North Korea’s nuclear weapons: What now?

By Shen Dingli, Chung-in Moon, Andrei Lankov, August 25, 2016

The international standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program has now dragged on for decades, and six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States have been suspended since 2009. Meanwhile, hopes that Pyongyang might curtail its weapons programs due to direct pressure from Beijing have been disappointed so far—already in 2016, the North has conducted its fourth nuclear weapon test and launched a long-range ballistic missile. Against this backdrop, how can nations in the region reinvigorate a diplomatic process toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula—or, failing that, how can they best handle the security challenges that a nuclear North Korea poses?

Round 1

North Korea: Don’t dream the impossible

In January, Pyongyang proudly announced that it had successfully conducted a fourth nuclear test. This time, the North Koreans claimed, they had tested a thermonuclear device. Observers are skeptical.

Thermonuclear or not, the test was a reminder of an unpleasant fact: North Korea, in defiance of the international community and despite significant pressure, has developed nuclear devices. It is working hard to acquire deployable nuclear weapons and delivery systems. This represents arguably the most serious challenge to the nonproliferation regime in decades—and the peculiarities of the North Korean situation mean that the challenge can be only mitigated, not neutralized.

Hard and soft. The US position regarding North Korea's nuclear program, and indeed the position of the entire international community, is simple: Nothing but "complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization" will do. Unfortunately, this demand is hopelessly unrealistic. North Korean decision makers have valid reasons for believing they should retain their nuclear weapons no matter what. And the world is utterly lacking in means to undermine that belief.

To start with, North Korea is a small dictatorship, run by a hereditary elite, and surrounded by hostile, richer neighbors. Domestically, the country's leaders face a latent threat of popular rebellion; internationally, they are afraid of a US attack. Their problems are exacerbated by South Korea, whose existence makes possible a "German scenario"—that is, regime collapse followed by absorption of the entire country into a much richer neighbor. Ordinary North Koreans might welcome such an eventuality, as a majority of East Germans once did. But for the ruling elite, it would mean losing power and perhaps paying a price for the gross human rights abuses of the past decades. Thus the North Korean government believes it needs a deterrent that can prevent both a foreign invasion (Iraq style) and foreign support for an internal rebellion (Libya style). Nuclear weapons are the only such deterrent.

So far, attempts to achieve the Holy Grail of denuclearization have followed two lines. The soft line is essentially to purchase North Korea's weapons—to exchange economic benefits for Pyongyang's nuclear program. The hard line involves sanctions—making life more difficult for the North Korean people, generating internal pressure for a change in policy, and thus pushing North Korea toward denuclearization.

Attempts to bribe North Koreans into denuclearization are hopeless. Recent history has taught North Korea's rulers that they should not trust outsiders' sweet promises. North Koreans remember that the only dictator who ever exchanged his nuclear weapons acquisition program for promises of economic aid was Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, who paid for that decision with his life. They also remember that Ukraine agreed in 1994 to the removal of the nuclear warheads it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Ukraine did so in exchange for a Russian, British, and US guarantee of territorial integrity, a guarantee hardly worth the paper it was printed on. North Korean diplomats also know the sorry fate of Iraq's Saddam Hussein—and they keep saying that the only reason he was overthrown and killed was that he lacked nuclear weapons. North Korea's leaders believe that, without nuclear weapons, they will become dangerously vulnerable. For them, losing power doesn't mean writing memoirs in the south of France. It means prison time—or an appointment with a lamppost.

Attempts to achieve denuclearization through sanctions are equally hopeless. Sanctions work in an indirect way, by making life within a country difficult for both common people and the elite. Unhappiness about material difficulties causes people to exert pressure on the government and to demand revisions in the policies that have provoked international sanctions. In democratic or semi-democratic states, such popular pressure can be exerted through elections. In less liberal societies, a revolution or a coup is always possible.

But the sanctions effort against North Korea has been quietly sabotaged by China. Chinese diplomats, though they are unhappy about North Korea's nuclear ambitions and brinksmanship, still have valid reasons to prefer the status quo of a relatively stable but divided Korean Peninsula. Even if China changes its approach—which, in fact, might be happening right now—it is still doubtful that sanctions would change Pyongyang's stance on nuclear weapons. Even if sanctions ruined the North Korean economy, which has recently experienced something of a recovery, sanctions would still be unlikely to deliver the desired political results. Even if sanctions provoked a massive famine, they would be unlikely to deliver those results.

This is because the North Korean people simply have no way to influence government policy. They are docile and terrified. They live in a country where the ratio of prisoners to the general population is roughly the same as it was in Joseph Stalin's Russia. They live in a country whose elections are known the world over for delivering a "100 percent approval rate" to government candidates, and for doing so since 1957.

