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This post is authored by Eric Brewer, deputy director and fellow at the project on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts addresses the U.S. nuclear posture in Northeast Asia, implications of North Korean nuclear and missile programs for U.S. extended deterrence commitments, operational and tactical dimensions of deterrence on the peninsula, and regional dimensions of stability. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at firstname.lastname@example.org for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.
The U.S. objective of a nuclear weapons free North Korea has thus far failed. Yet denuclearization—the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the means to produce and deliver them, and its other WMD—has remained a sticky concept among successive U.S. administrations. To its credit, the policy has resulted in a strong international consensus against the North’s nuclear and missile activities and, relatedly, a robust sanctions regime. But using those accomplishments as the key measures of success confuses means with ends. Since its first nuclear test over a decade ago, North Korea’s arsenal has expanded qualitatively and quantitatively. It now possesses ICBMs, thermonuclear weapons, and a growing nuclear and missile stockpile. Thus, denuclearization as a policy has a lot to answer for.
But what are the alternatives? Are they any better? And are there risks of moving away from denuclearization as the goal?
On the one hand, deterrence and assurance are still feasible and desirable. Decoupling fears raised by North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States and Pyongyang’s possible threats to use nuclear weapons for coercion and blackmail are valid concerns. The U.S. extended deterrent and its alliances with Seoul and Tokyo provide adequate foundations to adapt responses to address these potential new vulnerabilities. But what policy goal should the United States pursue while it works to prevent nuclear and conventional war on the peninsula, if not denuclearization?
The North’s expanding capabilities, the perception of heightened risk of (nuclear) war between the United States and North Korea in 2017, and the leader-led diplomacy between the United States, South Korea, and North Korea have led to renewed calls for approaches that shift the U.S. policy focus away from denuclearization. These other objectives include measures intended to foster conditions for greater stability and reduced risk of nuclear use, working toward a smaller deal that caps, rather than eliminates, the North Korean nuclear threat, and doubling down on bold, transformative diplomacy.
In the past, some such proposals have been summarily rejected by U.S. policymakers, in large part because of fears that they would signal “acceptance” of North Korea’s nuclear threat, and that a series of calamities would follow. Former National Security Adviser H.R McMaster echoed some of these in a recent interview. It is true that alternatives must grapple with this challenge, and that such a policy shift comes with risks. But it is worth examining what these risks might be, their severity, and whether they can be mitigated.
There are three common objections that focus on the nuclear nonproliferation consequences of “acceptance.”
1. Abandoning denuclearization would set a bad precedent and encourage others to adopt the North Korean “model” toward the bomb. According to this argument, if the United States drops its insistence on North Korea’s disarmament it will prove to other countries that they can wait out U.S. pressure. Washington—and by extension, the international community—will eventually give up and accept their nuclear status.
Of course, there are already other cases—India and Pakistan, for example—that arguably provide better examples to follow. But neither of these seemed to stimulate significant increases in proliferation motives among other countries. Moreover, the North Korea “model” is attractive to few, if any, nuclear aspirants. Few regimes would be willing to endure the type of economic deprivation and diplomatic isolation that North Korea has lived under for decades. Not even Iran sees North Korea as a viable path.
This argument also overweighs the degree to which countries debating their nuclear options take their cues from predecessors. Although a leader or government might draw inspiration from a state that successfully got the bomb, or use inconsistencies in U.S. policies as a talking point to defend their actions, this is not enough to guide policy or strategy (and a leader predisposed to wanting nuclear weapons will likely find the inspiration they desire anyway). More often, governments see their needs and risks as specific to their own strategic situation and circumstances. There are certainly reasons why Iran, Syria, or others might seek nuclear weapons, but “because North Korea got away with it,” is likely lower on the list.
