security guarantees from the U.S., Russia, and Britain, only to see Crimea occupied,  no nuclear state will ever abolish their nuclear capacity.[1] 

Furthermore, the demand is completely unverifiable. North Korea is a few thousand square miles bigger than Pennsylvania, with no one knows how many hundred miles of tunnels, underground cities, and so forth through the bedrock. Could Pyongyang conceal hundreds of nuclear bombs, launchers, etc. out of sight underground? Of course they could, just as we could certainly conceal similar armaments within greater New York City, so that even an occupying army could not find them. Even if North Korea turns over truckloads of nuclear equipment at the conclusion of the talks, which seems unlikely, we have no way of knowing what remains. I defy anyone to describe a way. Challenge inspections? Over 46,000 square miles surface and God only knows what underground? So the demand can never be met, though it could derail progress. It should be abandoned.

The practical solution is to demand only what we can verify. We can independently detect nuclear missile tests. Likewise test firings of missiles. Although we impose no such conditions on China, if Mr. Kim feels he is now well enough armed to deter any adversary, he might agree to such a regime, which would perhaps limit further development.

We should also ask against whom the North Korean deterrent I have described is truly aimed? My answer is China, a country that is culturally and ethnically completely distinct to Korea, which it has invaded repeatedly in the past. I do not believe North Korea has any other real target, but if she does, ordinary deterrence should prevent use. China, however, loses a great deal of influence if she can no longer menace North Korea, as military intervention would lead to genuine nuclear retaliation.

My argument, then, is one I have long been making. Let us not impale ourselves on impossible conditions, but rather take a long view, in which we aim to promote ultimate peaceful re-unification of Korea into a powerful state, not under China’s thumb.[2] This, rather than impossible denuclearization, is the true interest of both the region and the United States.

A united Korea would be about 85,000 square miles,  nearly the size of the United Kingdom, and have a population of about 75,000,000, substantially more than France. She would be a major power in the region and just as importantly an independent power, not the pawn of any great power. It is likely, however, that if these events occur, the new Korea would align herself with the market economies of the region.

Again, this would be to the benefit of all, far preferable to the time bomb we have had since the 1953 armistice (but no peace treaty) that ended fighting in the Korean War. We must not be distracted from this goal by endless fruitless argumentation about a nuclear threat that is dwarfed by China’s or Russia’s, which we have never made a condition for diplomatic relations. Our goal should be the same as what I guess Kim’s to be: for starters, freedom from Chinese handcuffs. Unification is an issue for the two Koreas, as long as it is peaceful.

Given the political and policy community’s long preoccupation with the dread “North Korean Threat” my ideas may seem “out of the box” yet again. But consider the time already wasted on this issue, above all the endless plans for disarmament going back to the “agreed framework” of 1994, with its thousands of hours wasted in discussion, infinity of steps to nowhere—and of course its failure.

Yet consider the advantages achievements of my proposal would confer. First, Korea would be restored to normal country status. Having seen some normal countries as well as China, Mr. Kim may have a better sense of what that would mean than did earlier members of his dynasty. Remember that Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) came of age in an era when even Europeans and Americans thought that Communism was a superior economic system, destined to overtake the West. That North Korea should be so poor now compared to the south completely violates those expectations, as the leaders and people of the North are doubtlessly aware.

Finally, let us consider the new strategic geography that would be created by the outcome I suggest we seek. The Korean peninsula, with its multiplicity of harbors on both coasts, completely dominates sea approaches to Tianjin, the port of Beijing, as well as flanking the entire Chinese coast to the south.  It also dominates Vladivostok, the great Russian port whose name literally translated means “ruler of the East.” Given all of this, it is perhaps not surprising that other players are struggling for seats at the table. China, perhaps at her wits’ end, is volunteering a fighter escort for Mr. Kim’s plane at it passes through Chinese airspace.[3]

But it is not necessary to pass through any Chinese airspace on such a flight, though as the crow flies, one brushes over Eastern China for a while. Swing a bit further East, however, and one is in international air space over international waters. Were I Mr. Kim, that is the route I would choose.

To sum up, then, we must understand that from the point of view of geopolitics, the meeting is a success if it leads to a genuine opening with North Korea while aiding her in what I hypothesize is her hope to reposition herself politically in the region. Her interest, and ours and the region’s, is that she cease to be a Chinese vassal, and in the longer term, improve relations with South Korea. She shows every sign of being willing to accept a nuclear cap, which is all we need. To demand from her what we do not demand of China or Russia, thus sinking the talks, would be foolish and short-sighted.

Far better that we be realistic about weapons, by realizing that they are not really the issue. The issue is the future of the Korean peninsula. China has long assumed that North Korea was so dependent on her that she could use her strategically in ways harmful to the Koreans themselves. If that Chinese lock can begin to be broken, then we will account the talks a success, regardless of the less important military issues that we allow to blind ourselves to the real stakes.


[1] But see “Ukraine and the Misunderstood Budapest Memorandum,” by John Haines, FPRI E-Notes, March 7, 2014. Haines challenges the conventional view of the Memorandum.

[2] Arthur Waldron, ““A Korean Solution?” Commentary 119.6 (June 2005): 62-65.

[3] See