Members of the North Korean elite, meanwhile, have good reasons to avoid staging a coup. Even a successful coup would provoke instability, which in turn would make revolution possible. A revolution, followed by unification, would see the entire elite removed from power and perhaps even forced to pay a price for their wrongdoing. The elite perceives no benefit in rocking the boat—no matter how much they miss their favorite Hennessy cognac.

Stop wasting time. Unfortunately, US and UN policy tends to oscillate between the hard line and the soft line. Neither is going to work. Pursuing the impossible goal of denuclearization can even be considered dangerous because it wastes time that could be spent pursuing the far more realistic goal of freezing North Korea's nuclear potential. A freeze would come at a price, of course—North Koreans do nothing for free. North Korea would halt its nuclear program and refrain from testing nuclear weapons or conducting missile launches. But, essentially for deterrence purposes, it would retain the technology and hardware it has amassed already. In exchange, the United States and the international community would make numerous political concessions and perhaps provide substantial aid.

This compromise may sound unfair. But unlike the dream of denuclearization, it is realistic. Unfortunately, the world still chases what's impossible, switching from the hard line to the soft line and back again—while the North Koreans stay busy making more and better nuclear weapons.


North Korea: A negotiated settlement remains the best hope

In an address to the Workers' Party Congress on May 7, Kim Jong-un told his audience that North Korea was "a responsible nuclear weapon state" that would not use nuclear weapons—"unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes." He pledged to "strive for global denuclearization"—but he emphasized the continuation of the "byungjin line," a policy that seeks simultaneous development of North Korea's economy and its nuclear programs. Kim's remarks can be seen as an outright rejection of international calls for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Over the past seven years, while six-party talks have been derailed, North Korea has strengthened its nuclear arsenal. The North is believed to have amassed nuclear materials steadily, and is now estimated by some sources to possess about 10 nuclear warheads. Pyongyang conducted a fourth nuclear test in January. It possesses a wide variety of delivery vehicles, which range from short-range Scud-type missiles to intermediate-range Nodong and Musudan missiles to—perhaps—submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Pyongyang is close to developing intercontinental ballistic missiles and claims to have made progress miniaturizing and diversifying its nuclear warheads as well.

A nuclear North Korea poses serious security threats to the Korean Peninsula, all of Northeast Asia, and the world. North Korean nuclear weapons significantly alter the military balance on the peninsula and ultimately impede peaceful co-existence there. The regional security impacts are likewise profound—a nuclear domino effect might lead to proliferation elsewhere in Northeast Asia. And the possibility exists that North Korea will export nuclear materials, technology, and even warheads to other regions, threatening the very foundations of world security in this age of global terrorism.

So what's the way out of the North Korean nuclear quagmire? Sanctions have accomplished little. Military confrontation is not an option. Now as ever, negotiations are the only path forward. But it's also the case that negotiations can succeed—if negotiators are practical, flexible, and willing to listen to Pyongyang carefully.

What won't work. Today, international approaches to the North Korean nuclear problem are based on international sanctions and on the logic of crime and punishment. According to this approach, North Korea's crimes—possession of nuclear weapons and violation of UN resolutions—must be punished through forceful, comprehensive sanctions. Such sanctions, the thinking goes, will cause so much discomfort in the North that the regime will be at risk of collapse and Kim Jung-un will be compelled to choose denuclearization. But North Korea is not Iran. It is a very closed society and very accustomed to sanctions. China, meanwhile, is unlikely to enforce sanctions that undermine stability in the North. And Pyongyang's typical behavior pattern has been to exhibit greater defiance as more pressure is exerted. Linking sanctions to regime collapse—an idea common in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo alike—seems presumptuous and misguided.

Some pundits in Seoul argue that South Korea should counter Pyongyang's nuclear threats by developing an indigenous nuclear arms program. But as soon as South Korea declared a nuclear weapons campaign, it would face strong headwinds. The country's nuclear power industry—run entirely for commercial purposes—would be ruined. So would Seoul's traditional alliance with Washington. South Korea would likely be slapped with international sanctions, sending the economy into a tailspin. Moreover, a series of nuclear dominos could fall in Northeast Asia—starting with South Korea, spreading to Japan, and perhaps even reaching Taiwan. But it's unrealistic in the first place to believe Seoul could use a nuclear program as leverage against North Korea (and China). For one thing, Seoul does not even have operational control of its own forces during wartime (in the event of hostilities on the Peninsula, South Korean forces would come under the control of a US commander). For another, a South Korean nuclear weapons program would give Japanese conservatives an excuse to expand the Japanese military. South Korean nuclear weapons are simply the wrong response to North Korean nuclear weapons.

