In fact, overreaction to tests is a greater danger than underreaction. By themselves, limited strikes may be safe. The same is true of missile defense, large-scale military exercises, and south-to-north flights. But together, these elements could convince Kim that war is inevitable, especially when mixed with other contingencies beyond anyone’s control. Missile development delays or other incremental gains are not worth the risk that a resigned and fatalistic North Korea would present. By contrast, the dangers of underreaction are not much different than the ones the United States has already faced regarding North Korea, and certainly less than what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization confronted during the Cold War.
Third, while North Korea is likely to retain a nuclear arsenal over the short-to-medium term, the Biden administration and its successors should not give up on long-term denuclearization of the peninsula to minimize the chance of accidents or inadvertent nuclear war. Countries have given up nuclear ambitions without bringing about conventional disaster, as Brazil and Argentina demonstrated in the 1990s. Nuclear weapons may create a shared interest (nuclear peace) between countries with little else in common, but they are not a prerequisite for cooperation should those interests change. In the meantime, though, Washington can and should pursue denuclearization with engagement and patience rather than panic and preemption.
Trump’s manner of engagement had—and continues to—have its critics. The President of the United States is supposed to be a busy person who does not just meet with any thug that tries to jump the line by making threats. No one should be able to blackmail the U.S. president, the thinking goes, and meetings with adversaries should not come without concessions. Otherwise, the president risks squandering the prestige of the office.
There is no denying that meeting with a leader that assassinates his own family members for political advantage is unseemly. Ultimately, however, the argument is unconvincing. The U.S. government cannot call North Korea one of its biggest security challenges, obsess over the latter’s military developments, and contemplate dealing with the problem by military force at various levels of intensity over decades, and then still consider itself too precious for a chat. The United States can afford the drop in prestige that comes from high-level meetings with North Korea. It should see stumbling into an unnecessary war as rather less affordable.
A second concern stems from the possibility that shifting to de facto acceptance of a nuclear North Korea over the short-to-medium -term will fuel nuclear proliferation among both allies and adversaries. These fears are overblown. Rapid, out-of-control proliferation alarmism is as old as the weapons themselves, and it keeps not happening. Allies will continue to face strong incentives and normative pressures to forgo nuclear weapons. Abiding by nonproliferation commitments keeps them in better stead internationally and allows them to pass the buck. As long as the United States continues to station troops on South Korean and Japanese soil—and it should—those countries have little reason to go full nuclear. Besides, North Korea’s neighbors are still more powerful than it is by most measures, and South Korean and Japanese conventional superiority can also hold Kim’s regime at risk.
Will potential adversaries see a shift in policy toward North Korea as a green light for their own nuclear ambitions? Probably not. North Korea has spent decades getting crushed by sanctions and nearly going to war with the world’s lone superpower. It is the envy of very few. Besides, those who see North Korea and think, “Sign me up,” would likely have been difficult to dissuade from acquiring nuclear weapons in any case.
Finally, critics might worry that North Korea, emboldened by its nuclear deterrent, will be able to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy at levels below the nuclear threshold. The so-called “stability-instability paradox,” in which the unlikelihood of nuclear war creates room for “safe” conventional escalation, has turned out to warrant only limited concern since the term was coined during the 1960s. The slight possibility of nuclear war has capped escalation. Supposedly aggressive nuclear states like Pakistan are still deterred from large assaults, preferring instead to hit and run in a variety of ways indicative of its conventionally inferior status versus India. We should expect no worse, and perhaps better, from North Korea. Besides, North Korea has already been annoying, and occasionally deadly on a small scale, for a long time now. Nuclear weapons are not going to give North Korea a sudden military advantage that leads to large assaults.
Multiple foreign policy schools point in the same direction: We can live with a nuclear North Korea, possibly with higher levels of cooperation than before. It’s far too early to judge the Biden team’s approach, but to date, the administration is not showing very much creativity. Biden himself has refused to meet with Kim and has stipulated that any talks must be about denuclearization. Biden may be interested in a breakthrough, but it is difficult to see how this approach will produce one. Settling for a rerun of something akin to Obama’s strategic patience policy will put relations somewhere between the long U.S.-Cuba-style impasse and war. U.S. policymakers should strive for better.
If North Korea tests one of its missiles capable of reaching the U.S. homeland soon, critics will reiterate their fears that North Korea will be able to strike out in anger because now the United States will not be willing to risk San Francisco to protect Seoul. But the United States has faced this problem already, and on worse terms. From North Korea’s perspective, it makes no sense to attack more powerful neighbors in the faint hope that an even mightier foe will stand aside. As with the Soviet Union before it, North Korea will continue to have a strong interest in keeping the peace.
Near the end of the Cold War, Jervis wrote of U.S. nuclear policy, “Whether we like it or not, the common defense now extends to adversaries as well as to allies.” Nuclear weapons can sometimes be the tie that binds, and the United States must now be invested in the sanity, restraint, and fundamental comfort of Kim’s regime. In the long run, overlapping interests between North Korea and its current adversaries may grow, and denuclearization may follow or coincide. In the meantime, however, the United States should begin building trust on the thin slice of mutual concern in avoiding catastrophe. It’s a start.
William L. d’Ambruoso is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he studies the causes of major war and wartime violence. His new book, Recurring Nightmare: The Endurance of American Torture, in which he applies international relations theory to explain the United States’ repeated use of coercive interrogation, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.