2. Accepting North Korea’s arsenal and its expansion makes it more likely Kim will sell nuclear weapons or materials. Some fear that unless North Korea’s weapons are eliminated, there will always be a risk that its leadership will sell them abroad. A related argument holds that as North Korea’s stockpile increases it could be more willing to part with spare nuclear material, especially if it were in dire economic straits. There is good reason to worry: North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert until an Israeli strike destroyed it in 2007, the North apparently provided uranium hexafluoride to Libya in the early 2000s, and it has reportedly sold a variety of missile technologies to multiple countries, including Iran.
But there is not a direct and linear relationship between more nuclear weapons and willingness to sell them. More nuclear weapons would not alone change Kim’s risk calculus. That calculus is more about the chances he would be caught, and the penalties he would incur. On the first element of that decision (detection), the above examples suggest there is a realistic probability that the international community will pick up on these transfers eventually (whether that remains “good enough” for U.S. policymakers is another question). On the second element of that decision (penalties), it is hard to make the case that Kim believes he would suffer serious consequences. There have so far been no discernible costs imposed on the Kim regime that would signal that those brazen proliferation attempts are markedly worse than other provocations.
The good news, again, is that few countries would seek to partner with North Korea on nuclear weapons. If presumably they aren’t already economically or diplomatically isolated—or in a strategically desperate state—they have far more to lose in that endeavor than Pyongyang. The destruction and exposure of the reactor in Syria also probably does not instill much confidence in would-be recipients that they could get away with it.
Thus, the challenge is real, but bounded. The United States must continue to monitor for such transfers and consider how to make clearer the seriousness with which it would treat any nuclear or missile cooperation with North Korea. But Washington should not let this concern artificially constrain its consideration of alternative North Korea policy options.
3. Abandoning denuclearization as the goal would be unacceptable to our allies and increase the risk that South Korea and Japan would go nuclear. According to this argument, the dramatic reversal of decades of U.S. North Korea policy—the basic goal of which is strongly supported by Washington’s allies in the region—would up the pressure on South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons. By cementing North Korea’s nuclear status, allies would feel the United States has abandoned them and a shared strategic vision for regional security. Combined with the reality that the North Korean nuclear threat would now only grow, this would compel South Korea and Japan to develop their own independent nuclear deterrents.
But caution here is warranted. For starters, the region has already ticked through the “milestones” that were supposed to cause Japan and South Korea to go nuclear. These included North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, its testing of them, and its demonstration of an ICBM capability. Yet both Tokyo and Seoul remain non-nuclear. This suggests that the United States and its allies are better at adapting to changes in the security environment than they—and observers—often give themselves credit for. It also suggests that, to some degree, the North Korean nuclear threat is already baked into their threat perceptions.
Presumably, there would also be more to a new policy than just “not denuclearization.” Equally if not more important to shaping the reactions by South Korea and Japan would be how the United States arrives at and executes any policy shift. Is it sudden? Or are allies consulted along the way? Is it the result of a deliberate choice and replaced by an alternative policy deemed more necessary and likely to succeed? Or is it a de facto position reached over time? Perhaps the result of a series of attempts to secure smaller, interim deals with a mistaken assumption that they would amount to the larger goal of denuclearization? What, if any steps, does the United States take to bolster deterrence of North Korea and assurance of its allies along with such a policy? Is the goal of denuclearization eliminated from the lexicon entirely, or simply punted further afield in place of other more near-term objectives? The answers to these questions matter greatly for shaping a new policy less centered on denuclearization and managing associated risks of proliferation.
The arguments here are not an endorsement of abandoning denuclearization, nor do they advocate for any particular alternative. There are also additional objections beyond those mentioned that need consideration. Moreover, the risks of moving away from denuclearization are only one metric. Whether other policies are desirable and obtainable, and whether trends suggest that denuclearization might in fact be more likely in the future, matter as well.
But the analysis above demonstrates that an unwavering faith in the gospel of denuclearization is not supported by an objective evaluation of its track record, and that some of the fears of moving toward a new policy are overblown. Moving forward, a careful examination of the tradeoffs of different policy frameworks is needed (e.g. if the United States wants to transform the relationship with North Korea, what limits must it be willing to accept on its deterrence posture?), and consideration given to whether and how to sequence these frameworks.