North Korea moved back into the headlines last week when its leader, Kim Jong-un, traveled to Vladivostok to meet Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, the possibility of a third Kim-Trump meeting keeps simmering in Washington—for the simple reason that Mr. Trump keeps saying that he wants it. Despite these developments, it is sobering to note that intensive U.S. diplomatic efforts dating from the 1980s have produced essentially no progress on the core issue—North Korea’s determination to build a nuclear arsenal and missiles that can deliver a nuclear strike, not just on South Korea or Japan, but on the U.S. as well. For over three decades, Washington has demanded that Pyongyang agree, under pressure of stringent international sanctions, to dismantle its nuclear and missile capabilities. It has not happened, and it may be time to rethink fundamental U.S. goals and strategy concerning North Korea.
In late February, Hanoi hosted the second Trump-Kim summit. Both leaders evinced high expectations for success. Unusually, the North Korean regime announced the meeting in advance apparently anticipating an agreement that would produce a peace treaty ending the Korean War and the end, or at least diminution, of international sanctions. The American president was looking for “a big deal” that would make Donald Trump the architect of peace on the Korean peninsula. Instead, the summit collapsed, very publicly, when it became clear that what North Korea was prepared to offer in the way of disarmament fell far short of what the U.S. was demanding. The actual text of the draft agreement Trump rejected has never been publicly revealed, but it appears that Kim offered to dismantle a high-profile nuclear test complex (and perhaps a uranium facility, as well), which would have left much of North Korea’s clandestine nuclear and missile infrastructure intact.
Suddenly, we are back to square one, or something pretty close to it. This is all the more striking because North Korea is facing a dire domestic food shortage due to bad weather and chronic weakness in its agricultural sector. North Korea has suffered mass starvation as recently as the 1990s, but the needle never moved when it came to denuclearization. This forces key questions: Is Kim able and/or willing to dismantle his nuclear and missile capabilities under any circumstances? Could any combination of external pressures or inducements persuade him to take such a step? U.S. policy has been based on the presumption that the answer is yes, but there are ample reasons to believe that the real answer is no. It is worth noting that when the heads of U.S. Intelligence agencies testified before Congress, their unanimous answer to this question was no.
The logic behind that answer is not hard to discern. Kim presides over a small, impoverished, isolated country sandwiched between China, Russia, and South Korea—with US military forces stationed in the latter. For Kim, nuclear weapons and ICBMs serve multiple, critical functions. First, they provide status; North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state on equal footing with the U.S., Russia, and China. Such a state commands respect and, even better, fear. Second, these weapons insure North Korean security. Even the Americans will hesitate to attack North Korea when they consider the likely consequences. Third, North Korea cannot be intimidated or bullied by the U.S., or even China. Fourth, the threat these weapons pose may well persuade the U.S. and South Korea to mollify Pyongyang with economic assistance at a minimum. The Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul is already at that point.
If we conclude that the North Korean nuclear/missile capability is nonnegotiable, we are left with two broad policy options, depending on whether or not we are prepared to live with a North Korean nuclear arsenal. If the answer is not, the logical outcome is a strategy of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang until the regime breaks. This is an obviously draconian choice with unknown timelines and massive uncertainties and consequences if, and when, the strategy succeeds.
The second option is unpalatable, but far less destabilizing, at least in the short term. It would involve a policy reversal in Washington. The U.S. would accept and recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. In return, the U.S. would require verifiable assurances (modalities TBD) that this capability will be limited and configured for defensive purposes. However, and critically important, the U.S. military presence and the U.S.-ROK alliance will remain intact. If Pyongyang accepts these terms, sanctions would be dismantled, and over time, the U.S. would facilitate North Korean access to international financial assistance (Asian Development Bank, World Bank, International Monetary Fund). In such a scenario, South Korea would certainly offer major infusions of capital into North Korea as part of a transformation of intra-Korean relations—and the living standards of the North Korean populace. And it goes almost without saying: a new peace treaty will finally, formally, end the Korean War.
American security interests would surely be served by such an outcome. It would mean peace on the peninsula and an end to the North Korean strategic threat. U.S. forces would remain in the ROK, but would be reoriented to support broader U.S. strategic objectives in the Western Pacific. This, in turn, would provide opportunities for ROK forces to play a long-sought role beyond the peninsula in support of East Asian security and stability. Moreover, Pyongyang—truth be told—would secretly (or not so secretly) welcome a nonthreatening U.S. military presence that served as a barrier to Chinese attempts to exert a dominant influence over the peninsula.
Any change of strategic direction this radical will come with serious doubts and objections. The most serious geopolitical concern will be the prospect that acceptance of a North Korean nuclear capability will precipitate a cascade of other East Asian governments (presumably including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and possibly Vietnam) seeking the same. This prospect is real, but not a certainty. If Japan, for example, became convinced that a circumscribed North Korean arsenal coupled with a robust U.S.-Japan alliance did not add up to a serious threat, then the pressure to “go nuclear” may be contained. Another serious objection will come from a very different quarter. Any peace treaty will require congressional ratification, and Congress will insist on airing North Korea’s appalling record of human rights atrocities, historical and ongoing. Where that process will take us is anyone’s guess.