No to appeasementAre there some problems that simply defy any real solutions? North Korea could be one.
The country conducted its fifth nuclear test on Friday and moved a step closer to possessing an operational miniaturized warhead that could fit on a medium-range ballistic missile.
What to do about it? The history of the past quarter-century is littered with failed diplomatic deals that North Korea has sabotaged and walked away from. For starters, there is the reconciliation accord the two Koreas signed in 1991 — which still provides a good basis for resolving tensions on the peninsula.
Four U.S. Presidents — from George H.W. Bush in 1992 to Barack Obama today — have tried and failed to denuclearize North Korea. After Bush began engaging North Korea at high levels, the Clinton administration followed, reaching the 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze and then dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. That collapsed in 2002 when it was discovered Pyongyang had started a secret uranium enrichment program.
Then in September 2005, the George W. Bush administration, working through the China-led six-party talks (Russia, South Korea and Japan are also involved) reached an agreement to denuclearize North Korea. After a promising start with five working groups addressing every issue of interest to Pyongyang, from energy and economic aid to a peace treaty, the North decided to walk away.
Then it was Obama’s turn. Despite the fact Pyongyang answered his call for an open hand to dialogue by conducting a nuclear test in 2009, three years later the U.S. reached what is known as the leap day deal, in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear missile programs in exchange for aid.
The accord fell apart only days later when Pyongyang disagreed with the U.S. interpretation of it.
So where does that leave efforts to address the nuclear problem? Not in a good place. North Korea is accelerating efforts to operationalize a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit on medium and long-range ballistic missiles.
It has the Musudan medium-range missile, which has a range of 3,000 kilometers and is developing the KN-08 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could have a range of 6,000 kilometers. Pyongyang also has about 200 operational Rodong nuclear-capable missiles with a 1,300-kilometer range — long enough to hit U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan.
Clearly, the threat is real and growing.
The good news: North Korea is, in my estimate, probably three to five years and numerous tests away from becoming confident in the reliability of its ICBMs. Development of these missiles is difficult work.
That said, U.S. extended deterrence still works. Pyongyang is not suicidal. Indeed, it sees one key purpose of its nuclear program: insuring the survival of its regime. North Korea wants to deter any possible U.S. and/or South Korean attack. This may remain true regardless of what capabilities it attains.
But a big question looms just over the horizon, triggered by a qualitatively greater threat. Once Pyongyang has an operational warhead and functional ICBM that could reach Guam, Alaska and Hawaii — maybe even San Francisco — does the deterrence equation change? Would Seoul and Tokyo still have confidence in U.S. deterrence? Could the U.S. live with a de facto nuclear capable North Koreas as it does with China and Russia?
That is the next debate: If the threat rises to a new level, should denuclearization be put on the back burner, and instead, should the world be willing to abandon sanctions and accept a nuclear North Korea in exchange for halting the advance of its nuclear and missile programs?
At present, the Obama administration policy of “strategic patience” makes sense. The U.S. is willing to engage with North Korea as soon as Pyongyang lives up to its commitment to the September 2005 Joint Statement. But North Korean officials recently said that deal is dead and the country is now a nuclear weapons state.
Thus, denuclearization is not negotiable. So even putting aside North Korea’s track record of ripping up agreements, which raises questions about whether Pyongyang is a serious interlocutor, there is no basis for dialogue.
Why? For starters, the very identity of the Kim Jong-un regime is so bound up with nuclear weapons that he changed the country’s constitution to declare North Korea a nuclear state.
But the steadily growing North Korean threat is the beginning of a new debate. If Pyongyang achieves new capabilities and builds an arsenal from what is now an estimated 10-15 weapons into something much larger, do the U.S., South Korea and Japan — as well as Russia and China — need to rethink the goal of denuclearization?
North Korean, and on occasion Chinese, officials, call for diplomatic talks toward a peace treaty, with the idea that then Pyongyang would be willing to discuss its nuclear weapons. First, there is no chance that the U.S. and its allies would sign a peace treaty with a nuclear North Korea. What Pyongyang has in mind is not denuclearization, but rather arms control talks to freeze their current nuclear and missile programs.
The case against taking such a path is powerful: legitimizing a nuclear North Korea would reward aggression and destroy the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Expect to hear arguments in the coming months and years that the ominous, growing North Korean threat makes freezing its nuclear and missile arsenal worth the price of legitimizing it.
A good answer is to point out that compared to the international sanctions against Iran, U.N. sanctions on North Korea remain relatively modest. In its response to Pyongyang’s defiant actions, the Security Council has an opportunity to close the loopholes in the sanctions applied after the fourth test. It is time to remove North Korea’s access to the international financial system, to take away Kim’s credit cards.
*The author is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative.
Robert A. Manning