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The Strategic Wisdom of Accommodating North Korea’s Nuclear Status

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The Debate

The Strategic Wisdom of Accommodating North Korea’s Nuclear Status

What if Washington came to terms with a nuclear North Korea but remained on the peninsula?

The Strategic Wisdom of Accommodating North Korea’s Nuclear Status
Credit: Flickr / John Pavelka

As the North Korean “crisis” continues to unfold, any negotiations, including the possible (albeit unlikely) Trump-Kim summit, represent a significant strategic opportunity for coming decades — even if today’s official policy goals are never achieved.

Pyongyang and Washington must come to terms with two realities: North Korea will not surrender its nuclear arsenal; the United States will not withdraw its support for South Korea. But once the U.S. policymaking apparatus accepts this, the aperture of the possible widens. By tacitly acquiescing to North Korea’s nuclear status — and in the process, securing concessions on advance warning and notifications, among other subjects — the United States could partially supplant China as a patron (in a limited sense), simultaneously shoring up peninsular stability and presenting China with a new security challenge on its own border, requiring the diversion of forces and materiel.

A North Korea no longer beholden to Beijing would dilute Chinese strategic attention, with the Yalu River joining the Western Pacific Ocean, Indo-Chinese flashpoints, Belt and Road, and mounting internal unrest as key security foci for the Central Military Commission. None of this requires in any way weakening the U.S. commitment to South Korea. Continued joint exercises and a military presence are key both for the United States’ overall Indo-Pacific posture as well as its readiness to defend Seoul if North Korea should renege or a more revanchist leader emerge. Nor does it mean abandoning U.S. nonproliferation obligations. This is the geopolitical jujitsu of nuclear recognition: rather than allow China to use North Korea as a wedge between Washington and Seoul, by dislodging North Korea from its current firmament it would be positioned as a potential threat to China as well, tying up forces and resources in the Northern Theater Command that might otherwise be deployed elsewhere. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo would have the freedom to turn their attention to the larger looming strategic issue: China itself.

If there’s a dividing line in the U.S. foreign policy community, it probably lies between those who think there is any prospect of the Kim Jong-un regime’s voluntary denuclearization and those who think such a thing impossible. Much of the debate around pursuing an ill-considered military option depends on this framing – the interventionists think North Korea will only denuclearize at gunpoint, whereas those opposed to intervention mostly agree but see such a goal as incommensurate with the cost.

Of course, North Korea – despite indicating some newfound willingness – will almost certainly never, ever dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Such weapons guarantee its existence as an independent state, and even if scholars like B.R. Myers are correct, and the regime’s sole raison d’état remains the promise of reunification, whether or not we like North Korea’s nuclear status doesn’t matter. North Korea will not surrender its nuclear arsenal without U.S. withdrawal from the peninsula, and that is a nonstarter both for moral reasons (abandoning South Korea) and geostrategic ones (conceding the peninsula to a Chinese sphere of influence).

But where the anti-interventionists (who are otherwise correct in their opposition to a pointless squandering of lives, resources, and goodwill) fall short is in depicting what form a non-disarmament U.S. policy toward North Korea should take. Tacit recognition of Pyongyang as a nuclear power at first seems, more or less, a nonstarter for a host of reasons, not least of which is the blow it might deal to nonproliferation efforts around the world. But North Korea is not as much of an outlier as it might otherwise seem. The United States has certainly not taken any action to halt the development of nuclear weapons in India or Pakistan, despite their nonadherence to global norms of nonproliferation. Perhaps their possession is defensible given that neither country signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but then so too would be North Korea’s, given their invocation of Article X and observation of the legal NPT withdrawal process.

There are significant drawbacks to outright recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. Even though by withdrawing from the NPT, North Korea did not violate international law per se, openly admitting that any country can a) exercise Article X and withdraw from the NPT and then b) develop and test a nuclear arsenal, without suffering consequences for it, sets a troubling precedent, to put it mildly. But it is still possible to pursue a policy of splitting the needle: quietly accepting (not officially, but through nonofficial or track II diplomatic efforts) North Korea’s nuclear status while refusing to officially condone it. Such a tacit form of acceptance would also allow the United States to potentially extract concessions from Pyongyang and allow it to maintain its nuclear arsenal, all of which would serve to reduce its reliance on China as a client state, and instead allow it to chart a more independent path, but one in which the United States, China, and South Korea would still be able to deter any major crises.

Indeed, the United States’ own actions and policies since 9/11 have done little to prove to anyone that disarmament is in their favor; the power of example is a compelling one for Pyongyang. Even in Libya, the one successful case of convincing a state to surrender its nuclear program, Gaddafi’s own fate in the Arab Spring suggests that any other nation ought to think twice before trusting the United States with the preservation of their regime in the wake of disarmament. Even the South China Morning Post, which has been toeing a Beijing line as of late, felt compelled to publish an opinion piece explaining “How North Korea’s nuclear weapons are helping to prevent war.” Current efforts by the Trump administration to gut the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and insist that Iran renegotiate “the Deal” imply that future U.S. governments will feel no compulsion to honor the diplomatic agreements made by their predecessors. As Phil Gordon points out, attempting to rewrite the JCPOA in order to dictate a similar arrangement to North Korea is more likely to end in zero effective nuclear agreements than two. In short: what deal could the United States possibly offer that would be worth them surrendering their guarantor of independence?

