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Where Pessimism Is Realism: The Korean Peninsula

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The Debate

Where Pessimism Is Realism: The Korean Peninsula

When it comes to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, pessimism is realism.

Where Pessimism Is Realism: The Korean Peninsula
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Speaking briefly with reporters on August 3 before a security conference in Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly acknowledged that there is a long way to go between now and the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea.

Pompeo deserves accolades for recognizing how thankless these negotiations have been — and no doubt will continue to be. Yet by stressing the elimination of North Korea’s entire unconventional weapons programs, U.S. President Donald Trump has set his administration up for failure.  

Despite universal pessimism in Washington, D.C., the foreign policy establishment continues to talk as if the idea is attainable. There is an unwillingness from many in the Beltway to accept reality and to say it openly. And the reality has been clear for years: CVID is a fantasy. The sooner U.S. officials can endure the pain of acceptance, the sooner U.S. policy can move on from the abject failure that has characterized it for decades.

The Trump administration has three broad options on the table.

The preventive use of U.S. military force against Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction and is one option, but it would be such a catastrophic act of folly that it should be shelved deep in a Pentagon storage room. The risk of a regional armed conflict sparking from a U.S. military operation is simply too high for the White House to give it serious consideration. Because there is no guarantee Washington could control the ladder of escalation during hostilities, there is no assurance that even a limited, targeted military strike on a single facility would restrain the Kim regime from retaliating. Never in history has another country launched a bombing operation on a nuclear-armed state; for Washington to break this precedent would be to wager the lives of millions on the assumption Kim Jong Un would back down.

A return to the maximum-pressure campaign is another possibility, but recent developments lead one to conclude that reverting to the status quo is unlikely to force any real change in Kim’s behavior.  

It took only a few hours after the Trump-Kim summit for Chinese officials to call for a loosening of the U.N. sanctions architecture, the core pillar of the administration’s pressure strategy. Indeed, sanctions enforcement is less stringent today than it was months ago. Chinese customs officials have turned a blind eye to delivery trucks driving across the China-North Korea border. Russian businesses continue to hire North Korean laborers despite a Security Council ban on new contracts. And last month, Beijing and Moscow blocked a U.S. attempt at the Security Council to “order an immediate halt to all transfers of refined petroleum products” to North Korea for the remainder of the year.

Unless the U.S. Treasury Department is prepared to deepen a trade war with the world’s second-largest economy by cutting off Chinese banks from the U.S. financial system, a return to a maximum pressure strategy will be weaker than its previous iteration.

There is, however, a more workable third option available: a framework of dialogue and deterrence.

At the same time U.S. diplomats get to work negotiating a far more achievable diplomatic settlement, Washington and its allies would make it clear to the North that any irresponsible military action on their part would be met with a damaging response.

Similar to Washington’s experience with Pakistan and India in the 1990s, the best course of action at this phase in the game is for U.S. policymakers to accept the reality that North Korea will remain a nuclear power over the long term. Many in Washington will cringe at the concept of Kim Jong Un being able to possess nuclear capabilities, but unless Kim is suicidal — and there is absolutely no evidence he is looking for a fight that would inevitably destroy his country and annihilate his regime — the United States and its partners in East Asia will be able to leverage their collective military strength against Pyongyang, just as Washington did with Moscow and Beijing for over a half a century.  

Establishing a long-term deterrence model will certainly take work. The United States, for starters, will have to persuade the North Koreans that any military provocation on their part will be answered without the slightest hesitation. Fortunately, Washington has history on its side; over the 12 years North Korea has been a nuclear weapons power, the Kim regime has treated its “treasured sword” as a defensive shield to be coveted rather than an offensive weapon to be used unprovoked.

Just as the Trump administration focuses resources on deterring a nuclear North Korea, it should continue with the diplomatic track. Diplomacy, however, is not likely to succeed unless Washington is more grounded on what can be accomplished.  

Kim Jong Un has shown through his actions that he is as disinterested in denuclearization as his father was. But with appealing carrots, Kim may be open to an agreement that still meets the U.S. security interest of a more stable East Asia and provides him with enough confidence in his regime’s self-preservation. In effect, the United States would be willing to trade continuous political dialogue, steps toward normalization, and an incremental relaxation of U.N. sanctions in return for significant nuclear concessions from Pyongyang. The North Koreans would be required to return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Additional Protocol; ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and commit itself to a prohibition on the sale and export of any material remotely connected to WMD or ballistic technology (verified by a third party). Even more important, the Kim regime would be bound by a team of independent nuclear inspectors with the power to access any scientists, weapons manufacturers, documents, or facilities they wish to investigate. Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile program will also have to addressed; if Kim balks at eliminating the capability he already has, the United States should insist on a full and verified prohibition on additional missile production.

A prospective agreement such as this would not be a panacea. But as experts on the Hermit Kingdom often say, North Korea is the land of lousy options. It is the Trump administration’s job to find the least lousy in the bunch. The United States can either do the same thing it has been doing for over a quarter-century while expecting a different result, or it can accept the current state of affairs and attempt to make the best of an unenviable situation.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.