The United States has insisted for decades that it will not accept a nuclear North Korea. But this position is becoming increasingly untenable given increasing evidence that Pyongyang has developed a nuclear capability. Between July and September 2017, the Hermit Kingdom conducted multiple successful missile launches and its sixth nuclear test. The UN Security Council responded by unanimously adopting additional sanctions targeting North Korea in hopes that the “strongest measures ever imposed on North Korea” will push Kim Jong-un toward denuclearization.
Unfortunately, economic sanctions against North Korea will not be sufficient to coerce Pyongyang to denuclearize, given that the Kim regime has equated maintaining and developing its weapons program with survival. Unless U.S. policymakers are willing to increase the means applied to counter North Korea’s unlimited goal, they should adjust U.S. political aims to be more commensurate with the means that the United States is prepared to apply.
Originally founded to deter U.S. military intervention, North Korea’s nuclear program has since become even more inextricably linked with the regime’s survival, despite international calls to disarm. The demise of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi after they eliminated their respective weapons programs under U.S. pressure reaffirmed Kim’s belief that capitulating to the U.S. on nuclear weapons will lead to the end of his regime. A robust nuclear weapons program that can credibly threaten the continental United States, therefore, is vital to the continued existence of North Korea, making its development a goal Kim will not relent on.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Policymakers should not be surprised, then, that economic sanctions have not (and will likely never) compel Pyongyang to engage in negotiations for denuclearization. Effective economic sanctions require the cost of defiance to be greater than the cost of compliance and, most importantly, have well-defined, limited goals. Kim Jong-un currently finds the costs of enduring economic sanctions to be lower than that of relinquishing his weapons, which, he believes, will lead to him losing his power and life. The result is a mismatch between the limited means the United States is willing to dedicate and the unlimited value Kim places on his survival. Given that sanctions are a limited tool, they alone are unlikely to coerce Pyongyang into denuclearizing.
This inherent imbalance is further complicated by China’s reluctance to fully pressure Pyongyang. Beijing has a strategic interest in not leaning harder on Kim, whose already-unstable regime could collapse under too much economic pressure. Such nightmarish scenarios keep Xi Jinping awake at night: the influx of North Korean refugees flooding across the Yalu River, and the likely reunification of the Korean peninsula under the South Korean flag, removing the buffer that keeps U.S. influence at bay. These geopolitical considerations undermine the efficacy of sanctions, further limiting their ability to influence Pyongyang’s decision making.
Confronted with a foe who equates having nuclear weapons with survival, the United States has two options: adjust means or aims. By substantially expanding the means it is willing to apply to the situation, the Trump administration can take a drastic step to try and force denuclearization, through a preventive strike. This would come at a high price. Pyongyang would almost certainly retaliate against South Korea (and possibly Japan) with devastating artillery, resulting in “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of, casualties” for U.S. allies and Americans in the region. Any unilateral military action could also permanently damage the U.S. alliance with other regional actors, particularly since South Korean President Moon Jae-in made clear that any military action on the Korean peninsula would require South Korea’s consent. Moreover, a preventive war could invite Chinese intervention if Beijing believes the United States aims to reunify the peninsula under South Korean leadership.
Option two is for Washington to adjust its political aims to be more limited given the means it is willing to commit. Instead of insisting on denuclearization, for example, the United States should focus on stopping Pyongyang from conducting further tests or developing new weapons technology. Such negotiations are more realistic — North Korean leaders have previously demonstrated interest in dialogue with the United States as long as the focus of the conversation is not on denuclearization.
Pursuing the second option would require the United States to recant its stance and accept a nuclear North Korea. Although such a scenario may be anathema to some, it is likely less dangerous than the status quo of provocative rhetoric between Trump and Kim. Moreover, dropping insistence on denuclearization would allow the United States to focus its efforts on deterrence. Despite current rhetoric, Kim is neither irrational nor suicidal—he understands that using nuclear weapons against his adversaries would invite annihilation. By focusing on defensive deterrence capabilities, the United States can demonstrate to allies continued U.S. commitment to the peace and stability of the region without provoking Pyongyang unnecessarily.
North Korea is often considered the land of bad options. But policies that focus on sanctions in hopes that Kim will be coerced into negotiations are doomed to fail. Economic sanctions are an insufficient tool to combat Kim’s relentless resolve to keep his nuclear weapons and maintain power. The United States needs to decide whether it is willing to increase the means required to achieve a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, or limit its political aims to a more feasible goal.
Theresa Lou is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Master’s student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. A version of this piece appeared originally at the Georgetown Security Studies Review.