A pre-emptive attack on the North, or military action of any kind, is also out of the question. Even putting aside the violations of international norms that an attack would entail, the military option would fail because of North Korea's formidable defensive capabilities. And any pre-emptive attack could easily escalate into a full-fledged war and jeopardize the lives and property of South Koreans. The United States is well aware of these risks, and of the fundamental limitations on military force on the Korean Peninsula. The United States can destroy North Korea—but it cannot win a war over it.

Dialogue and the search for a negotiated settlement are the only viable options. Dialogue hasn't worked in the past—but that's no reason to dismiss it. What's needed is a new and inventive approach to seeking a negotiated settlement. Such an approach requires a willingness to listen, a practical attitude, and a good deal of flexibility.

What might work. If the parties negotiating with North Korea wish to find solutions acceptable to all sides, they must speak their minds—but also hear out Pyongyang. Being deaf to the North's concerns is a path that only leads to the exits. Talking and listening to Pyongyang requires putting oneself in the North's shoes and encouraging the North to do likewise. And dialogue will only be hindered if the North is portrayed as an untrustworthy rogue state or if unilateral preconditions are insisted upon.

Negotiations with Pyongyang must also be practical and realistic. Goals must be adjusted according to circumstances. Specifically, since the North cannot be forced, completely and quickly, to dismantle its nuclear weapons, the short-term goal should be a moratorium on Pyongyang's nuclear programs. A moratorium would prevent the North from making further technical progress and from producing additional nuclear materials. Indeed, Pyongyang has repeatedly said it would cease nuclear activities if certain terms were met, so a viable exit strategy might already exist in the step-by-step approach, proposed by Stanford scholar Siegfried Hecker, of freezing, rolling back, and verifiably dismantling the North's arsenal.

Finally, flexibility is required. All possible cards must be on the table in negotiations with North Korea. These "cards" could include temporarily halting joint military drills between South Korea and the United States; negotiating a peace treaty to replace the armistice that brought the Korean War to a close; formally accepting North Korea's right to peaceful uses of atomic energy and to a space program; and normalizing diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States. These possibilities must not be excluded just because Pyongyang demands them. Moreover, conducting dialogue on these issues would provide a way to probe Pyongyang's intentions and demand accountability for any North Korean breach of faith.

At this critical juncture, Realpolitik is desperately required. And those who negotiate with North Korea should bear in mind that time isn't necessarily on their side.


Acknowledging reality: A pragmatic approach to Pyongyang

With North Korea having conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, the Korean Peninsula seems more distant than ever from denuclearization. Given this reality, what's the most effective way to approach the nuclear problem?

The obstacles to progress are enormous. Pyongyang's inclinations are strongly realist, and the country's leadership sees nuclear deterrence as the ultimate guarantee of security. It will likely continue to see things that way for some time. The North perceives Washington's attitude as essentially realist as well—so Pyongyang is likely betting that US policy toward North Korea will eventually change direction. This is especially true considering that Washington experiences regime change every four or eight years.

The North may in fact believe that Washington, once it accepts the nuclear reality on the Korean Peninsula, will ease sanctions. This calculus may make sense. The United States never approved of Israel's possession of nuclear weapons, but it has had to live with the hard reality of a nuclear Israel—and protect Tel Aviv from the establishment of a Middle East nuclear-weapon free zone. Nor does Washington approve of a nuclear India, and indeed it imposed sanctions on New Delhi following India's 1998 nuclear test. But those sanctions were lifted within days of the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2008 the United States even waived its ban on civilian nuclear cooperation with India—a ban it had imposed through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which it helped create in 1975 precisely to punish India for its "peaceful" nuclear test in 1974. As for Pakistan, the United States designated that country a major non-NATO ally in 2004 in order to gain Islamabad's cooperation in the fight against terrorism—despite Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, President Obama is pursuing normalized relations with Cuba after decades of hostility between Washington and Havana. All this may encourage Pyongyang to believe that Washington will not wait additional decades to normalize relations with North Korea.

Meanwhile, China and North Korea have been allies for decades. But China has been cooperating more closely with the United States on sanctions against North Korea, so Pyongyang likely feels betrayed by Beijing. Then again, considering the rising distrust that characterizes Washington and Beijing's relationship, the North may be betting that China will hedge against any future possibility of US reconciliation with the North.

North Korea has certainly noted China's insistence that sanctions against Pyongyang must not generate instability on the Peninsula, risk war, or create humanitarian problems. China is simply unwilling, whether Pyongyang has nuclear weapons or not, to see North Korea collapse. This stance would seem to ensure North Korea's survival. In fact, Beijing may be more concerned about Washington's "rebalancing" in Asia than it is about Pyongyang's nuclear program. Beijing and Washington may cooperate on North Korea to some degree, but they don't trust each other, and both sides will hedge their bets. This could well play into North Korea's hands, and compromise the effectiveness of US-China collaboration.

