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Persuading Pyongyang: North Korea’s Nuclear Threats

Apr 09 , 2013

North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 13, 2013 has dealt a death blow to any remaining illusions that Pyongyang can be persuaded, or compelled, to give up its fledgling nuclear weapons capability. Both Beijing and Washington need to rethink their policies in the face of this reality. Despite appearances to the contrary, they have a strong common interest in not letting North Korea’s willful irresponsibility plunge Northeast Asia into a cauldron of escalating tensions. Wise policies will build on this foundation.

Like it or not, North Korea’s three nuclear tests have altered the security environment in Northeast Asia, and particularly on the Korean peninsula. Only ostriches would fail to recognize that countries possessing nuclear weapons do have a credible deterrent against adversaries whose territories or vital interests, such as military bases or allies, fall within the range of such weapons.

Equally relevant, North Korea’s demonstrated ability to conduct nuclear tests only provides it with a minimal deterrent, not an absolute one. For the foreseeable future,  North Korea will remain vulnerable to determined action by much stronger powers with the wherewithal to make credible the suicidal consequences for Pyongyang of any use of nuclear weapons.

That said, the risk calculations inherent in confrontations with North Korea have been altered. Preemptive military actions against North Korea no longer constitute viable options under any but the most extreme circumstances. In this sense, Pyongyang has purchased at high cost an additional modicum of security.

This security increment for North Korea does not alter its status as a failing state whose policies have impoverished its people, eroded the economic base for its military power, damaged the interests of its neighbors, and rendered reunification impossible. Other countries tempted to follow in North Korea’s footsteps should reflect on these considerations.

Policy responses need to focus on two areas: curbing any inclination on the part of North Korea to engage in nuclear blackmail; and dealing with the severe, indeed probably fatal, damage to the global nonproliferation regime inflicted by North Korea’s success in demonstrating nuclear capabilities. Addressing the first will be easier than the second, but the second deserves more attention.

North Korea can be expected to engage in nuclear saber rattling. Feigning indifference to those who recklessly brandish powerful lethal weapons is not for the faint hearted. Nor is this a viable policy course for governments responsible for the safety of their citizens. No country should be permitted to threaten the use of nuclear weapons without suffering negative consequences in the form of an appropriate mixture of condemnation, sanctions, or other punitive measures.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s acquisition of a limited nuclear deterrent, as noted above, has not provided it with a useable instrument of coercion. The desperation of Pyongyang’s leaders to preserve their regime and to fend off outside intervention does not equate with a heedless willingness to bring down the sky on their heads. North Korea cannot alter two realities: first, in non-total-war situations, the destructive power of nuclear weapons makes them ill-suited for purposes other than fending off attacks; second, for the foreseeable future, Pyongyang confronts overwhelming retaliatory power. For these reasons, North Korea’s neighbors, and regional powers such as the United States, can be resolute in not yielding to any efforts by the North to extract concessions through nuclear intimidation.

Dealing with the nonproliferation consequences of North Korea’s nuclear tests is more complex. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is based on the concept that only a limited number of countries can be permitted to possess nuclear weapons while the rest must restrict their nuclear ambitions to peaceful uses. This concept reflected Cold War realities and was viable for a time because of the technical difficulties involved in producing weapons-grade nuclear materials and fashioning nuclear explosive devices. Few countries also possessed the means of delivery of nuclear weapons, either by aircraft or missiles.

This approach is no longer viable. Too many break-outs have occurred. Too many countries have the technical competence to cross the nuclear weapons barrier. Too many inconsistencies have occurred on the part of major powers in their enforcement of nonproliferation rules. Patching up the Nonproliferation Treaty will not restore a credible nonproliferation regime.

What is needed is a new approach. Rather than wringing their hands over North Korea’s provocative behavior, or clinging to policies that have failed to produce the desired results, responsible governments should seize this opportunity to rethink how best to revitalize constraints against further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Simply tightening the screws without addressing the underlying incentive structures relating to proliferation will not produce a satisfactory outcome. China and the United States should strengthen their policy dialogue in this area.

J. Stapleton Roy is the Director of Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. He is a Career Ambassador and retired from the Foreign Service in January 2001 after a career spanning 45 years with the U.S. Department of State.


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