The Skeptics

Sorry, America: North Korea Isn't Giving Up Its Nuclear Weapons

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper offered a comment that jolted his colleagues at the White House and the State Department. Continuing to pray and hope that the Korean Peninsula will be denuclearized, he said, is probably a waste of time, energy, and effort.

"I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause," Clapper said. "They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival...And they are under siege and they are very paranoid. So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them."

From the standpoint of public relations and keeping a unified message across the U.S. government, Clapper’s remarks weren't exactly what the Obama administration wanted to hear.  Asked about them a day later, State Department spokesman John Kirby quickly brushed off the notion that this was a subtle way for Washington to condition America's allies into getting used to the new reality a nuclear-armed North Korea. Kirby was emphatic that - Clapper's comments notwithstanding - the United States is still firmly committed to achieving a denuclearized Korean Peninsula that every reasonable person would conclude is about as likely at this point as getting pigs to fly. According to Kirby, “nothing has changed about our policy with respect to the North and that we want to continue to see a verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula. We want to see a return to the Six-Party Talk process, and that means we need to see the North show a willingness and an ability to return to that process…”

How on earth the United States could achieve such an ambitious goal, despite Pyongyang's stern position that it will never negotiate its nuclear program away, was conveniently left out of the State Department's talking points. There's a good reason for that--and it goes beyond the fact that administration officials don't want to talk about it: the situation in North Korea is such that Kim Jong-un is full steam ahead in improving and growing a deterrent that will prevent the U.S., South Korea, Japan, or any combination of countries from using military force to either degrade its command-and-control structure or overthrow the regime entirely.

This is what the next administration will be faced with on January 20, 2017.  A President Hillary Clinton or a President Donald J. Trump will be staring at a country in North Korea that has no incentive to give up a nuclear program that has become the pride of an otherwise failed state.  The next Commander-in-Chief will confront a policy that hasn't done a thing to change North Korea's calculus, and will be handed a set of goals that are simply untenable without the use of military force and the prospect of a second and bloodier war on the Korean Peninsula.

The next administration has a simple but vital choice on North Korea policy. It can bury its head in the sand and continue the status-quo, hoping beyond all hope that China will throw us a bone on sanctions implementation. Or it can launch a top-to-bottom, inter-agency review of U.S. North Korea policy dealing with the hard questions that need to be asked if Washington has any opening in fixing a dangerous situation:  

1. Is denuclearization along the lines of the 2005 Joint Statement even possible?

2. Would the North Koreans be willing to permanently cap their nuclear and ballistic missile programs and allow a permanent IAEA inspection and monitoring system in their country with unfettered powers to investigate wherever those inspectors want and whenever they choose?

3. Will secondary sanctions on Chinese financial institutions and firms a la Iran be enough to get Beijing on board, or will it ruin any hope for a broader U.S.-China relationship and poke the Chinese into doubling down on cyber hacking and military operations in the South China Sea?

4. Would the U.S. and the region be better off by throwing away preconditions that the North Koreans are unlikely to meet before nuclear talks can begin?

5. What inducements and goodies can the U.S. provide to South Korea and Japan in order to enlist their support for a dramatic change in U.S. policy towards North Korea?  More missile defense systems? Bigger arms sales with better weapons and aircraft?  

There aren't any good answers here, and the 45th president will be decried by those in Washington who remain convinced that any diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang or any policy option other than additional pressure constitutes appeasement of the highest order (we saw how powerful that message could be in the summer of 2015, when the Obama administration was in a war-of-words with opponents over the Iran nuclear agreement). But if the next president and his or her team aren't willing to ask the big questions, it is a certainty that the next administration will wake up one morning to news that Kim Jong-un has the capability to send an atomic bomb towards America's west coast.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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