Is It Time to Accept the Reality of a Nuclear-Armed North Korea?

This article originally appeared on this site.

In May of 2013, Terence Roehrig, the director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a brief on the North Korean nuclear situation. “Given its rhetoric and continued testing of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Pyongyang will likely go beyond its current capability to pursue a small operational program, perhaps 20-40 warheads, though these figures are speculative,” the report, which was published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard, said. “Should the DPRK seek to develop a small operational nuclear weapons capability there may be little that can be done other than to make this a long and costly process.”

At the time, the Obama Administration—like the Bush and Clinton Administrations before it—was pursuing a policy of “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, which involved trying to persuade Kim Jong-un, the young dictatorial leader of North Korea, to give up on his nuclear program. Roehrig expressed skepticism about whether this policy would work, noting, “Some continue to hope that the DPRK may yet be willing to relinquish its nuclear weapons for a suitable package of incentives, but that outcome appears increasingly unlikely.” In the coming years, Roehrig went on, “deterrence on the Korean Peninsula is likely to have a new dimension—North Korea with nuclear weapons. Whether this reality is recognized by the international community or not, all countries will need to figure out how to deal with a nuclear North Korea while maintaining peace and security in the region.”

Three and a half years later, Roehrig’s analysis looks prescient. A year ago, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated that Pyongyang had between thirteen and twenty-one nuclear warheads; since then, the number has likely grown. Last month, the North Koreans carried out two tests of ballistic missiles that, at least in theory, could hit parts of the U.S. mainland. The tests were apparently successful. And, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, the Defense Intelligence Agency believes that Kim’s regime has developed a miniature nuclear warhead that could soon be fitted to these long-range missiles.

The pace of North Korea’s progress in assembling a nuclear arsenal has surprised many Western experts. But Roehrig wasn’t the only analyst who anticipated a situation such as the one we’re currently witnessing, in which the harsh reality of nuclear-armed North Korea came into conflict with the official U.S. policy of seeking to prevent such an outcome. In a presentation to the Asia Society last week, John Park, a director of the Korea Working Group at the Belfer Center, pointed out the Kim had been entirely consistent in his desire to obtain a nuclear deterrent, which, in addition to safeguarding his regime, would enable North Korea to avoid a costly conventional-arms race and focus on economic development. Park said that many Chinese officials privately sympathized with the North Korean policy.

“To have a minimal nuclear deterrent, from a strategic-analysis viewpoint the community there”—in China—“views it as something very logical and something to be expected,” Parks said. “But, conceptually, it is very difficult for those in leadership positions in Washington to absorb that. While I think in Northeast Asia the view is that Kim Jong-un is not suicidal, who is going to take that risk in U.S. policy circles in Washington of having on their watch a nuclear I.C.B.M. North Korea and, on top of that, this ultimate weapon in the hands of this young leader? That is the part we are all anticipating. How are we going to get over that hump?”

With great difficulty, evidently. In January, before he took office, Donald Trump tweeted, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Trump’s position hasn’t changed. On Thursday, he stood by the bellicose statement he made earlier in the week—in which he said that if North Korea kept up its threats, it could face “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—telling reporters that “if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

The President refused to be drawn out on whether he was considering a preëmptive strike against North Korea, and said that he was still open to negotiations. But he also added, “What they’ve been doing, what they’ve been getting away with, is a tragedy and it can’t be allowed.” This echoed a statement from H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, who said last week that Trump considers the prospect of a North Korea with weapons that could hit the United States to be “intolerable.” McMaster also said that his job was to provide “all options” to prevent such an outcome, “and that includes a military option.”

On Friday morning, Trump tweeted, “Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely.” But, in truth, there is no straightforward military option. If there were one, a previous President might have used it, or, at least, threatened to use it. “Mr Kim’s bombs and missile-launchers are scattered and well hidden,” an editorial in this week’s Economist points out. “America’s armed forces, for all their might, cannot reliably neutralise the North Korean nuclear threat before Mr Kim has a chance to retaliate.” Even if a U.S. strike did take out Kim’s nuclear weapons, his forces have thousands of artillery pieces trained on Seoul, a city of ten million people located only thirty-five miles from the border with the North. Retaliation with these conventional weapons could kill tens of thousands of people. Not for nothing did James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, say in May that a war with North Korea would be catastrophic. (On Thursday, Mattis repeated the warning.)

Mattis and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, appear to be hoping that the U.S. policy of ratcheting up the economic and rhetorical pressure on North Korea will persuade Kim to freeze his testing program and enter negotiations about eliminating the weapons he already has. As Tillerson pointed out a couple of days ago, this approach received a significant boost over the weekend, when China and Russia agreed to back a U.N. resolution that imposes more economic sanctions on Pyongyang. But some experts on North Korea believe that this strategy is still based on wishful thinking.

“This young guy leading North Korea will not denuclearize, period,” Kathy Moon, a professor of Asian studies at Wellesley College and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said earlier this week in an interview with WBUR, a Boston-based public-radio station. “What the U.S. faces is a problem between North Korean capabilities and intentions, and an anachronistic, outdated U.S. policy-strategy called denuclearization. The North doesn’t want to talk as long as denuclearization is on the table and is the goal of the United States. We need to really think hard and face the reality and suck it up—that this is a fully nuclear state. We don’t have to say, ‘Hey, welcome to the nuclear club.’ But we could work towards arms control and disarmament, which is a different framework, which acknowledges that it is a nuclear state, and try to get some diplomatic headway on that level.” This is similar to what Michael Hayden, the former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, told my colleague Robin Wright this week. Any diplomatic solution to the situation, he said, “will have to, in one way or another, concede North Korea’s nuclear status. No other deal is possible.”

Park, in his presentation at the Asia Society, made a similar point. He said he believes that it might still be possible to make a diplomatic breakthrough and achieve some sort of freeze on North Korea’s testing programs. However, from Pyongyang’s perspective, Park went on, “what that leads to is negotiations, but not denuclearization negotiations. That leads to nuclear-arms-control negotiations, where you could see, potentially, the North Koreans willing to give up the production facilities but retain that small nuclear deterrent, that small arsenal of nuclear I.C.B.M.s.”

Treating North Korea as another rival nuclear power would involve using the tools the U.S. has employed for decades to deal with such adversaries: containment, deterrence, and measures designed to lower the risk of a small incident escalating into an all-out confrontation. It might be the least bad option there is left. “If military action is reckless and diplomacy insufficient, the only remaining option is to deter and contain Mr Kim,” the editorial in The Economist argues. “Mr Trump should make clear—in a scripted speech, not a tweet or via his secretary of state—that America is not about to start a war, nuclear or conventional. However, he should reaffirm that a nuclear attack by North Korea on America or one of its allies will immediately be matched. Mr Kim cares about his own skin. He enjoys the life of a dissolute deity, living in a palace and with the power to kill or bed any of his subjects. If he were to unleash a nuclear weapon, he would lose his luxuries and his life. So would his cronies. That means they can be deterred.”

To Trump and some of his more hawkish supporters, adopting this approach may seem like capitulation. Actually, it would be an acknowledgment that the effort to prevent Pyongyang from obtaining nuclear weapons, which began in the nineteen eighties and continued through six U.S. Presidencies, has already failed.