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Breaking the North Korea Arms Control Taboo

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Breaking the North Korea Arms Control Taboo

A highly-ingrained taboo risks blinding rational alliance decision-making.

Breaking the North Korea Arms Control Taboo
Credit: North Korean military image via Astrelok/

Arms control is one of the more benign tools of statecraft available to governments grappling with hard security problems. It entails diplomatic agreements or external mandates to constrain the development, stockpiling, proliferation, and use of weapons — and in recent decades the emphasis has been on nuclear weapons. Whatever its effectiveness, the arms control option is not generally considered a particularly dangerous or disastrous one.

Not so in the community of Korea watchers, nor within the politics of the alliance between the United States and South Korea. On the contrary, there’s a highly ingrained taboo against arms control when it comes to North Korea, and it’s so strong that it risks blinding rational alliance decision-making.

In a recent article, Adam Mount and I argued that the August mini-crisis on the Korean Peninsula revealed that a more sustainable policy toward North Korea might involve South Korea taking the lead on alliance policy toward the North. Central to our argument was the belief that absent intervention of some kind, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs would mature and converge in a way that tempts greater North Korean adventurism and a future of more provocative crises than we’ve seen in recent years. Current U.S. and South Korean policy toward North Korea does nothing to disrupt this trajectory, which unduly burdens future U.S. and South Korean presidents with a much worse strategic situation than past presidents inherited. The Korean Peninsula’s status quo, in other words, is creeping toward crisis.

The Six-Party Talks (6PT) to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula had been defunct since 2008; in the intervening period North Korea not only walked away from the 6PT but openly declared them dead and gave themselves the status of a nuclear state in their constitution. Since the 6PT was the primary mechanism for taking action to unwind North Korea’s nuclear program and it no longer serves that purpose, we recommended considering arms control — in addition to denuclearization — as a topic on which South Korea or the United States might engage North Korea.

We were quickly greeted with cynicism and criticism from many (but not all) within the Korea watcher community, even while receiving praise from just about every other part of the foreign policy establishment. Why the contradictory reactions? And why would the Korea-watching community — ostensibly the group keenest to realize North Korean denuclearization — react so negatively to the mere peripheral mention of arms control (it was not the central point of the article)? There are three potential explanations.

The first is a strong bias among Korea watchers in favor of the status quo. Korea policy discourse does of course exhibit a powerful status quo bias. But is a mindless adherence to past decisions sufficient to explain an allergy to arms control? Such an explanation makes sense to the extent that governments control policy discourse; government officials are responsible for the status quo, and are invested in justifying their decisions to external audiences. But many Korea watchers are not part of (nor have ever been part of) either the U.S. or South Korean governments. And as much as they might like to, governments exercise very limited control of discourses about policy options.

The second possible explanation for an arms control taboo among Korea watchers is a shared, widespread preference for more hawkish and confrontational policies toward North Korea. Arms control is decidedly not aggressive, and decades of failed engagement and concessionary strategies toward North Korea have left most reasonable policy wonks (including me) frustrated and skeptical of anything resembling conciliation. Still, there are respectable voices that persist with dovish policy preferences in spite of evidence. Moreover, the decidedly hawkish administration of George W. Bush pursued strategies toward North Korea involving engagement and material concessions, proving that hawkish dispositions don’t necessarily determine hawkish policy prescriptions.

The third, and more likely, explanation for an arms control taboo is simply a misunderstanding; more precisely, the term “arms control” is loaded with specific connotations in a Korea context that are not necessarily accurate or widely shared outside of Korea watchers. One of the common refrains heard from the Korea milieu in response to our article was that arms control talks with North Korea would “give the North Koreans exactly what they’ve always wanted,” referring to de jure recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and negotiating the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. A Yonhap News Agency reporter who interviewed me about our article added commentary in his final report reflecting this common understanding: “North Korea has often demanded arms control talks with the U.S., claiming it’s already become a nuclear power.”

But this is not what arms control implies, and imbuing the term with this kind of meaning is at best presumptuous. Talking about capping, freezing, or otherwise constraining North Korea’s nuclear and missile development no more recognizes North Korea’s nuclear “status” than entering into talks with North Korea to denuclearize it (the prevailing approach). And the idea that certain topics — the U.S. military presence, military exercises, or anything else — would inherently be on the table for negotiating an arms control agreement is nonsensical; arms control no more necessitates discussion of U.S. military presence than did the 6PT negotiation processes. To claim otherwise ironically indulges North Korea’s desires. And what North Korea wants out of a dialogue doesn’t have to be — and historically hasn’t been — the same thing that we want. That hasn’t prevented dialogue in the past.

Of course, just because arms control talks with (or about) North Korea wouldn’t be strategic folly doesn’t mean that it would solve the North Korean nuclear problem. Nor is it likely that North Korea would even entertain such talks.  As I told the Yonhap reporter, and as my research on preparing for limited war with North Korea suggests, I’m quite pessimistic about what can be achieved through dialogue with North Korea.

Nevertheless, as part of a larger strategy even failed engagement can be useful. The day North Korea gets adventurous, the alliance needs to be prepared to fight back — even if with limited scope military campaigns. As that day becomes more likely, the U.S.-Korea alliance will more easily maintain the moral high ground if it’s already exhausted every opportunity for a peaceful path.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.