Since the end of the Cold War, paradox has characterized the United States' perception of North Korea. Pyongyang is at once a constant threat and a continual joke, its leaders a source of as much fear for the American public as derision. North Korea's missile and nuclear program is presented simultaneously as a dangerous example of the failure of nonproliferation regimes and as a duct-tape-and-baling-wire operation, notwithstanding the flurry of missile tests and accomplishments that Pyongyang has touted recently. In his latest New Year's address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the achievements that the country's nuclear and missile program had made over the past year and those that it would make in the year to come. His remarks proclaimed a country that had attained the status of a nuclear power in 2016 and was now prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Yet the dual view of North Korea as fearsome and farcical — as a present danger and a recalcitrant remnant of a bygone era — endures. More and more, this contradictory assessment seems to reflect the lack of viable options that Washington has for dealing with Pyongyang. Despite the power disparity between the United States and North Korea, Washington has little ability to alter Pyongyang's behavior without accepting significant political or military repercussions in return. And because of this disparity, North Korea does not feel that it can abandon its nuclear and missile program and still be secure from the United States' whims. Each side has its own viewpoint and its own legitimate concerns, making compromise difficult if not impossible. Herein lies one of the dirty secrets of international relations: Rarely do countries achieve all their imperatives, and when interests clash, the solution is often managing the reality, not resolving the conflict.
An Evolving Situation
During the Cold War, the "problem" of North Korea was tied to the overall balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Like the plains of Germany in the West, North Korea was a potential (and for a time, actual) front line in the East. The Cold War dynamic constrained North Korea's actions as well as the United States' responses. Faced with North Korean acts of terrorism abroad, the United States did not respond with punitive military action. The risk of escalation into another world war gave North Korea a buffer of security and limited the United States' aims in dispatching troops to fight the Korean War in 1950. But with the end of the Cold War, things began to change.
So long as North Korea continues its quest for nuclear arms, the United States will not engage the country to normalize relations.
By the late 1980s, Pyongyang could see the writing on the wall for the Soviet bloc. Because the economically impoverished country depended on support from the Soviet Union and exploiting the Sino-Soviet rivalry, the end of the Cold War meant a decline in North Korea's importance to the international system and, in turn, its external assistance. To survive the transition, Pyongyang needed a way to either unify with the South sooner than later or deter Western attempts to undermine its government. Meetings between North and South Korea in the late 1980s yielded a tentative framework to rejoin the two states.
The 1990 reunification of Germany — another country divided at the end of World War II — offered hope for the process. But the Russian and Chinese desire to recognize South Korea in return for economic benefits shifted what ostensibly had been an internal political process between competing parties — in effect the resolution of a civil war — into a negotiation between sovereign nations, each with its own defined territory. In 1991, the United Nations simultaneously admitted North and South Korea, which most countries had previously recognized as a single country ruled by Pyongyang or Seoul, as coequals. Though Washington accepted North Korea as a U.N. member, it did not establish formal diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. The United States recognized North Korea's existence without formally recognizing the legitimacy of its government, a decision that still complicates relations between the two.
Washington has continued to tie recognition of North Korea to Pyongyang's past terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons. So long as North Korea continues its quest for nuclear arms, the United States will not open talks to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War with a formal peace accord, nor will it engage the country to normalize relations. Pyongyang, meanwhile, insists that it is pursuing nuclear weapons in large part because Washington does not recognize its legitimacy.
From the Brink of War
The standoff gave way to crisis in 1993, when Pyongyang rendered its three-month notice to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. By the beginning of 1994, U.S. intelligence had determined that North Korea may already have gathered enough nuclear material for at least two bombs. Around the same time, North Korea announced that it would leave the International Atomic Energy Agency and appeared to take steps toward removing nuclear fuel from its Yongbyon reactor. The United States determined that under the circumstances, the only way to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power was through military means by targeting the Yongbyon facility with cruise missiles and airstrikes. After reviewing and revising its options for such an intervention, Washington began planning to deploy more troops to South Korea and to evacuate U.S. citizens from the country.
By all expectations, the proposed pre-emptive strike on the Yongbyon facility would ignite a new Korean War. In fact, the United States anticipated that even a significant increase in its military presence in South Korea would be enough to provoke Pyongyang to strike first, a lesson the North Korean government learned by observing the buildup ahead of the first Gulf War. But the risk of a nuclear-armed North Korea was seen as so great that the potential of a million dead in South Korea was judged a viable if unfortunate cost. It was only through former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's interventions — and the clever manipulations of Kim Il Sung, then North Korea's leader — that the United States and North Korea avoided another war, by most accounts in the last hours of Washington's decision-making process. Undeterred by Kim's death a few months later, Washington and Pyongyang signed the Agreed Framework in October 1994, and for several years North Korea deferred major progress on its nuclear program.
