Pragmatism, principle, and the North Korean dilemma

By Shen Dingli, June 10, 2016

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.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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