Consequently, the Korean Peninsula won't likely be free of nuclear weapons any time soon. So any successful approach to the Korean nuclear issue must be incremental, pragmatic, and cooperative in nature; and must provide assurances to all sides. North Korea will only be enticed by denuclearization proposals that espouse a win-win philosophy.

What might be workable, on an interim basis, is to demand of North Korea a "three noes" policy: no further development of nuclear weapons (including nuclear tests); no transfers of nuclear weapons outside North Korean territory; and no using (or threatening to use) nuclear weapons. Essentially, Pyongyang would be asked to accept a "nuclear freeze" regime—which would include a unilateral arms control ceiling and an appropriate verification system. In return, North Korea would receive a package of benefits including a multilateral security assurance arrangement; initiation of a diplomatic process toward normalization of North Korea's relations with the United States and other nations; and removal of economic, trade, and investment sanctions—if Pyongyang adheres to the "three noes."

Clearly, such a process wouldn't achieve denuclearization at once. But North Korea is adamant about not relinquishing its nuclear capabilities, so any path toward disarmament must be phased. Establishing denuclearization as a short-term objective would only invite total failure. It's better just to get the ball rolling with diplomacy.

Essentially, the goal of the "three noes" would be to establish a productive atmosphere of cooperative nuclear restraint. In some ways, this formula resembles the approach underlying the Iran nuclear deal. In negotiations toward that deal, the international community could not prevail on Iran to accept complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear programs. But Iran did commit itself to eliminating the lion's share of its uranium enrichment capacity—though it nonetheless retains certain nuclear fuel cycle competencies. The point is that both sides compromised: Iran obtained sanctions relief by curtailing its dubious nuclear operations, while the international community greatly reduced the risk that Iran will become a nuclear weapon state, even if complete dismantlement wasn't achievable.

If this model were followed on the Korean Peninsula—if nuclear tensions were contained through cooperative, incremental measures aimed at nuclear threat reduction—the international community (North Korea included) could reinvigorate a diplomatic process toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Once the initial stages of the approach succeeded, Pyongyang's leadership might transform its outlook toward the importance of nuclear arms in national security. Eventually the North might be ready to take concrete steps toward eliminating its entire nuclear arsenal.

Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula is a distant prospect. Such a prospect draws no closer as long as the world rejects pragmatic engagement with the North.


Round 2

Basis for a breakthrough in Pyongyang statement?

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have worsened in recent months. In March, the United Nations tightened sanctions against the North because Pyongyang had tested a nuclear weapon and launched a satellite earlier in the year. On July 6, the United States imposed sanctions directly on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un due to his involvement in human rights violations. Pyongyang called the US sanctions "a hideous crime." Soon afterwards, Seoul and Washington announced joint plans to deploy a US-led missile defense system in South Korea. Pyongyang threatened "physical counteraction" against the system and announced it was closing a channel for US-North Korean dialogue that had operated through the North's UN mission.

Yet amid all this—just hours before Washington announced its sanctions against Kim—a spokesman for the North Korean government issued an interesting statement on denuclearization. The statement made five demands of the United States and South Korea; promised that the North would take "corresponding measures" if the demands were met; and held out the possibility of a "breakthrough" in the peninsula's nuclear stalemate.

First, the statement demanded, "all nuclear weapons of the United States" in South Korea "must be publicly disclosed." Second, all nuclear weapons in the South (along with the facilities where they are based) "should be dismantled and verified." Third, Washington must guarantee that it will not deploy offensive nuclear weapons in South Korea and "its vicinity." Fourth, the United States must commit to never using nuclear weapons against North Korea. Finally, Washington must withdraw from South Korea all troops "holding the right to use nukes."

Seoul immediately rejected the proposal as a "deceitful act" meant to undermine efforts to strengthen sanctions. Washington, meanwhile, made no meaningful response. But careful examination of the proposal—even if, at first glance, it looks like typical rhetoric and propaganda—suggests that it might have some merit as a starting point toward a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute. Some of Pyongyang's demands are quite easy to meet. The others might be satisfied through compromise and negotiation.

The first two are easily met because they concern nonexistent US nuclear weapons in South Korea. Washington withdrew its nuclear weapons from the peninsula in 1991. It has never reintroduced nuclear weapons. Indeed, a joint statement released at the conclusion of six-party talks in September 2005 clearly indicated that the United States had no nuclear weapons in South Korea—and North Korea, of course, signed on to the joint statement. The North's demand for verification should present no great obstacle either: General Charles Campbell, then-commander of the US Eighth Army, expressed willingness in a 2005 newspaper interview to allow nuclear verification at US military facilities in the South (link in Korean).