The concept of reunification is losing salience in South Korea. Their rising generation, which never witnessed a unified peninsula torn asunder and has grown up in the shadow of the demilitarized zone, cherishes its peace and prosperity, and sees little value in a destructive conflict to reunify the peninsula. Overall support for reunification has dropped more than 10 percent in the past four years, to only 57 percent of South Koreans of all ages in favor, and less than 30 percent of those in their 20s. South Korea has learned to live with a bellicose North Korea and a fortified DMZ. It shows little sign of revisionism or revanchism. While confederation remains a possibility, it seems some distance off (though as all observers of international affairs have come to know, the unexpected can unfold with startling rapidity).

China is not dissatisfied with the present scenario, in which North Korea drives the South and the United States further apart, torn by simultaneous needs for security assurances and action alike. As Stimson’s Yun Sun was quoted in the New York Times: “The Chinese enjoy the wedge North Korea is driving between South Korea and the U.S… and it will create a further rift between the allies.” The continued U.S. insistence on denuclearization and the North Korean refusal to contemplate it have left the two at an impasse, despite a promise of talks brokered by South Korea itself.

Here is where I part ways with John Mearsheimer. While he believes, rightfully, that North Korea will never denuclearize, both for reasons of their own national security and the relative untrustworthiness of the United States on this issue, he also thinks that preserving a separate North Korea as a “buffer state” remains a paramount interest of China’s. In fact, if Beijing had its druthers, the Korean Peninsula – denuclearized, unified, and with the U.S. presence removed for good – would be a fixture in China’s own sphere of influence. The continuing presence of an increasingly unpredictable Pyongyang is cause for alarm, rather than any sort of reliable ally. Oriana Skylar Mastro did an excellent job of debunking some of these myths earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, outlining the new Chinese calculus in Korean affairs:

Beijing may have previously been wary of a reunified Korea led by Seoul, but no longer. Some prominent Chinese scholars have begun to advocate abandoning Pyongyang in favor of a better relationship with Seoul. Even Xi has been surprisingly vocal about his support for Korean reunification in the long term, albeit through an incremental peace process. In a July 2014 speech at Seoul National University, Xi stated that “China hopes that both sides of the peninsula will improve their relations and support the eventual realization of an independent and peaceful reunification of the peninsula.”

…China’s likely strategic assertiveness in a Korean war would be driven largely by its concerns about the Kim regime’s nuclear arsenal, an interest that would compel Chinese forces to intervene early to gain control over North Korea’s nuclear facilities … Beijing is also concerned that a reunified Korea might inherit the North’s nuclear capabilities. My Chinese interlocutors seemed convinced that South Korea wants nuclear weapons and that the United States supports those ambitions. They fear that if the Kim regime falls, the South Korean military will seize the North’s nuclear sites and material, with or without Washington’s blessing. Although this concern may seem far-fetched, the idea of going nuclear has gained popularity in Seoul. And the main opposition party has called for the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula-an option that the Trump administration has been reluctant to rule out.

It’s hard not to conclude that while China is content with a Kim in Pyongyang, it is much more worried about that same regime possessing nuclear weapons. What makes an adversary uncomfortable is not inexorably a net positive for the United States, but in this case, it might well be. David Lai makes the case for “solving the North Korea problem the Chinese way”; in other words, first normalizing relations with Pyongyang before backing Chinese efforts at disarmament. This seems a wise course of action. Much as China has, until recently, only half-heartedly cooperated with sanctions resolutions on North Korea, so too will the United States cooperate with a Chinese-led denuclearization push. But such a process needn’t be a hasty one.

The only way accepting North Korean nuclear weapons would be a net strategic gain, however, is if there is little-to-no change to the U.S. posture in South Korea. Acknowledging the North’s nuclear status does not mean dismissing the threat it would continue to pose to the South, and our forward presence there is a vital strategic asset to the United States in an era of growing Pacific salience. Rajan Menon has proposed a similar end to the denuclearization push, but whereas he proposes that this be accompanied by “an end to patrols over South Korea and international waters off North Korea” and “a reduction in the frequency of U.S.-South Korean military exercises,” such changes would ultimately defeat the purpose of changing our North Korean nuclear policy.

It’s important, too, to condition any U.S. acknowledgement on North Korea making concessions. There is a broad range of requests that would represent positive policy outcomes, depending on the executive branch’s preferences. Advance notice of missile and nuclear testing (or even adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), establishing a “hotline” linking Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo for crisis management, visible human rights changes like work camp prisoner releases or allowing humanitarian workers into the country, withdrawing artillery from the Kaesong Heights – some combination of these or others should be sufficient to justify changing U.S. policy toward North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

It’s rare that a nation is presented with a win-win-win scenario, but if bold enough to accept this manageable additional risk, the United States can emerge from this missile crisis in a stronger strategic position than before, with an adversary forced to reinforce an additional front and with our own hand strengthened. While the Trump-Kim summit – and indeed, any diplomatic efforts whatsoever – might now be a flight of fancy, with the ascension of John Bolton to national security advisor, negotiations remain the single best means of resolving the current Korean crisis. The United States stands to gain much: not least of all, avoiding a needless war.

Graham W. Jenkins is an all-source intelligence analyst with a federal contractor, conducting structured analysis and assessments in support of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of his employer, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.