James Holmes

Dealing with North Korea – What Comes Next?

Given the irreconcilable positions on denuclearization and levels of mistrust, it will be a long, tough road.

Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Terence Roehrig, a Professor in National Security Affairs and the Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also a Research Fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard University in the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom. The views voiced here are his alone."

Barring a miscalculation or accident, in the next few weeks tension levels will begin to decrease along with continued assessments of what happened and the motives of the new Kim Jong-un regime.  Yet, the more important question is what’s next in dealing with North Korea.

Several key parameters shape any future policy toward North Korea.  First, Pyongyang is unlikely to relinquish its nuclear weapons capabilities.  Nuclear weapons have become a core element of its security strategy and the lesson to North Korean leaders from Iraq and Libya is that regimes without nuclear weapons are vulnerable to a take-down. 

Second, despite Pyongyang’s hopes, the international community will not accept it as a nuclear weapons state.  A nuclear North Korea threatens regional security, sends the wrong message to others trying to acquire nuclear weapons, particularly Iran, and seriously weakens the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Third, military action against the North Korean nuclear program is unlikely.  A military strike against North Korean nuclear facilities would be very dangerous, possibly setting off a chain of events that could wreck the peninsula. South Korea has made absolutely clear that it will retaliate if North Korea initiates some type of provocation but a direct military strike to eliminate its nuclear program is unlikely. Finally, despite some indications of unhappiness with Pyongyang’s actions, there are limits to what China is willing to do to exert pressure on North Korea.  To be clear, Beijing has not been happy with North Korea’s behavior but the historical bonds and strategic interests between the two countries make it unlikely China will turn up the heat. 

So once the current tensions die down, where do we go from here?  Many have called for increased dialogue with North Korea. The United States has had a few low level meetings with the North’s UN delegation with little progress. Given the collapse of the 2012 Leap Day Deal, Washington is unlikely to expend much capital to begin high level talks.  Fittingly, South Korea will likely take the lead in beginning a dialogue with Pyongyang. Throughout the past few weeks, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has talked about engaging North Korea through a trust-building process.  Pyongyang has not said much about these efforts but recently rejected talks as a “cunning ploy.” Thus, it is not clear North Korea is interested in talking just yet.  Dialogue is a good direction; talks need not be appeasement and help to increase our understanding of the regime and its new leader. Yet given the irreconcilable positions on denuclearization and levels of mistrust on both sides, it will be a long, tough road.