Skipping forward for a moment, the fourth demand likewise presents no overwhelming problems. Essentially, the issue is a negative security assurance and a no-first-use policy toward the North. But Washington has many reasons not to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, especially first. The reasons range from humanitarian considerations, to commitments made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2005 joint statement, to the likelihood of negative strategic reactions from China and Russia.

The third demand, however—for a US guarantee not to deploy offensive nuclear weapons in South Korea and "its vicinity"—might be problematic. Such a guarantee might require suspending South Korea-US military exercises that involve strategic weapons such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and strategic bombers.

The fifth demand, for troop withdrawals, might also be problematic because most South Koreans consider US troop withdrawals taboo.

Still, these points could be negotiable. For example, South Korea and the United States could exclude offensive strategic weapons from their joint military exercises. And regarding US forces on the peninsula, former northern leader Kim Jong-il once mentioned to former southern leader Kim Dae-jung that Pyongyang could tolerate US forces in South Korea as long as they weren't hostile to the North. In any event, Pyongyang's statement doesn't mention an outright withdrawal of troops—rather, the announcement of an intention to withdraw.

South Korea and the United States should seriously examine North Korea's proposal. To be sure, Seoul and Washington would find it difficult to approach the negotiating table based on nothing more than Pyongyang's current demands. To draw Seoul and Washington to the table, the North would have to specify the reciprocal measures toward denuclearization it would take if its demands were met. But if specificity were forthcoming, Pyongyang's recent statement might well furnish a basis for serious dialogue and negotiation.


The grave nuclear risk of North Korean instability

The "Korean question" is a bit like a dormant volcano. Nothing especially dramatic has happened for decades, and the status quo has now persisted for so long that people have grown used to it. But the sad, simple fact is that the status quo on the peninsula is inherently unstable. Sooner or later, North Korea's political and economic elite is likely to fall. This will present the very risky prospect of violent chaos, in the style of Libya or Syria, in a country that possesses nuclear weapons—and that lies along a strategic fault line where the interests of the United States, China, and Russia meet and often clash.

Roots of instability. In 1948, when the pro-Soviet regime in Pyongyang and the pro-US regime in Seoul came into existence, neither side recognized its counterpart's right to exist. Each government considered itself the sole legitimate authority for the peninsula. Each claimed unification as a long-term goal—though only on its own terms. But while the Stalinist regime in the North inherited from Japan's colonial government the most advanced industrial economy in East Asia outside Japan itself, the right-wing dictatorship in the South took over an agricultural backwater. Over the course of a couple of decades, the tables were turned. The North Korean economy, after a short period of growth, stagnated and began to fall apart. The South became a showpiece, an unmitigated economic success.

Today, depending on how you calculate it, the per capita income gap between the North and South is between 1:14 and 1:40. This may be the widest gap separating any pair of countries with a common land border. The average South Korean enjoys roughly the same purchasing power as someone in France or Italy. The average North Korean can buy about as much as someone in Uganda or Sierra Leone. Thus the South, at least potentially, exerts a powerful allure for North Koreans—who therefore are not supposed to know what goes on in the South lest they become restive and unmanageable. Pyongyang bans tunable radios; allows internet access only for very senior officials (as well as foreigners); and exerts strict control over the nation's few foreign residents. International observers tend to view such restrictions as paranoid. But these measures are vital to the regime's survival. So are Pyongyang's massive security bureaucracy and its large number of camps for political prisoners. In the North, anyone with dangerous ideas must be dealt with promptly and severely.

Making matters worse, members of the North Korean elite (semi-hereditary on all levels) believe that regime collapse would amount to their personal downfall and perhaps even death. If Korea is unified according to the German model—the only realistically conceivable example—the North Korean elite expects to receive no share of power. Thus members of the elite are determined to survive and, if things get ugly, to fight.

In recent years, North Korea's economic situation has improved a good deal—not least because Kim Jong-un, contrary to common perception, is a reasonably good economic manager. Famine is a thing of the past, and entrepreneurs are taking over the economy despite Pyongyang's fierce Stalinist rhetoric. Though the private sector remains technically illegal, it is tolerated, and recently it has even been quietly encouraged. People in North Korea today are much better fed and dressed than at any point since the late 1940s.

But this economic success doesn't make much political difference in the North. When North Koreans assess their lifestyle, their benchmark is not the famine of the late 1990s—but rather China and South Korea, which are still light-years ahead of the North. Moreover, people in the North live under the mighty illusion that, in the event of unification, they would instantly attain the living standard enjoyed by people in Seoul.

