Solving a problem always requires that you know what the problem is in the first place. With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094, this is a good time to ask: what does the world (or at least the United States and Europe) want from North Korea? In other words, what’s the foreign policy goal here?
As UNSC 2094 makes clear, the short answer is to get North Korea to end its nuclear weapon program. This would mean to stop testing nuclear weapons, verifiably dismantle any nuclear bombs it has already built, stop producing fissile material, accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (since it withdrew in 2003) and for good measure, stop testing and developing long-range ballistic missiles. South Korea has held this up as a policy goal since 1992 and President Park Geun-hye reiterated it this week. The United States also supports this goal, and since the second round of the Six Party Talks, getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapon activities has become most countries’ and commentators’ default goal. The need to “denuclearize” North Korea has become common wisdom.
Is it a realistic goal though? Even if nuclear weapons are impractical and using one would invite regime-ending retaliation, it is very likely that Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapon program as its ace-in-the-hole. While denuclearizing North Korea seems to be everyone’s preferred goal today, only a decade ago the United States government debated – among other options – making regime change its chief goal. This is not lost on Kim Jong-un or his national security advisors. Demanding that North Korea discard its nuclear weapons means that Pyongyang loses the ability to play a dangerous brinksmanship game, where it ratchets up tensions and creates a risk that things will spiral out of control, ending in a nuclear calamity. While North Korea would still have a potent arsenal of conventional (and chemical arms) if it gave up its atomic bombs, these pale in comparison to the threat (even if it is purely psychological) that nuclear weapons carry.
It is also important to remember that nuclear weapons did not magically appear in North Korea one day. North Korea’s nuclear weapon program was gestated and born in a threatening security environment. While North Korea is responsible for practically all the violence along the peninsula in the last decade, we should never lose sight of the massive material imbalance between South and North Korea, let alone North Korea and the United States. Getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons without solving the underlying incompatibilities in South Korean, American, Chinese, and North Korean interests (throw Japan in there too, if you like) is a long shot, and frankly, probably not realistic.
I’ll conclude this post by noting that states reverse their nuclear weapon policies all the time. The empirical record is very clear on that. However, it is also very clear that the longer a nuclear program stays intact, the more autonomous is becomes within the state, and the worse a state’s relations are with others, the lower the likelihood of a policy reversal becomes. If there was a time to go all out and try to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapon policy, it was in the early 1990s, which is exactly what South Korea and the US tried. That policy track fell apart ten years ago. Denuclearization has been tried, and it has failed. It might be time to redefine the problem and look for new solutions.