US policy must adjust to the reality that North Korea has a nuclear deterrent and won’t give it up. Last Monday, the UN Security Council—for the second month in a row—unanimously agreed to impose the toughest ever sanctions against North Korea following its sixth and largest yet nuclear test earlier this month. Kim Jong-un was so impressed by these sanctions that he waited until Friday before testing another Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which flew east over Japan, again demonstrating North Korea’s capacity to strike Guam, where nuclear-equipped US strategic bombers are stationed.
Economic sanctions will not convince Pyongyang to freeze, let alone dismantle, its nuclear program. Partly, this is because China, though it dislikes North Korea’s behaviour, is unwilling to impose pressure so great that the regime collapses and a unified Korea allied with the US arrives at its border. China resisted US calls for a total embargo on oil exports to North Korea for this reason (although one analyst has argued the North Korea could, in any case, supplement its domestic coal for oil via liquefaction if necessary). But even if China did impose severe economic pain on North Korea, it’s doubtful this would alter North Korean strategy. North Korea endured severe famine in the 1990s, in which around two million people may have died, but continued its nuclear program.
This is because the North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons as vital to its survival. That they should feel threatened is perfectly understandable. The US and North Korea are technically still at war, having signed only an armistice agreement in 1953; and the US has 35 thousand troops stationed in South Korea. The US has moreover demonstrated its willingness to overthrow enemies which lack nuclear weapons, such as Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Domestically, nuclear weapons are also an important source of legitimacy for the regime and are now enshrined in North Korea’s constitution.
Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has said that the US maintains the option of preventive war to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat, should diplomacy fail. This option had little credibility before North Korea acquired the ability conduct a nuclear attack on the continental US, but it must now be absolutely taken off the table. There is no guarantee that an orchestrated attack would succeed in wiping out all North Korea’s nuclear forces, especially its mobile platforms. Moreover, North Korea has enough conventional artillery aimed at South Korea to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in the first phase of a conflict. The US alliances with South Korea and Japan, both of which oppose preventive war, would be irreparably damaged.
Conducting a limited strike against North Korean targets on the assumption that North Korea would only use nuclear weapons if the regime’s survival was threatened would be reckless. North Korea would find it difficult to distinguish between a limited strike and the prelude to a larger operation. North Korea would also face the dilemma that if it fails to use its nuclear weapons at the start of a conflict, it may lose them. It might not even be suicidal for North Korea to use its nuclear weapons: North Korea’s ICBMs give it the capacity to attack South Korea, Japan or Guam with nuclear weapons to resist an invasion, while maintaining the threat of attacking the US mainland should war continue.
Unpleasant as it may be, there are no credible options for denuclearising North Korea in the foreseeable future. Rather than continuing to pursue North Korea’s ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament’, the focus of US policy must now shift to reducing the risk of conflict and limiting North Korea’s nuclear program.
To start, Trump must clearly communicate to Pyongyang that its goal is not regime change. Unfortunately, his administration has delivered mixed messages on this point. In July, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that the most dangerous aspect of North Korea’s nuclear threat was ‘the character who holds control over them’. Trump should also rule out preventive war. In the long-term, the US should also switch to a no-first-use nuclear posture (concerningly, it appears the nuclear posture review underway may be going the other direction, toward the acquisition of smaller, more ‘usable nukes’).
Moving forward, US diplomats should use China and Russia’s recommendation of a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing in exchange for halting US-South Korea military exercises as the starting point for a larger agreement to implement regional crisis management and confidence-building measures, along the lines of those described by Michael Swaine. Agreeing to the suspension of military exercises would be a strong card to obtain greater cooperation from China. To minimise possible damage to US alliances with South Korea and Japan from this apparent concession, Trump must make clear that the US nuclear umbrella will continue to apply and that military exercises will recommence immediately if North Korea reneges on its agreement. (Refraining from threats to end the US-South Korea free trade agreement would also help.)
This doesn’t mean accepting a nuclear North Korea. But maintaining denuclearisation as a precondition for talks is counterproductive. North Korea has leverage, and some concessions will need to be made to reduce the risks of nuclear conflict, which must be the ultimate goal.
Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.