Let North Korea go nu­clear

The Cato In­sti­tute’s Ted Galen Car­pen­ter on the risks of pun­ish­ing Py­ongyang

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - tcar­pen­ter@cato.org Ted Galen Car­pen­ter, a se­nior fel­low for de­fense and for­eign pol­icy stud­ies at the Cato In­sti­tute, is a co-au­thor of “The Korean Co­nun­drum: Amer­ica’s Trou­bled Re­la­tions With North and South Korea.”

Af­ter North Korea’s nu­clear test Tues­day, the West’s re­ac­tion has been as pre­dictable as it will be in­ef­fec­tive: lots of hand-wring­ing, calls for more sanc­tions, warn­ings of vague con­se­quences if North Korea con­tin­ues to vi­o­late U.N. res­o­lu­tions. As Pres­i­dent Obama said in his State of the Union ad­dress, the North Kore­ans’ provo­ca­tions “will only fur­ther iso­late them, as we stand by our al­lies, strengthen our own mis­sile de­fense and lead the world in tak­ing firm ac­tion in re­sponse to th­ese threats.”

Un­for­tu­nately, none of th­ese ac­tions will curb Py­ongyang’s nu­clear am­bi­tions.

For years, we’ve tried car­rots and, more of­ten, sticks with the Her­mit King­dom, to lit­tle avail. Even the 1994 agree­ment be­tween Washington and Py­ongyang that tem­po­rar­ily froze Kim Jong Il’s plu­to­nium pro­gram did not really con­strain the regime — it merely shifted to a par­al­lel ura­nium-en­rich­ment pro­gram. And North Korea has con­ducted two pre­vi­ous nu­clear tests, in 2006 and 2009.

It’s time for a new ap­proach. Af­ter all, the only thing more dan­ger­ous than a North Korea with nu­clear weapons is a nu­clear-armed North Korea with which the United States has no pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship. The na­tion might be­come a su­per­mar­ket for nu­clear tech­nol­ogy, weapons com­po­nents and even fully as­sem­bled nu­clear weapons, avail­able to any pur­chaser. Washington and its al­lies need to ac­cept that it may be too dan­ger­ous to try to iso­late a nu­clear power in­stead of try­ing to es­tab­lish a con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship.

In a sce­nario with no good op­tions, we may have to learn to live with a nu­cle­ar­armed North Korea.

Re­scind­ing sanc­tions would not be a huge loss. Those mea­sures have im­peded North Korea’s ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy, in­ter­fered with what­ever mea­ger trade its pa­thetic econ­omy gen­er­ates and crip­pled the coun­try’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial sys­tem. They have caused con­sid­er­able pain to or­di­nary North Kore­ans — famine and can­ni­bal­ism are not un­heard of — but have merely in­con­ve­nienced the regime.

Washington has re­peat­edly warned Py­ongyang that it faces grow­ing in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion un­less it re­lin­quishes its nu­clear am­bi­tions. But that ul­ti­ma­tum lacks cred­i­bil­ity, be­cause ev­ery­one knows that un­less China im­poses harsh sanc­tions, North Korea will never be truly iso­lated. The na­tion gets ex­ten­sive eco­nomic as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing much of its food and en­ergy, from Bei­jing. And Chi­nese of­fi­cials are not will­ing to turn their backs on a long-stand­ing ally, a buf­fer be­tween China and a U.S.-led East Asia. North Korea knows it, too, and has es­sen­tially called our bluff.

Hawks will cry, “Ap­pease­ment!” But we can’t lose per­spec­tive. North Korea’s em­bry­onic nu­clear ar­se­nal and slowly im­prov­ing mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties can­not di­rectly men­ace the Amer­i­can home­land. The United States has thou­sands of so­phis­ti­cated nu­clear war­heads that are gen­er­a­tions ahead of any­thing the North can muster. Py­ongyang’s lead­ers would have to be sui­ci­dal to as­sault the United States. Although mem­bers of North Korea’s elite are bru­tal and ruth­less, they aren’t that crazy. What strate­gists call “pri­mary de­ter­rence,” or prevent­ing an at­tack on U.S. shores, re­mains as ef­fec­tive and cred­i­ble as ever.