In the long run, the status quo is unsustainable. The regime's survival depends on maintaining unity among the elite—not just second- and third-generation apparatchiks from established families but also newly rich business leaders. It depends on continued success in controlling and terrifying the North Korean people. And it depends on maintaining the country's isolation—an increasingly difficult task amid a global revolution in information technology. Nations with a stake in peace on the Korean Peninsula had better devote hard thought now to the prospect of a Syrian-style crisis in the North—a crisis in which nuclear weapons could be very much in play.


Pragmatism, principle, and the North Korean dilemma

In the aftermath of India's 1998 nuclear weapons test, the Clinton administration realized that India would be unwilling to abandon its nuclear weapons program any time soon. So it crafted a "cap, roll back, eliminate" strategy theoretically aimed at eventual elimination of all Indian nuclear weapons. It is time to adopt a realist perspective toward North Korea and apply the same formula there.

As my roundtable colleagues concur, North Korea can't be denuclearized through sanctions. It can't be denuclearized through military action. No one can "buy" the North's arsenal by extending economic benefits to Pyongyang. So the only realistic approach is to talk to Pyongyang—if not to eliminate North Korea's nuclear arsenal at the moment, at least to limit it at current levels. With luck, the North might be willing to reduce its arsenal over time. Eventually it might even give up its nuclear weapons entirely.

In the North Korean context, "capping" would actually amount to nuclear arms control. "Rolling back" would mean nuclear disarmament—no matter whether the disarmament turned out to be total or incomplete. To be sure, nations negotiating with Pyongyang would insist on a phased program whereby, later on, arms control would turn into disarmament. Without that, they would appear unprincipled. But at this stage, North Korea might be pleased to see the outside world replace nuclear disarmament with nuclear arms control as its immediate policy objective. Pyongyang might view reduced disarmament pressure as a preliminary policy success. And it might even see some appeal in joining a regime for nuclear arms control—as long as it could trade its participation for bread. Indeed, when Pyongyang committed to a limited nuclear no-first-use policy at its Congress of the Workers' Party in May, it provided some evidence that it wishes to be perceived as a responsible nuclear stakeholder.

Conservatives in the United States and elsewhere, of course, would resist any phased program that included concessions. The Indian example only hardens their insistence that nuclear disarmament must precede any deal with the North. India, to many observers, has gotten everything it wanted from the United States without really capping and rolling back its nuclear arsenal. Just this week, Prime Minister Modi visited Washington—marking the fourth time he has traveled to the United States since he took office in 2014. India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008; now, with US support, New Delhi is reportedly joining the Missile Technology Control Regime and is moving closer to membership in the NSG. New Delhi and Washington recently negotiated a preliminary agreement on logistics exchanges that, if concluded, will allow each country access to supplies, parts, and services from the other's military facilities. So yes, Washington's behavior toward India has been unprincipled, and this has confirmed Pyongyang's conviction that it should play the nuclear card to the fullest extent possible rather than ever relinquish that card. But when conservatives demand that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons as a precondition for negotiations and aid, they only stand in the way of a grand bargain—whereby North Korea's nuclear arsenal would be capped or rolled back and Pyongyang's relations with the rest of the world would improve.

Obviously, engaging North Korea in order to mitigate the nuclear threat is destined to be most challenging. But that's no reason not to give engagement a try. Especially when alternatives don't exist.


Round 3

Time may be right for a Northeast Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone

In July, Seoul agreed to US deployment in South Korea of a missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). The decision precipitated fierce resistance from opposition political parties as well as the Chinese government. Members of opposition parties demanded that the government immediately reverse its decision and enter into consultations with the National Assembly. China urged that deployment be suspended and warned of retaliatory measures. But President Park Geun-hye flatly rejected these demands, reaffirming her position that North Korea's mounting nuclear and missile threats leave no alternative to deployment of THAAD.

Park's strategy regarding the North amounts to a full-court press involving tougher sanctions, international isolation, and missile defense. Dialogue, negotiation, and peaceful resolution of differences have vanished from her lexicon. She even appears willing to risk conflict escalation. However, a viable approach remains for persuading Kim Jong-un to abandon nuclear weapons—pursuing a Northeast Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone.

North Korea has long demanded equal treatment under international law where reduction and elimination of nuclear threats are concerned. Pyongyang has also demanded, as a condition for disarmament, that it receive legally binding guarantees that other countries will issue no nuclear threats against the North. These demands could be met through a multilateral treaty establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region. Under such a treaty, nuclear weapon states would adopt no-first-use policies and issue negative security assurances—guarantees that they would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states without nuclear weapons. Non-nuclear-weapon states, meanwhile, would commit to remaining nuclear-free—or, in North Korea's case, a nuclear-armed country would commit to nuclear disarmament.