North Korea is always treated as a future problem rather than a current one.
A lesser crisis erupted at the end of the 1990s when North Korea conducted its first long-range missile test and the Agreed Framework collapsed. But it was the 9/11 attacks in the United States that changed the way Washington regarded the North Korean threat. Since that time, Washington has consistently found the cost of intervention in North Korea to exceed the risk of nonintervention, particularly in light of the global operations against first al Qaeda and now the Islamic State. North Korea is always treated as a future problem rather than a current one. The United States relies on sanctions and isolation as its primary tools against Pyongyang in hopes that North Korea will simply collapse under its own weight. So far, however, this strategy has not borne out. The North Korean government has endured, surviving even the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il and the transition to his unproven son Kim Jong Un. In the past year and a half, moreover, the country has made rapid progress in both its nuclear and missile programs.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Now a new crisis is approaching, one that will either offer the world a last chance to derail Pyongyang's nuclear missile program or force it to reckon with the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Pyongyang has declared that it will test an ICBM this year. North Korea has already demonstrated, albeit with mixed success, its ability to launch intermediate-range ballistic missiles from mobile launchers and a rudimentary submarine-launched ballistic missile capability. Most defense assessments suggest that the country is nominally capable of striking a target as far as Guam, and perhaps even parts of Hawaii, Alaska or the U.S. West Coast. But these capabilities are unproven and unreliable, and given the limited number of North Korea's missiles, U.S. missile defense systems would likely intercept an attempted strike. At least, that's the public line: There is always room for failure. Should North Korea manage to carry out targeted reentry of a dummy warhead on an ICBM, it would lend considerable weight to its claim that it has the capacity to strike the United States (absent any defense system).
Assessments of Pyongyang's ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead vary, but the most prudent ones do not dismiss it out of hand. At this stage of testing, clinging to the assumption that North Korea lacks the wherewithal to achieve its goals using jury-rigged missile systems thrown together from spare parts is not a viable strategy for dealing with the country's nuclear weapons development. Though Pyongyang likely has a ways to go before it produces a demonstrable, reliable, nuclear-tipped ICBM — and even further until it has amassed the weapons to enable second-strike capability — it represents a potential threat nonetheless.
The Power of Mutually Assured Destruction
One of the ironies of the Cold War was that the race between Washington and Moscow for nuclear weapons in some ways obviated the potential for their use according to the Mutually Assured Destruction principle. During the conflict, each side kept a close eye on the other to ensure that neither party was gaining an advantage that would change the equation. In the decades since, the United States has maintained a strong stance against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. After all, the more countries that possess nuclear weapons, the harder it is to manage them and prevent their use.
But Washington's efforts have not been enough to stop the spread of nuclear arms. India and Pakistan have both solidified their positions as nuclear weapons states since the Cold War's end, while China has vastly improved its nuclear weapons program, particularly its delivery systems. Furthermore, no comprehensive agreement including all declared nuclear weapons states yet exists for managing the numbers and deployments of nuclear arms, though pacts between the United States and Russia provide a potential framework. If North Korea achieves its nuclear weapons goals, the situation could become all the more tenuous. South Korea and Japan may follow suit and develop their own arsenals in response, further undermining the global nuclear balance. And there are fears in the United States that Pyongyang may be either crazy enough to use its nuclear weapons — or perhaps sell them to a non-state actor — or too unstable to maintain positive control over its arsenal.
A Self-Perpetuating Cycle
These worst-case scenarios feed back into the United States' view of North Korea. The government in North Korea, according to Washington's logic, may not use the same cost-benefit analysis in assessing its national security that other nations do. Consequently, its leaders may consider the use of nuclear weapons a viable option, even in a first-strike capacity. If North Korea's leadership is crazy, then it may not realize or care that using nuclear weapons would provoke a much larger response and that the country would lose any war it started. If this is an accurate assessment, then the United States has little recourse to shape Pyongyang's behavior short of removing its leader.
The dual view of North Korea as fearsome and farcical — as a present danger and a recalcitrant remnant of a bygone era — endures.
Pyongyang has made it clear that it is no longer willing to use its nuclear program as a bargaining chip; North Korea's leaders see it as the only defense their tiny country has against the global hegemon. From Washington's perspective, talking will not bring an end to North Korea's nuclear program. Besides, discourse with leaders who are portrayed as illegitimate at best and delusional at worst is politically untenable (all the more so since conversation is often conflated with capitulation these days). At the same time, the cost of physical intervention is at least as high as it was in 1994, and the number of targets necessary to disrupt North Korea's progress has grown substantially in the interceding years. The problem for U.S. policymakers is that there is no real solution to the North Korea problem. It is easier to downplay North Korea's capabilities than it is to admit an inability to contain them.