The cred­i­bil­ity of “ex­tended de­ter­rence” — Washington’s abil­ity to threaten dev­as­ta­tion of an ad­ver­sary that men­aces any U.S. ally — is more prob­lem­atic. Ja­pan, South Korea, Tai­wan and North Korea’s other neigh­bors worry that the United States might hes­i­tate to con­front a nu­clear-armed foe over a threat that’s con­fined to their coun­tries. That con­cern is le­git­i­mate, but the log­i­cal re­sponse is to de­velop or strengthen their own de­ter­rents, nu­clear or not, in­stead of re­ly­ing so heav­ily on U.S. se­cu­rity guar­an­tees. Although an arms race in the re­gion is not ap­peal­ing, it may be the most real­is­tic, ef­fec­tive re­sponse to Kim Jong Eun’s heated rhetoric.

North Korea clearly sees no ben­e­fit to en­gag­ing se­ri­ously in six-party talks with China, the United States, Rus­sia, Ja­pan and the South. Those talks went on in­ter­mit­tently be­tween 2003 and 2009, gen­er­at­ing false hope of a set­tle­ment while North Korean ne­go­tia­tors stalled, in­di­cat­ing that they might give up their nukes if enough fi­nan­cial aid and other ben­e­fits were of­fered. But as the talks droned on, Py­ongyang con­tin­ued its nu­clear pro­gram. Since April 2009, the ne­go­ti­a­tions have stag­nated. Mean­while, Seoul and Py­ongyang en­gage in tit-for-tat provo­ca­tions, from com­pet­ing mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers to ra­bid pro­pa­ganda cam­paigns. Ten­sions on the Korean Penin­sula are higher than they have been in many years.

A new re­la­tion­ship with North Korea is im­per­a­tive, and the United States must take the first step. In the 1980s, some in the State De­part­ment pro­posed that Bei­jing and Moscow rec­og­nize South Korea while Washington rec­og­nize North Korea. With the end of the Cold War, China and Rus­sia did es­tab­lish ro­bust diplo­matic and eco­nomic ties with Seoul. Still, we re­fused to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Py­ongyang.

Washington should be­lat­edly take that step. In ad­di­tion, we should en­ter into se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions with North Korea, China and South Korea to sign a peace treaty for­mally end­ing the Korean War. Such a treaty, a long-stand­ing North Korean de­mand, would pave the way for re­duced mil­i­tary de­ploy­ments on both sides of the iron­i­cally named Demil­ta­rized Zone be­tween the North and the South. Fi­nally, U.S. lead­ers should re­verse course on eco­nomic sanc­tions, end­ing most uni­lat­eral mea­sures — which bar vir­tu­ally all eco­nomic con­tact ex­cept for U.S. hu­man­i­tar­ian aid — and lead­ing, to­gether with Bei­jing, an ef­fort to roll back mul­ti­lat­eral sanc­tions. The ul­ti­mate goal should be to give North Korea a stake in be­hav­ing re­spon­si­bly as a nu­clear power.

No doubt, this will be dif­fi­cult. The op­pres­sive regime may be the most odi­ous government on the planet, with a hor­rific hu­man rights record. But iso­lat­ing the coun­try clearly has not worked. North Korea is not about to re­turn vol­un­tar­ily to nu­clear zero. Short of launch­ing airstrikes against all known and sus­pected nu­clear sites — a move al­most no se­ri­ous an­a­lyst rec­om­mends, since it would risk trig­ger­ing a full-scale war in East Asia — there is no ef­fec­tive way to com­pel Py­ongyang to aban­don its weapons pro­gram.

Washington has forged pro­duc­tive ties over the years with other im­pla­ca­ble foes. The Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ges­tures to China, for ex­am­ple, were bold and con­tro­ver­sial. For more than two decades, that coun­try had vil­i­fied the United States and made shrill threats. A de­cent re­la­tion­ship with Chair­man Mao Ze­dong seemed no more likely in the early 1970s than one with Kim seems now. But U.S. lead­ers took a chance, and it paid off. Like­wise, in the mid-1990s, the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion ended decades of un­re­lent­ing hos­til­ity to­ward Viet­nam. To­day, the United States has pro­duc­tive re­la­tions with both former en­e­mies.

Our cur­rent strat­egy risks a night­mar­ish out­come: a nu­clear-armed North Korea con­vinced that its ad­ver­saries are de­ter­mined to de­stroy it. Just as it is un­wise to cor­ner a dan­ger­ous an­i­mal, it is un­wise to alien­ate a bur­geon­ing nu­clear power. We­need to try a dif­fer­ent ap­proach — one that rec­og­nizes re­al­ity, how­ever un­pleas­ant that re­al­ity might be.


TVs at a store in Seoul showed im­ages last week of North Korea’s nu­clear test, which de­fied U.N. res­o­lu­tions.

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