The concept of a Northeast Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone was first introduced in US arms control circles as long ago as 1972. In 1996, disarmament expert Hiro Umebayashi articulated a vision of a nuclear-weapon-free zone that incorporated a "3+3" formula. Under this model, Japan and the two Koreas would establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone while China, Russia, and the United States would extend negative security assurances to the region's non-nuclear states.

In 2010, in response to North Korea's nuclear tests, the Nautilus Institute and its director Peter Hayes advanced a "2+3" formula. Under this model, a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty would establish South Korea and Japan as non-nuclear weapon states; the United States, China, and Russia would join as nuclear weapon states; and North Korea, though nuclear-armed at the treaty's outset, would come into compliance later as a non-nuclear weapon state. This idea has since been refined to include a regional council that deliberates on security issues; a regional non-hostility agreement; the replacement of the Korean Armistice with a final peace treaty; an end to sanctions against North Korea; and a package of economic assistance to Pyongyang that might include a side agreement on non-military nuclear activity in the North. Moreover, the zone established under such an agreement would entail an inspectorate, monitoring and verification mechanisms, and establishment of negative security assurances for North Korea (with those assurances instituted in lockstep with Pyongyang's achievement of denuclearization milestones).

This approach deserves serious consideration—not least because it treats all the region's nuclear threats in an even-handed way. The stalled six-party talks, in contrast, have focused on threats emanating from North Korea, with other regional security issues playing a subordinate role.

An obvious challenge to the Nautilus approach is that North Korea's status as a nuclear-armed nation has only grown stronger in recent years. Still, nothing prevents Pyongyang from complying with the requirements of a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty at a calibrated pace, moving forward only as the nuclear weapon states provide negative security assurances and establish no-first-use policies. Indeed, such an approach might well satisfy the demands Pyongyang made in its July 6 proposal on denuclearization (a proposal I discussed in Round Two).

A first step toward establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone would be for the six parties to request that the UN secretary-general and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs convene an expert meeting to examine the concept behind the zone. Parallel efforts could be conducted by civil society organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

Establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia might sound excessively idealistic. But amid acute military confrontation on the Peninsula and the threat of catastrophic war, what's so realistic about endless cycles of stalled negotiations?


The Korean compromise to come

There will be no resolution of the North Korean nuclear impasse as long as denuclearization is cast as the only acceptable solution. Sure, proponents of sanctions and pressure will peddle their arguments for years and even decades to come. Believers in an "Iranian-style" diplomatic solution will do the same. But one can be fairly certain by now that no degree of economic pressure, no economic reward, will persuade North Korean decision makers to surrender their nuclear weapons—which they see as their only security guarantee. Thus denuclearization can only be achieved through regime change in Pyongyang. Regime change is a possible scenario, especially in the long run, but not a predictable one.

Once these uncomfortable truths are accepted, the next step is to search for ways to mitigate the negative consequences of the North's nuclearization.

In general, international sanctions probably do more harm than good. But sanctions that reduce North Korea's access to nuclear and missile technology and components should be maintained and strengthened. Broad international support for continuing "narrow" sanctions of this sort will be relatively easy to secure. These sanctions will not entirely block North Korea from advancing its nuclear program, but they are likely to slow progress significantly.

Beyond sanctions, the best and most realistic approach—or rather, the "least bad" approach—is to negotiate a freeze on Pyongyang's nuclear program. Such a deal would in some sense be a new version of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which succeeded in slowing the North's nuclear program. Under the framework, North Korea agreed to freeze operations and then dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors. In exchange, it was to receive regular shipments of crude oil and two light water reactors for electricity generation.

Under an updated version of the agreement, North Korea would impose a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. It would give inspectors access to its nuclear facilities. In exchange, Pyongyang would receive food, humanitarian, and development aid on a regular basis, along with political concessions—perhaps including some form of diplomatic relations or recognition. The agreement would explicitly state or implicitly accept that North Korea could keep its existing nuclear devices.

It is possible—likely, in fact—that the North Koreans would try to cheat (as they did from 1994 to 2002, in the days of the framework). But the presence of foreign inspectors and the allure of international giveaways would make Pyongyang more careful—and thus far less successful in its secret attempts to improve its nuclear arsenal.

A compromise would be good for both sides. North Korea would retain sufficient nuclear devices for deterrence and would also receive the assistance that its economy needs. The United States and the international community would have less reason to worry about the North Korean threat. And at least the threat would not grow every year, as it does now.

Unfortunately, such a compromise does not appear likely under current political conditions. In the United States, any president who attempted to forge a bargain would invite massive attacks and be accused of paying off a blackmailer. And indeed, a compromise would make North Korea the first country to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, walk away from it, acquire nuclear weapons, and then receive generous rewards for its disregard of international law. Thus a compromise—no matter how reasonable—would carry great political risk for a US administration. Complicating things further, Washington is dominated by persistent and completely unrealistic hopes about sanctions. Hard-liners never tire of claiming that sanctions are just about to bear fruit.

