US Should Accept a Nuclear North Korea
Although President Trump is not responsible for the complete failure of the US to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, his bellicose threats against North Korea and the acceleration of Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs have dangerously increased regional tension.
The conflicting messages emerging from the White House, the lack of coordination with the Department of Defense and the absence of effective diplomacy point to a total lack of a coherent US strategy to deal with North Korea. Therefore, it is time for the US to accept the reality that North Korea is a nuclear power. Short of a massive military attack on its nuclear facilities, which is unthinkable, no diplomatic efforts or incentives will compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal, as the history of the US-North Korean conflict has clearly demonstrated.
Instead, the US must now focus on diplomatic means to prevent North Korea from completing the development of a deliverable miniaturized nuclear warhead on an ICBM, which would put the US and its allies at an unacceptable risk. This must be the red line that the regime should not be permitted to cross, and it may well be the only concession that North Korean leaders will be willing to make in return for several concessions — especially the retention of their nuclear weapons.
The lack of a comprehensive US strategy to deal with the North Korean threat was sadly demonstrated by Trump’s off-the-cuff bellicose statement, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” — or his tweet that followed, suggesting, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
Defense Secretary James Mattis added fuel to the fire when he stated, “Any [North Korean] threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.” [emphasis added]
None of these threats deterred North Korea. On the contrary, Pyongyang responded by firing an ICBM that could theoretically reach the US, followed by exploding what is believed to be a hydrogen bomb that is hundreds of times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Pyongyang has concluded that the US will not go to war over its nuclear program because of the dire implications, which were echoed by several senior US officials.
The administration’s concerns about an attack are not limited to the horrifying devastation that such a war would inflict on the US and its allies, especially South Korea and Japan, but also the ominous destabilization of Southeast Asia that would put China and the US on a collision course, among other horrendous developments.
Furthermore, the US chose not to deploy additional naval and air assets to the area, which raised serious doubts in the mind of Pyongyang about the US’ credibility when threatening the use of force. Instead, the Trump administration pushed for additional sanctions, which North Korean leaders anticipated and have managed to live with for decades.
Despite US pressure, China is still unwilling to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. China can live with a nuclear North Korea; it does not want to see the collapse of the North Korean regime because it fears waves of refugees, and does not want an increased American military presence in its hemisphere.
Moreover, contrary to the US’ belief, China’s influence on Pyongyang is limited. North Korea will cooperate with China only up to a point. They will, however, stand fast to protect their nuclear weapons because they believe that regime survival rests on the possession of such weapons — as such, they will never put them on the negotiating table.
North Korea also knows that South Korea does not want any military conflagration, because it has the most to lose. South Korea has time and again indicated its willingness to negotiate with North Korea, even in the midst of the boisterous exchange of threats between Washington and Pyongyang, to the chagrin of Trump.
Contrary to the view expressed by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who stated that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war,” he is not. He knows that the US will not rush into a war unless he attacks the US or any of its allies’ territories, which he will not contemplate, knowing that his country could potentially be wiped out by massive US retaliatory strikes.
Finally, Trump’s warning, that “the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea,” would be impossible to implement, especially with China, whose trade with the US runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars. In any event, such a move would be counterproductive, as the US needs China’s support in dealing with North Korea.
To prevent further escalation of the conflict, the US needs to accept the new reality of a nuclear North Korea, just as it had come to terms with both India and Pakistan as nuclear powers; this created mutual deterrence, and brought an end to the conventional wars between the two countries.
Indeed, the real threat to the US and its allies does not emanate from North Korea’s possession of a nuclear arsenal, but from the development and deployment of ICBMs mounted with miniaturized nuclear warheads — these could reach not only US allies, but the US mainland itself. To remove this threat, the US should negotiate directly with North Korea and reach an agreement that would freeze further development of such technology, which China would certainly support.
North Korea may well accede through negotiations to this demand, as they can still claim to be a nuclear power and receive the recognition and respect of the international community, which they desperately crave.
In return, North Korea would require that the US end its belligerent policy towards the Kim regime, which has been in place since the end of the Korean war; that the US commits not to seek regime change, which was and still is the main motivator behind Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear shield; and that the US end its war games with South Korea and gradually remove the sanctions on the North.
The lifting of the sanctions is extraordinarily important to mitigate the humanitarian crisis that has been inflicted on 25 million North Koreans, especially women and children, for nearly seven decades. Although humanitarian aid is exempt from diplomatic sanctions, more than 10 million citizens in North Korea are undernourished and suffer from chronic food insecurity, which is tragically ignored or forgotten by the rest of the international community.
Under such a deal, North Korea would have to fully comply to every provision of the accord, rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty and adhere to the rules and requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency, especially on the stationing of monitors and stringent inspections to ensure full compliance.
Despite trying every conceivable approach to end the North Korean nuclear program, including sanctions, negotiations, military threats and isolation, none have worked — because Pyongyang is determined not to surrender its nuclear weapons and become vulnerable to regime change.
We must now accept the fact that North Korea is a nuclear power, and rely on nuclear deterrence, while normalizing relations in the process. Anything else is wishful thinking, and Kim Jong-un knows that only too well.