North Korea’s series of nuclear detonations and missile tests requires new diplomatic strategies – perhaps even liaison offices.
By Bennett Ramberg*
North Korea’s continuing nuclear dance with the ultimate weapon, déjà vu all over again, is becoming all too serious, and it’s time for Washington and allies think sensibly about how to deal with what they cannot change.
The North’s fifth detonation of an atomic device following the recent launch of a submarine ballistic missile and a slew of other rocket tests into the Sea of Japan add yet more layers to its mounting nuclear capacity. Coupled with the test of a space satellite, display of mobile solid fueled rockets and expanding nuclear weapons material production, it’s evident that Pyongyang is on the cusp of becoming a credible nuclear-armed state.
Less evident is how the international community intends to cope. Wedded to conviction that a nuclear North simply cannot be, the community seems stuck in a time warp. Despite the Kim regime’s nuclear persistence, the UN Security Council stammers with repeated condemnations and impotent sanctions: Pyongyang is in “flagrant disregard” and “grave violation” of resolutions. The body “deplores” missile tests that “contribute…to the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems and increase tensions.” It calls on member states to “redouble their efforts” to implement sanctions and the Kim government “must fully comply with [Council] obligations.”
Kim Jong Un is not listening and in no mood to listen. As a result a shift in strategy is now required – accepting the unacceptable conceding that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state not as a reward for bad behavior but as the reflection of reality. The challenge moving forward requires that new military and diplomatic means be put in place that better prevents Pyongyang from effectively gaming or using the bomb.
Thinking the unthinkable is not the natural inclination of the international community. Hoping against hope, the UN Security Council finds comfort in the ritual of resolutions and sanctions to reverse the North’s behavior. And it is not alone. The Washington Post recently reported that some former US government officials meeting with senior North Korean diplomats this year see a glimmer of hope with Pyongyang’s possible interest in resuming arms-control talks coupled with a peace treaty.
But moving Pyongyang off its nuclear course is a chimera. The uncomfortable fact remains that North Korea has violated every nonproliferation commitment it has entered: the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the 1992 North-South Korean peninsula denuclearization agreement, the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Six Party Talks nuclear elimination accord, and the 2012 “leap year agreement” to freeze nuclear and missile tests. The pattern of violations meshes with the North’s 2012 constitutional amendment that defines the nation as “a nuclear armed state,” confirmed at the party congress earlier this year.
Pursuing the illusion that talks, sanctions and UN resolutions make a material difference is dangerous wishful thinking. Such refusal to accept reality takes attention away from preventing the North’s coercive manipulation of the bomb or use. Although some take solace that for decades the nuclear taboo has overwhelmed the temptation for military application, the quixotic Kim regime does not reassure. The challenge going forward requires constructing a strategy that assures that Pyongyang never uses its bomb or gains from issuing threats.
Finding the right formula can draw from historical cases, but crafting the deal may be more challenging due to Pyongyang’s peculiar political culture. Then there is the fact that other entrants into the nuclear club were better connected with the world, tempering the risk of nuclear crisis. Unfortunately, dealing with the nuclear North raises more questions than answers.
Classically when an adversary gets the bomb concerned nations attempt to do the same. In response to the feared Nazi weapon, the United States raced for its own. Moscow spurted to catch the US. Then soon Britain and in time France followed as Washington spread its nuclear umbrella across allied Europe and Asia to prevent copycats. China pursued its nuclear arsenal in response to the United States while India and Pakistan today are bulking up nuclear wares to deter the other.
The end of the Cold War brought a dramatic reduction in the superpower arsenals including elimination of US weapons in South Korea. North Korea’s acquisition raises questions whether South Korea, like other nations under the nuclear gun, should start its own nuclear program.
Questions abound about whether the weapon would make Seoul more or less secure. Analysts must assess whether a South Korean weapon or return of US weapons would make Pyongyang more anxious and trigger happy. Nuclear weapons in the South also is an issue for neighbors. China might ratchet up its own program or turn a blind eye to the North’s development. Japan and Taiwan could reconsider nuclear abstinence. The broader nonproliferation regime could be threatened as a result. The United States could consider whether flouting its nuclear naval capacity already in the western Pacific would be the better brake on proliferation while still enhancing nuclear deterrence.
Alternatively, Seoul’s conventional deterrent backed by a strengthened US tripwire – for example, porting of US naval vessels and stationing conventionally armed strategic bombers in South Korea – might be sufficient to make Pyongyang think before issuing nuclear threats or worse. The Park government has boosted its conventional posture, in 2015 inaugurating a five-year defense plan that annually increases expenditure by 7 percent. Modernization includes longer-range missiles and state of the art F-35 aircraft. To buck up missile defenses, the United States, to the ire of a China alleging threats to its nuclear deterrent, is on track to deploy the sophisticated Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD.
Keeping nuclear waters calm requires more than a beefing up of deterrence but also an uptick in diplomacy to prevent nuclear crisis. Save for Israel and North Korea, all other nuclear-armed countries have diplomatic ties with adversaries. Relations have not been sufficient to prevent conflict generally, but they open the door to mute risks – in the nuclear realm, consider the diplomatic interface between Soviet-American officials in Washington during the Cuban missile crisis. On and off telephonic hotlines between the Koreas illustrate recognition that some form of direct contact is mutually beneficial. But an operating hot line is no substitute for a diplomatic presence in each capital.
For the North, an unconditional liaison office in Washington and US representation in Pyongyang would be a coup of sorts for the Kim regime and represent recognition that North Korea is a nuclear power. Surely the alternative – an isolated, paranoid, insecure, poorly informed nuclear Pyongyang on hair trigger is not good for anyone.
Many US nonproliferation and defense purists cringe at the notion of nuclear acceptance. And, Pyongyang could try to game nuclear “recognition” and demand concessions, for example, an end to the US alliance with South Korea, withdrawal of US forces, removal of US naval vessels from the Western Pacific, as well as economic assistance. Washington’s response must be a firm “no,” conceding nothing to a US/South Korean defense/deterrent posture absent meaningful reciprocation.
Granted, repeating the UN Security Council ritual of condemnation and calls for sanctions feeds the view that “at least we are doing something.” But the ritual avoids hard reality: Nuclear North Korea will be with us at least as long as the Kim dynasty remains. The time is overdue for planning on how to deal with the uncomfortable truth.
*Bennett Ramberg (PhD, Johns Hopkins; JD, UCLA) served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Administration. The author of three books on international politics, including what is considered the classic treatment of consequences of military attacks on reactors (Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy, University of California Press) and editor of three others, Ramberg has published in more than a dozen professional journals and magazines. His opinion essays have been published in major American newspapers including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.