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Is a Nuclear North Korea Now the Least Bad Option?

Jul 18 , 2017
  • Cui Lei

    Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

With the successful test of the first intercontinental ballistic missile by the DPRK on July 4, it seems that the window of opportunity to stop North Korea from going nuclear has been closed, and the international community has to consider a once unacceptable scenario: dropping the goal of denuclearization to resume talks and acquiescing to North Korea’s nuclear status. Currently, that may be the least bad option for the following reasons.

First, every other option has been exhausted without solving the problem. Six-Party Talks have been stalled for nearly 10 years, with North Korea and the United States failing to reach an agreement on the preconditions for talks. Military strikes have been increasingly risky. If a war breaks out, Seoul will be saturated by shelling from thousands of cannons, and Japan will be attacked by missiles. American troops and families will also be in danger. Sanctions have had little effect. Even if the sanctions work, North Korea may try its best to survive by selling nuclear material or devices for profit to other states or non-state actors, including terrorist groups, which will be a nightmare to international non-proliferation.

Second, North Korea will not be the first country capable of deterring the United States. The United States once enjoyed a posture of nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. China has been under a nuclear shadow since the early days of the Korean War when President Truman alluded to the use of nuclear weapons. Since 1998, it has been facing a nuclear India. Now, with a nascent nuclear force, North Korea can pose a far less significant threat to the United States than Russia and China. Besides, the development of missile defense systems by the United States can further diminish the North Korean nuclear threat. Maybe what Americans need now is just some time to absorb the North Korean version of Sputnik shock and learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.

Third, North Korean leaders are not totally irrational. Their harsh words of annihilating the United States should not be taken as evidence that North Korea will hurl its bombs randomly. They just want to defend themselves in extreme ways.  The Pyongyang regime is interested in maintaining its rule and securing a US promise not to topple it. By accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, the parties concerned may have a chance to resume talks and negotiations, and there will be possibility of technically terminating the war through a peace treaty. Once feeling secure, North Korea may ease its hostility to the world, and may gradually accept the proposal by China to open to the outside world and start economic reforms.

Fourth, the sooner the talks resume, the better. North Korea has made faster progress in its missile program than expected. If the stalemate goes on, it is just a matter of time for North Korea to acquire the capability to hit the US homeland with nuclear-tipped ICBMs. If that is the case, North Korea will have more bargaining chips and the United States will have to pay more to convince North Korea to back off. The United States will be hesitant to extend its nuclear umbrella to Japan and South Korea if it means the risk of sacrificing New York or San Francisco for Tokyo or Seoul. With North Korea continuing to develop ICBMs, the US inclination to launch unilateral military strikes on North Korea will rise.

In addition, it is worried that some other countries are closely watching how far North Korea can go and might follow suit. The international community should diminish any impulse of potential proliferators from the very beginning with a strong will and coordination. After all, going nuclear entails grave consequences of being isolated and sanctioned by the world.

In my opinion, changing the goal of denuclearization for resuming talks is something worth trying, since other options are becoming dead ends or getting increasingly risky.

It is high time that all parties concerned, including North Korea, should announce that they are willing to resume talks without any preconditions. The talks can seek freezing North Korean missile and nuclear programs as the goal.  Denuclearization of North Korea can then be achieved after a general rapprochement among former enemies is reached.

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