Nearly 20 years have passed since Victor Cha and David Kang conducted their seminal study on the North Korean nuclear problem through a social science lens. Although the overall situation has changed somewhat during that time, their central argument remains valid – that is, as long as mutual deterrence is working, engagement represents a better strategy for achieving peace than unnecessary arms competition.
The key difference between now and 20 years ago is that in the early 2000s the probability of a preemptive attack by North Korea was considered acceptably low due to its military inferiority. Today, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have swiftly expanded, Pyongyang could resort to increasingly reckless behavior, such as a preemptive or preventive nuclear strike, if it feels politically cornered and believes it will be placed in a disadvantageous position in the future. In particular, North Korea is currently concentrating its efforts on the development of tactical nuclear weapons capable of successfully destroying critical South Korean air bases and ports, which would both prevent the reinforcement of U.S. forces during wartime and isolate South Korea from its allies.
The situation is made more serious by the fact that South Korea might also be tempted to engage in preemptive or preventive attacks. In particular, non-nuclear-armed South Korea is more vulnerable than ever to preemptive nuclear strikes by North Korea. Therefore, the best strategy for South Korea is to detect imminent North Korean nuclear attacks and destroy its missiles and launchers preemptively. Indeed, South Korea’s counter-nuclear strategy includes the concept of preemptive attack. In addition, if North Korea continues its unrestrained nuclear development, South Korea might seriously consider a preventive war before the situation worsens. In fact, some in South Korea regret that the United States and South Korea did not carry out a preventive attack during the early 1990s, before North Korea completed its nuclear arsenal.
Reducing the Threat: The Case for Arms Control
Now is the time to engage in an uncomfortable but realistic debate concerning the management of North Korea’s nuclear threats and the reduction of the risk of inadvertent war on the Korean Peninsula. There are two distinct options in this regard. The first is to allow South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons. This option offers strategic advantages to South Korea because, proponents argue, “such a move would protect South Korea against the North Korean threat and help the country manage its other long-term security problem: how to retain political independence in a region where China wields ever-greater power and influence.” However, there is always a risk that North Korea would launch a preventive attack while South Korea was arming itself with nuclear weapons. Moreover, this option would likely prompt China’s participation in the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which would increase instability across East Asia. In sum, this nuclear option might address some problems, but it could also make others far worse.
The second option is arms control between the United States and North Korea. As seen in the U.S.-USSR/Russia experience, if mutual deterrence is operational, arms control represents an effective way of restraining an adversary’s uncontrolled arms buildup, increasing transparency, and thereby reducing the risk of unwanted war.
Yet this option has not been actively discussed as a policy alternative due to the risks associated with a North Korea-U.S. arms control regime. In particular, pursuing arms control with North Korea may imply that the United States recognizes North Korea as a nuclear power, which would leave U.S. allies in East Asia exposed to the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear missiles. As a result, as some analysts posit, those allies could seek to acquire nuclear weapons as a self-protection measure. Furthermore, if North Korea were recognized as a nuclear-armed state, such recognition would shake the foundations of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. This might encourage other potential proliferators to believe that even if they undermine international norms, they will get to keep their nuclear weapons if they are able to withstand sanctions for a certain period of time.
However, North Korea-U.S. arms control should be recognized as a significant subject for discussion because the benefits that it could offer arguably outweigh the above-mentioned risks. For instance, it could serve to prevent North Korea from continuing to increase its nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, achieving increased transparency on both sides through a verification regime would have a significant positive impact on the predictability of each side’s intentions and capabilities. The improvement in relations between Washington and Pyongyang likely to result from arms control would have a positive effect on the geopolitics of U.S. involvement in East Asia.
Arms control is also a highly feasible policy alternative because North Korea appears to be strongly in favor of it, both politically and strategically. To date, North Korea has insisted that the United States be its counterpart in arms control talks rather than South Korea. There are two reasons for this insistence. First, through engaging in arms control with the U.S., Pyongyang hopes to leverage its existing capabilities to establish itself as an official nuclear power and force an end to Washington’s “hostile policy.” The major North Korean objectives during any arms control negotiations with Washington include a moratorium on South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises and a reduction in the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, measures that would help the Kim regime’s long-term survival.
