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.
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