North Korea under Kim Jong-un also seems uninterested in a compromise deal. The late Kim Jong-il apparently aimed only to produce a small number of nuclear devices for deterrence purposes, but the current leader seems determined to acquire a much larger arsenal, complete with delivery systems capable of hitting the continental United States. He is unlikely to consider any compromise before his ambitious goals are met.

Consequently, the situation is frozen. And that's sad. Every year wasted means North Korea develops more and better weapons and proliferation risks increase. But sooner or later, it will become undeniable that current policies are not working. The realization might come after some spectacular success in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program—the successful test of a long-range missile, perhaps. Whatever the circumstances, compromise is likely to gain ground at some point. And the sooner things change, the better. Placing a moratorium on North Korea's nuclear program might not be an ideal solution, but it seems the only realistic one.


On Korean Peninsula, “pragmatic steps toward ideal objectives”

"Pragmatic steps toward ideal objectives"—that was the motto of Henry L. Stimson, prominent US statesman of an earlier era. On the Korean Peninsula, eliminating nuclear weapons is an ideal objective. But reaching this objective poses severe obstacles, such as the isolationist and rather surreal nature of the North Korean regime, which guarantees there will be no domestic drive to denuclearize (at least not for now). Meanwhile, interactions between Pyongyang on the one hand, and Washington and Seoul on the other, have too often managed only to harm prospects for disarmament.

But this doesn't mean that one should surrender to despair. Rather, in accordance with Stimson's motto, a pragmatic approach might lead down brighter avenues.

Whether Pyongyang possesses nuclear weapons or not, other nations have to peacefully coexist with North Korea—just as, in the 1950s, China coexisted with the United States even though Washington occasionally issued nuclear threats or bluffs against Beijing. China had no choice but to live under the shadow of US nuclear weapons. It handled the threats sensibly and rode out the difficult times until it had built its own atom bomb—and even then it exercised restraint by establishing a policy of minimum deterrence. Later, Beijing normalized relations with Washington, putting aside for the time being the thorny issue of US weapons sales to Taiwan.

Likewise, because Washington had decided not to launch a military strike against Beijing's nascent nuclear weapons program, the United States had to accept the reality of a nuclear China. Eventually, China joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and became a responsible nuclear stakeholder, and Washington has managed to live peacefully with a nuclear China for more than half a century now.

China, the United States, and India don't necessarily accept the legitimacy of one another's nuclear deterrents, but they all manage to live with the reality of those deterrents. Since none of the three countries has the military ability to deny nuclear weapons to the others, each country endeavors to shape the others into responsible nuclear stakeholders.

The same logic should apply to North Korea. No country accepts Pyongyang's nuclear weapons on a political level. But the international community lacks a viable military means of eliminating the North's nuclear wherewithal. This leaves no choice but peaceful coexistence with Pyongyang.

"Peaceful coexistence" doesn't mean simply accepting whatever North Korea does. Rather, nations should take any possible action to shape Pyongyang's behavior—to encourage the North to behave more sensibly and responsibly. Whenever Pyongyang takes a reasonable step, such as its recent adoption of a limited no-first-use nuclear policy, the rest of the world should react positively. To be sure, North Korea probably modified its doctrine mainly to earn international acceptance of its nuclear weapon status, but stating an intention to use nuclear weapons responsibly still deserves commendation.

In July, the North announced a package of five preconditions for its participation in denuclearization. The United States and South Korea expressed no interest in embracing this "propaganda" from Pyongyang—and admittedly, some of the conditions do seem difficult to accept right now, especially the demand that US troops be withdrawn from the South. But, as argued by my roundtable colleague Chung-in Moon, not all of Pyongyang's conditions seem impossible to meet.

The North demanded, for example, that the United States neither attack nor intimidate the North with nuclear weapons. A demand of this sort could easily be an element of negotiations, as the United States has essentially no need to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against the North. In any event, the Obama administration is reportedly reviewing the viability of converting Washington's conditional nuclear no-first-use policy into an unconditional policy.

If the United States and South Korea keep in mind Stimson's motto, nothing prevents them from discussing at least some of Pyongyang's demands. And though total nuclear disarmament on the peninsula might be unrealistic in the short term, easing tensions and encouraging nuclear restraint are useful in themselves. Incremental nuclear disarmament (or at least nuclear arms control) is a pragmatic starting point for eventual denuclearization.

Political mistrust underlies every barrier to denuclearization on the peninsula. All parties should therefore pursue opportunities to enhance trust—rather than searching for reasons to do nothing. Pyongyang's nuclear program won't disappear by itself. Only constructive partnership can remove it.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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