After announcing that it would cut communications with the United States, North Korea launched three missiles (two Scuds and a No Dong) last week. In some ways, there is little unexpected in North Korea's actions. Since the early 1990s, the North Korean nuclear and missile programs have been a focus of greater and lesser international attention, and there is no reason to predict that a resolution satisfactory to the United States (or North Korea) will emerge any time soon. Similarly, the United States followed a familiar script in its reaction to the recent launches, threatening additional sanctions and further isolation.
But that doesn't mean nothing has changed. North Korea once treated its nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip — a way to raise the stakes with the United States to wheedle concessions and aid. Now, however, nuclear weapons development is no longer something Pyongyang is willing to trade away for economic support and promises of nonaggression. North Korea has ramped up the testing cycle for its various missile systems, and it may be preparing for another nuclear test. If Pyongyang has no intention of stopping or reversing its nuclear weapons program — the two outcomes that U.S. policy has been geared to achieve — then perhaps it is time for Washington to reconsider its strategy for dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
From Bargaining Chip . . .
North Korea launched its nuclear weapons program in earnest in the 1980s. After the Soviet Union collapsed, and amid social and political instability in China, Pyongyang rapidly expanded the program, fearing that its two primary backers could no longer provide the economic and security guarantees that North Korea had previously relied on. The United Nations' recognition of both Korean governments as legitimate reinforced those concerns, and when South Korea began to engage politically and economically with China and Russia, Pyongyang's worries mounted.
By the early 1990s, a major nuclear crisis was emerging, carefully crafted by North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung to draw the United States into an economic and energy settlement called the Agreed Framework. Kim also launched a diplomatic offensive, inviting South Korean President Kim Young Sam to visit Pyongyang for what would have been the first inter-Korean summit. But the meeting never occurred. Kim Il Sung died unexpectedly, and his son, Kim Jong Il, took power and finished the negotiations for the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994. At the same time, he pushed forward with North Korea's long-range missile program, leading to the 1998 launch of the Taepodong/Unha missile. Though Pyongyang claimed it had launched the missile to put a satellite into orbit, the United States contended that the move was a clear attempt to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Throughout much of Kim Jong Il's term, North Korea used its nuclear weapons programs as a negotiating tool. Projecting a combination of unpredictability, nuclear ambition and economic decrepitude, North Korea earned a reputation as an erratic power that could not be restrained through any conventional political means. If the country's economic crisis precipitated its ruin, then the government might unleash its burgeoning arsenal. To avoid that outcome, the United States opted to provide North Korea with just enough aid and negotiating opportunities (particularly under the multilateral six-party talk format) to slow its nuclear weapons development and forestall economic collapse. This approach proved beneficial for both sides, reducing the threat of U.S. military action in North Korea while also mitigating the risk of a global disaster at a relatively low cost. North Korea even undertook various diplomatic offensives, expanding relations with Western nations, opening up to increased Western tourism and holding summit meetings with South Korean leaders. But, as U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once noted, "The world moves, and ideas that were good once are not always good."
Following the 9/11 attacks, Pyongyang toned down its histrionics and even proffered something of an olive branch to the United States. But the offer was rebuffed, and the United States named North Korea part of the Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran. When the United States invaded Iraq, suspecting that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction that it could deploy, along with conventional capability, against neighboring countries, Pyongyang began to rethink its security strategy. Having the means to damage South Korea — or as North Korea puts it, to turn Seoul into a sea of fire — in case of invasion was no longer a deterrent for foreign military intervention.
. . . To Security Cornerstone
Nonetheless, as Libya renounced its quest for WMD in 2003 (likely in an attempt to avoid Iraq's fate), Pyongyang continued to negotiate with Washington, hoping for a security guarantee. Then in 2006, North Korea carried out its first nuclear test, sounding alarm bells in the United States and around Asia. Pyongyang used the fears that the test inspired to speed up negotiations, and in 2008, it destroyed the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. North Korea continued this pattern, carrying out another nuclear test in 2009 and revealing a secret nuclear facility in 2010 before suspending nuclear and missile tests in 2012.