Second, from an ideational perspective, North Korea wants to achieve equal status with the United States. North Korea portrays itself as an anti-imperialist nation surrounded by the U.S. and its followers. Being recognized as a nuclear power through arms control with the U.S., building an equal relationship with Washington, and reducing the U.S. threat to North Korea are all imperative steps with regard to realizing North Korea’s identity and achieving its ideological goal of “the complete victory of socialism in the northern half of Korea.”
This being the case, how can the United States leverage the impact of arms control to achieve strategic stability on the Korean Peninsula while mitigating risks?
First, any attempts to achieve arms control between the two sides should begin with less comprehensive measures. In the context of North Korea-U.S. arms control, the level of confidence with regard to each side’s intentions is particularly low due to North Korea’s repeated failure to fulfill its promises stemming from prior arms control negotiations (from the U.S. perspective) and due to the potential impact of a deep nuclear reduction on North Korea’s deterrence capability (from the North Korean perspective). To alleviate such concerns, moderate arms control measures – such as capping further development rather than deep arms reduction – should be implemented first in order to mitigate the impacts of either side’s violations.
Second, a low-level verification regime could be considered a good first step for both sides. To date, all attempts at arms control negotiations with North Korea have ultimately failed due to the issue of verification. An intrusive verification regime would reduce the likelihood of potential cheating on the part of North Korea, although it would also increase the security costs for North Korea due to creating a security-transparency dilemma. In addition, Pyongyang may be concerned that nuclear weapons inspections may inadvertently reveal information about the North Korean nuclear force’s bureaucratic incompetence and organizational weaknesses. Fortunately, if the two sides opt for less comprehensive arms control, the introduction of less intrusive verification measures is possible. In this case, an arms control agreement could be more easily reached.
Third, the United States should control the speed with which incentives are provided so as to ensure that North Korea remains both politically and strategically motivated to continue the process. Indeed, in the past, North Korea has consistently applied the tactic of failing to implement the outcomes of negotiations after collecting the incentives it desires. In light of this, it seems likely that Pyongyang may once again seek to exploit the extremely complex nature of the arms control process and could renege on its commitments at some point in the arms control process. Therefore, the United States should carefully assess the form and timing of any incentive provision in order to ensure that Pyongyang remains motivated to comply with the deal. In this respect, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew’s point regarding the nuclear deal with Iran is worth noting: “If Iran does not keep its word, we have preserved all our options, including economic and military tools, to make sure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Fourth, Washington needs to draw a clear red line regarding the issue of U.S. forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has consistently sought the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. Yet, if U.S. forces were to withdraw from the Korean Peninsula after an arms control agreement was reached, South Korea and Japan would both be strongly motivated to build their own independent nuclear forces. Furthermore, on the Korean Peninsula, either South Korea or North Korea could be incentivized to engage in preemptive or preventive actions due to the resultant power vacuum in order to achieve a strategic upper hand. Therefore, the United States must persuade North Korea that the presence of its forces helps to maintain regional stability and security in Northeast Asia, and further, that North Korea-U.S. arms control will only be possible if U.S. forces remain on South Korean soil.
For the last three decades, all efforts to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea have proven ineffective. Unfortunately, the longer North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are allowed to grow, the greater the risk of war becomes. As an alternative to letting the present situation continue unimpeded, the arms control approach is worth considering, as it could cap North Korea’s nuclear development and also lay the groundwork for the gradual denuclearization of North Korea. Furthermore, the United States can provide Pyongyang with strong political and strategic motivation to participate in arms control negotiations and fulfill its promises in good faith. If the U.S. carefully prepares for the risks that may be associated with arms control, it will be able to significantly reduce North Korea’s nuclear threat and so take an important first step toward denuclearization.