With the entire world’s attention riveted on Ukraine, Kim Jong-Un is doubling down on his nuclear and missile programs and has recently tested what he claims to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). According to early estimates the Hwasong-17 (a.k.a. KN-27) missile could have reached the U.S. East Coast if launched on a normal trajectory. Despite South Korean doubts over the claim, the test results clearly suggest the North’s steady technological progress. Pyongyang is expected to carry out more provocations in the coming months, especially on April 15th on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of its founder Kim Il-Sung’s birth. To reassure U.S. allies in the region, some U.S. analysts advocate a high-profile announcement of new deterrence initiatives with allies such as joint exercises, and South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol seems to agree and seek more frequent drills. Talks to reiterate U.S. alliance commitments are certainly important, but such showy military exercises — which Kim typically views as a major aggression toward the North — would be a primrose path. They would only partially meet allied demands for stronger security assurances in the near term while driving Kim to further his ICBM technologies, which already “present a real danger to the U.S. homeland,” as Gen. Mark Milley said, and thus undermine the credibility of U.S. nuclear umbrellas in the region. One should not miss the forest for the trees. North Korean issues are a distraction from a more serious issue in East Asia: the strategic competition with China. To repair the umbrellas over the allies that Washington needs on its side, it is time to negotiate with Kim to limit his ICBMs before he perfects them, to officially end the Korean War, and to wean him off Beijing’s economic assistance and political influence.
After Ukraine, North Korea Isn’t Giving Up Its Nuclear Weapons
The United States needs to set a more realistic policy rather than insisting on North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, which virtually every expert thinks is an unattainable goal. To many observers, the war in Ukraine and the West’s responses so far have weakened the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. This war has unfortunately raised the perceived deterrent value of nuclear weapons. Were it not for Russian nuclear forces, the arguments go, U.S. and NATO forces would likely already be in Ukraine to defeat Russia. As North Koreans also see their nuclear weapons as a defensive means to deter U.S. military attacks, one should expect that this war — as well as the advocated joint deterrence exercises — will give Pyongyang a stronger reason to hold on to its nuclear forces at all costs. Meanwhile, the war has also shaken allied confidence in U.S. extended deterrence, and revived the nuclear question both in Seoul and Tokyo. Whereas the war may have helped unite NATO allies under U.S. leadership to some extent, a parallel unity should not be expected in Asia. Japan and South Korea, two of the world’s most technologically advanced states, have delicate relations with each other, and both possess latent nuclear capabilities, with which they could threaten nuclear breakout to resist U.S. pressures. Moreover, while there are many good reasons why states want to stay non-nuclear, powerful popular sentiments may very well drive state decisions in a different direction: a recent survey conducted in December 2021 shows that 71 percent of South Koreans are in favor of their country developing its own nuclear weapons.
The Longer We Wait, the Stronger Kim’s Position
Pyongyang’s latest ICBM test, the first since 2017, rubbed salt in the allied wounds of the concerns over extended deterrence caused by measured U.S. responses to Ukraine’s requests for help. Yet the United States and its allies’ responses to North Korea’s missile test hardly go beyond familiar diplomatic condemnation. Their calls for more biting sanctions quickly fizzle out because they know China and Russia would veto such attempts anyway. The Biden administration says it is open to talks without preconditions but shows little interest in actively enticing North Korea into negotiations and refuses to ease sanctions unless the North takes concrete steps toward its denuclearization. This approach is failing, because it is premised on the unrealistic assumption that Kim Jong-Un will one day desperately come to a negotiating table to beg for economic assistance at the expense of his nuclear weapons. Every time Korea experts predict Pyongyang’s economic collapse, they are later proven wrong. Despite reports of food shortages last year, the North Korean military remains unscathed and has been steadfastly augmenting its nuclear arsenal, testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and even resuming operations at the Yongbyon Nuclear Science and Weapons Research Center. The more time that elapses, the more sophisticated Pyongyang will be in evading the effects of economic sanctions and the stronger its negotiating position will be as its nuclear arsenal grows. On the other hand, launching a preventive strike on North Korea, as Donald Trump was reportedly considering in 2017, is a terrible idea, as it would be not only very unlikely to destroy all the nuclear facilities but would be almost certain to trigger a Korean War 2.0 — potentially a nuclear one. Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong-Un, recently threatened to use nuclear weapons if attacked.
