U.S. may have to rethink its approach to North Korea

Jonathan Cheng
The Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2019

SEOUL—A year of intense diplomacy, including the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, has helped dial back tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A second summit is now being planned for late February between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But so far diplomacy has yielded little on one of Mr. Trump’s top foreign-policy priorities: Mr. Kim appears no more willing to give up his nuclear program than he was before engagement began more than a year ago.

On January 1, Mr. Kim said in a New Year’s address, without elaborating, that he isn’t producing nuclear weapons, but he offered no suggestion that he was willing to discuss his existing arsenal, and he repeated demands for sanctions relief from the United States.

In December, North Korea said it wouldn’t give up its nuclear arsenal unless the U.S. first removed nuclear threats in any “areas from where the Korean Peninsula is targeted.” The vast majority of U.S. nuclear warheads are stationed in the continental United States and are capable of targeting North Korea.

A few weeks earlier, North Korea had said it could resume open development of its nuclear program if U.S. economic sanctions against the country remained in place.

For an increasing number of policy makers and North Korea watchers in Washington, this all raises a thorny question: What can the U.S. do about a North Korean state that may never give up its nuclear weapons?

The official U.S. diplomatic stance leaves little room for talking about North Korea as an established nuclear-weapons -possessing state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent interviews has reaffirmed the U.S. policy goal as the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” a variant on the U.S.’s long-cherished goal of CVID—the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (or “denuclearization”) of North Korea.

But while U.S. government officials involved in the diplomatic efforts haven’t yet ruled out Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, some North Korea experts in Washington say it is time to face an unpleasant reality: that North Korea, having invested heavily in its nuclear program for decades, isn’t going to give up its arsenal now that it is at the finish line.

These experts recommend de-emphasizing, or even abandon-ing, the goal of dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, and instead of trying to manage a nuclear North Korea in hopes of pre-venting a miscalculation that could lead to an unwanted nuclear showdown.

“Nobody is happy about this outcome, but unfortunately it’s the world we live in,” says Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and part of a small but growing circle of mostly younger nuclear- and foreign-policy specialists calling for what they say is a more pragmatic assessment of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and intentions.

These experts consider the goal of denuclearizing North Korea to be unrealistic. Setting this goal aside, they argue, would open the door to long-overdue policy discussions, such as how to ensure that North Korea manages its nuclear arsenal in a responsible manner and doesn’t sell its components or expertise to other countries or nonstate actors.

“When a country becomes a nuclear-weapons state, you find a common ground in managing the relationship and transparency, like we learned to do with the Soviets and the Chinese,” says Mr. Mount. “Every week we spend on an unrealistic attempt to disarm North Korea is one where we’re not managing the threat from North Korea,” he says. “There is a range of practical and pressing threats that emanate from North Korea that…are being neglected while we chase this fantasy.”

James Clapper, a former U.S. director of national intelligence, has expressed similar views about how to approach the regime in Pyongyang. The North Koreans are “not going to give up their nuclear weapons,” he said in a speech at a 2017 forum in Seoul. Mr. Clapper urged U.S. policy makers to consider opening a de facto embassy in Pyongyang, perhaps in exchange for a more modest goal, such as a verifiable halt to nuclear and missile tests.

Other North Korea experts and U.S. policy makers counter that it’s premature and inappropriate to even be talking about North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. These experts believe that securing a freeze on all nuclear and missile development, even if unlikely, is attainable — and could pave the way for an eventual rollback of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argues it is irresponsible to even publicly discuss the prospect of accepting North Korea as a nuclear- weapons-possessing state. It could open the door for U.S. allies South Korea and Japan to pursue nuclear weapons and spark an arms race in the region, she says.

“To suggest that we should think about living with a nuclear North Korea in aiding and abetting North Korea,” Ms. Kim says. “That’s exactly what they want to hear.”

Mr. Cheng is Seoul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. His op-ed was reprinted in Peacemeal, January/February 2019.

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