U.S. President Barack Obama stated clearly immediately following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test that “the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Far from achieving its stated national security and economic development goals, North Korea’s provocative and destabilizing actions have instead served to isolate and impoverish its people through its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities.”
There are three primary reasons that support President Obama’s statement that, indeed, the United States will never be able to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. First, the United States cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state for normative reasons; North Korea had signed onto the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state and then abandoned the treaty in order to pursue nuclear capabilities. Tolerating North Korea’s nuclear status would be equivalent to setting a precedent for other NPT signatories to violate the treaty.
Second, the United States cannot accept the North Korea’s nuclear weapons program because of the threat that a nuclear North Korea poses to South Korea’s security, both through possible extortion and potential use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with a conventionally stronger South Korea in which nuclear weapons are the North’s only real advantage. If North Korea attains a strike and survival capability against the United States, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will also come under considerable pressure in ways that will complicate military planning and political coordination within the alliance, even as the United States seeks to maintain its commitment to extended deterrence, which includes the premise that if North Korea were to use nuclear weapons, it would spell the end of the North Korean regime in relatively short order.
Third, political power in North Korea, a totalitarian state, is considerably more concentrated compared to other nuclear weapons states such as Pakistan. This means that internal North Korean decision-making on nuclear use would be unchecked and would ultimately depend on a single individual, Kim Jong-un, compounding the risks and dangers of living with North Korea with a survivable nuclear deterrent and direct strike capability on the United States.
It should not be surprising that the North Korean foreign ministry criticized President Obama’s statement, arguing that his denial of North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state “is as foolish an act as trying to eclipse the sun with a palm.”
But in this context, it is worth some reflection in Pyongyang about exactly what North Korea has accomplished since 2009, when the regime abandoned six-party negotiations and argued that the United States must first abandon its “hostile policy” toward North Korea and then pursue mutual nuclear disarmament. As a result, there has been almost no space for diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.
By taking advantage of the last American presidential transition to double down on nuclear development by conducting four tests since Obama’s inauguration in 2009, North Korea has made itself a threat to global security, while Myanmar, Iran, and Cuba were each able to take advantage of diplomacy with the Obama administration and establish more normal relations with the United States. It feels ironic and surreal when I recall conversations in Beijing with a Chinese Korea analyst on Election Day 2008, at which time the Chinese analyst asked: “Where will Obama visit first: Tehran or Pyongyang?” In this context, North Korea’s nuclear breakout—and Kim Jong Un’s decision to build his legitimacy on the nuclear accomplishments of his father and grandfather—will likely be regarded as an enormous strategic misjudgment.
The North Korean foreign ministry stated: “We will continue to take measures for increasing the nuclear force of the country in quality and in quantity to safeguard the dignity and the right to existence of the DPRK and ensure genuine peace from the U.S. increasing threat of nuclear war.” It is sobering and sad to think that one young man persists in raising the risks, costs, and likelihood of nuclear war at the possible cost of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives against the failing legitimacy of his own hereditary state.