Time to Negotiate with a Focus on ICBMs and Neutrality Vis-à-Vis China
Thus, anyone claiming to be seriously working on the North’s denuclearization looks like an emperor with no clothes. It is time to tell North Korea that the United States is willing to ease economic sanctions and provide food assistance before the North denuclearizes, if Kim meets certain conditions including halting his long-range missile activities and remaining neutral in East Asian contingencies involving China, in particular. He may well be interested in accepting limits on ICBM activities. Analysts agree that his missile tests so far have yet to demonstrate mastery of ICBM reentry vehicle technologies to protect a warhead. And yet, he declared in 2017 that he now possessed “complete” nuclear forces, and added in 2018 that he needed no further testing on his nuclear or long-range missiles programs. While technological limitations may shape his incentive to negotiate on ICBMs, Kim could still save face with the argument that no more tests are needed since his past successful tests brought the world’s most powerful nation to heel, forcing it to abandon its hostile policy toward his country. Moreover, his nuclear weapons delivered by shorter-range missiles are already more than enough to deter U.S. attempts to invade his country.
A deepening rift in Chinese-North Korean ties worries Pyongyang as it grows more dependent on Beijing’s assistance. A pandemic lockdown in North Korea resulted in a substantial fall in its imports of food, fertilizer and other agricultural items and caused malnutrition in more than forty percent of its population – situation so dire that China sneaked food aid into North Korea through their officially “closed” border. Pyongyang’s desire to reduce its reliance on Chinese food stamps presents a great opportunity for the Biden administration to negotiate neutrality in case of contingencies involving China. For example, if North Korea, upon U.S. requests, cancels a Chinese lease of North Korean ports such as Rajin (Rason), this may help reduce operational uncertainties. It is certainly unlikely that China would enjoy full military support from North Korea anyway, but the North’s neutrality pledge in exchange for economic benefits would lower the likelihood of North Korean provocations that could distract the U.S. military from fighting the Chinese.
The Biden administration should initiate negotiations immediately to add to its (now limited) diplomatic achievements before the mid-term elections in November. North Koreans are also eager to claim a high-profile diplomatic success this year, which is of particular importance to their regime as a few anniversaries converge: the 110th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, the 80th anniversary of Kim Jong-Il’s birth, and the 10th year of Kim Jong-Un’s tenure.
A predictable counter-argument would be that the tacit U.S. acknowledgement of a nuclear-armed North Korea would prompt Seoul to seek its own nuclear arsenal. However, let’s not forget that Seoul will still be protected by U.S. forces in Korea and in Japan. In addition, continued U.S. engagement with the two Koreas going forward would allow an opportunity to nudge them toward denuclearization in the event of unification.
Reaching a deal successfully may require a few rounds of tit-for-tat negotiations — a method more suitable than a Trump-style grand bargain when mutual trust is lacking — and simultaneous close consultations with Tokyo and Seoul throughout the process. First, Washington could promise a partial relief of unilateral economic sanctions conditional on a halt of all North Korean ICBM activities such as development, testing, manufacturing, and deployment for a certain period — say 12 months. Second, the United States could promise an official end to the Korean War to normalize diplomatic relations, if North Korea continues to halt ICBM activities and refrains from testing shorter-range missiles without prior notice for, say, another 12 months. In the third stage, the United States and its allies could offer a removal of all remaining sanctions with a “snapback” mechanism, if Pyongyang meets all of the conditions above, engages in a regular high-level dialogue with South Korea, and keeps its neutrality vis-à-vis China.
In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush made strategic decisions to accommodate nuclear-armed India and Pakistan in the international community when America needed their help in combating larger security threats from al-Qaeda and then from China. In the face of Beijing’s relentless challenges to U.S. interests today, why does America put off negotiations with the North all together, while letting the North’s missile program grow in the meantime to such an extent that it would distract the United States and its allies from confronting the larger Chinese threat?
Dr. Mayumi Fukushima is currently a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of the Harvard Kennedy School. She formerly served as a senior career diplomat at the Japanese foreign ministry and more recently as a visiting scholar with the Japanese navy (Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)’s Command and Staff College. She has extensive experiences working with senior U.S. officials and Japanese policymakers on various security issues including the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs.
Image: Prachatai, Creative Commons