At the same time, the country's leadership had begun to lose faith in the efficacy of bartering its nuclear program for economic and security concessions. The world was changing too fast, North Korea's traditional sponsors were undependable and U.S. promises seemed unreliable. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's death in late 2011 also gave Pyongyang pause. Even though Gadhafi had abandoned his nuclear ambitions and had been partially reaccepted by the international community, the West stood by and watched as he was overthrown and killed in an uprising. Gadhafi embodied Pyongyang's worst fear: to give up its military deterrent and then fall to a foreign-facilitated insurrection. Kim Jong Il's death a few months later and the accession of his very young replacement, Kim Jong Un, only compounded the sense of uncertainty in North Korea.
Since then, the country has unequivocally rejected the idea of trading away its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has spent too much time, money and political capital to simply walk away. What's more, it has no guarantee that doing so will protect its leaders from foreign military intervention. And simply being able to threaten South Korea or even Japan is not enough anymore to deter the United States from taking such action.
Over the past year, North Korea's testing cycle has accelerated rapidly, particularly for longer-range and mobile missile systems, such as the Musudan/Hwasong-10 and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which provide second-strike capability that the Taepodong does not. In addition, Pyongyang is conducting tests on re-entry, which will be necessary for intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ICBMs. Although the United States has missile defense systems in place in the Asia-Pacific region and on the homeland, missile defense is not completely effective. Consequently, from Pyongyang's perspective, its demonstrated ability to deliver a nuclear device to the United States would alter Washington's cost-benefit calculations over whether to attack or destabilize North Korea.
Adjusting to the New Status Quo
No longer a bargaining chip, North Korea's nuclear program has become a vital component of its national security. Pyongyang's byungjin policy, which places equal emphasis on nuclear weapons and economic development, is more than just posturing. Though North Korea's goals will not be easy to achieve — if they are ever achieved at all — U.S. policies geared toward stopping or reversing the nuclear program will likely do little to thwart them.
The question, then, may not be how to prevent North Korea from attaining a nuclear capability, but how to manage regional relations once it has. The United States has said it will not recognize North Korea's nuclear capabilities. But choosing not to recognize a reality is not a starting point for a viable strategy. Already the United States has adjusted to the reality that India, Pakistan and Israel have functioning nuclear weapons programs, despite the prohibitions against them. Acknowledging that North Korea has joined these countries would not mean an end to counterproliferation policy; instead, it would establish a more realistic foundation for assessing policy options.
The true danger of a nuclear North Korea is less that Pyongyang would lash out with a pre-emptive strike than that its newfound nuclear capability would prompt Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to follow suit. In discussions with China, the United States has even said as much. To prevent this domino effect, the United States could increase its military presence and activity in the Asia-Pacific region, doubling down in its security guarantee to allies and partners. From China's perspective, though, neither scenario is ideal: A greater U.S. presence would constrain China's options and actions, while a nuclear Japan and South Korea (and perhaps Taiwan) would fundamentally change the balance of power and security concerns in the region.
The United States has a political calculation to make as well. For more than two decades, Washington has tried to stop Pyongyang's nuclear development. Sanctions, isolation, threats, talks and concessions have all failed. The failure is due in part to a significant misunderstanding between the two sides regarding their core security concerns and in part to the relatively low priority that North Korea's nuclear armament has always been for the United States (as a long-term threat, it was often set aside for more pressing issues). Regardless, a nuclear-armed North Korea would cast doubt on the U.S. ability to influence foreign powers through non-military means.
Barring pre-emptive military action, a political crisis in North Korea, or a major accident that convinces Pyongyang that the risks of a nuclear program are not worth the reward, a nuclear-armed North Korea looks more and more inevitable. If the country will not back down from its nuclear program, the United States will need a different strategy to manage the new regional dynamics that it creates. Ideally, the new approach would not only reassure allies of their security but would also include North Korea, Pakistan, India and perhaps even China and Israel in broader discussions of nuclear weapons numbers and arms control measures. To do this, however, the United States will first have to recognize North Korea's nuclear capability. Many argue that granting Pyongyang the acknowledgment it desires would reward bad behavior. But the alternative solutions have proved ineffective, and ignoring the new status quo will not change it.