Every Power Has Its Own National Interests
Considering these numerous close calls, how should America proceed on North Korea given this problem?
Looking at different countries’ interests can provide further clarity here.
For the United States, Washington has repeatedly declared it wants complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization (CVID). America’s main concern is its own physical security as well as the security of its regional allies like South Korea and Japan. If North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons, American cities would be secure against Pyongyang.
Abby Bard, a research associate on Asia Policy at Center for American Progress, told the National Interest, “The U.S. stated end goal should be denuclearization because to publicly declare otherwise would be a major concession and would undermine alliance credibility.” “However,” she added, “the U.S. must also operate under the assumption that denuclearization is a long-term goal.”
Olivia Enos, a policy analyst for the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, also says denuclearization is here to stay. When asked for a comment Enos wrote, “The U.S.’s primary goal in negotiations should be to get North Korea to commit to [CVID] of its nuclear program. However, it should also seek progress on human rights.”
From America’s perspective, CVID would be the most ideal outcome. However, CVID cannot be pursued at the cost of war. As Davis told the National Interest, “America’s enduring interests are defending U.S. security, safeguarding the conditions for our prosperity, and protecting our liberties. In North Korea, that means deterring the regime from using any of their weapons against us, as we have far greater powers, avoiding unnecessary war, and increasing engagement, primarily through diplomacy and trade.”
Meanwhile, North Korea also wants to be secure. Pyongyang has a long historical pattern of mixing threats or attacks with follow-up diplomacy to keep Washington and Seoul off-balance. The result is North Korea acts nice to one party and tough with another to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. This both weakens the military alliance Kim faces and allows him to force the other side back to the negotiating table.
By doing this, successive Kims have been able to get away with provocations while also reducing sanctions or getting developmental assistance in return for promises of improved behavior or curtailment of their nuclear program. As Davis explains, “Kim Jong-un wants his country to survive and prosper—his nuclear deterrent is a fundamental part of both. North Korea’s weapons increase the cost of regime change and provide a bargaining chip for sanctions relief.”
Moreover, as long as Pyongyang is secure from attack, Kim is free to continue the slow liberalization of the North Korean economy instead of focusing on his military. Already, Kim promised his people prosperity and has overseen a period of growth and improvement of livelihoods. North Korea has a rising middle class and fewer collectivized farms. A 2017–2018 Center for Strategic and International Studies study tallied 436 state-sanctioned markets (before they were suppressed) and now free market activity accounts for up to 50 percent of North Korea’s gross domestic product.
The National Interest reached out to Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean Studies professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, for his understanding of North Korea. He wrote, “The end game for Pyongyang is to perfect its nuclear posture and be positioned to bully, extort, censor the richer South at will. And, perhaps with luck, one day, absorb it. It’s a plan with a rational strategy and an end game in mind.”
Therefore, it seems likely North Korea will continue to hold out against CVID for a better deal (or more likely for no deal). Kim knows without deterrence he risks facing the same fate as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—all countries that were unable to defend themselves against American military power.
Seoul is also worried about security and economic growth. As North Korea’s neighbor, South Korea knows it would be the worst-hit in any conflict. The Pentagon estimates there would be twenty thousand daily fatalities during a conventional war. In addition, the Stimson Center’s 38North projects there could be between 1.3 and 3.8 million deaths if nuclear weapons were used against Seoul and Tokyo.
With arguably the most to lose, South Korea is wary of war and any actions that could cause one. This is why President Moon Jae-in has worked so hard, despite much criticism, to ensure Trump and Kim meet and keep the diplomatic ball rolling.
Lee told the National Interest, “For Seoul, inter-Korean rapprochement in any form—whether the richer South ends up directly and indirectly subsidizing the North’s WMD programs—is ‘good politics’ no matter what. The majority of the public will support the government’s efforts at de-escalation, as risk-averse as South Korea is.”
Skeptics like Lee believe that South Korea’s outreach is “a myopic ‘spend-now, pay-later’ sort of planning without a plan.” But other watchers argue that there is no other way forward for Seoul.
The National Interest previously interviewed Seoul’s special advisor for unification, diplomacy and national security affairs, Chung-in Moon. He argued: “[T]here are no viable options except engagement in dealing with North Korea. Whereas sanctions and maximum pressures have been of limited effect, military options are unacceptable because of devastating collateral damage.”
Chung-in Moon also believes upfront CVID is a non-starter for South Korea. “Pyongyang is not likely to accommodate American demand of ‘dismantle first, reward later.’ If the choice is framed as ‘all or nothing,’ Washington will continue to get nothing.”
The current administration in Seoul wants peace first and believes economic incentives are essential. After all, South Korean companies want to invest in North Korea to take advantage of cheaper labor and untapped trillions in natural resources as South Korea’s own economy slows down and its workforce ages.
Regardless of one’s view of South Korea’s insistence on a peace regime and negotiations first, the fact remains that Seoul must look after its physical security and that should include both open communication and deterrence.
Finally, there are China’s interests. Beijing wants regional stability and security on its border. Although China also is interested in exploiting North Korea’s resources and labor, Beijing is mostly concerned with using Pyongyang against Washington and ensuring Kim’s regime is stable.
Gordon Chang, a China and North Korea expert, explained to the National Interest, “Beijing should want the same things we do: the complete disarmament of North Korea. As a nuclear weapons state, China’s power is diminished by the presence of other ones… [But] they have been supporting Pyongyang’s weaponization efforts with technology, components, equipment, and materials. Evidently, they think they can get concessions from [America] on a range of issues by dangling cooperation on North Korea.”
China wants to grow its regional influence at the expense of the United States. But primarily, Beijing must prevent the chaos of a North Korean collapse. China does not want to deal with the thousands, if not millions, of refugees who would come streaming across its border. Furthermore, Beijing does not want to worry about loose nukes and the question of who would try to control them and how.
Finally, Beijing also worries a war or collapse could result in North Korea being absorbed by South Korea because fighting would likely bring the American military alliance right to China’s doorstep. China entered the Korean War in 1950 to push U.S. forces back across the 38th parallel and it is likely to do so again should it appear American forces intend to reach the Chinese border and stay there. This is why it should be assumed China will go to great lengths to keep Kim in power, no matter how much of a nuisance he is.
Assessing the Paths Forward
The options facing America are stark and difficult. Given nuclear deterrence, risks, and each country’s interests, anything that might plausibly lead to war is a no-go. This means attempts at denuclearization by force—whether a preemptively strike, bloody nose attack, or full-on invasion bent on regime change—should be off the table.
This appears to have also been the conclusion of all three previous U.S. administrations. All three presidents before Trump considered military attacks but realized they were not worth the risks.
So where does this leave Washington’s policy on Pyongyang?
Kim is unlikely to ever give up all of his nuclear weapons, although some limited rollback, ideally with a missile and nuclear test ban and caps on North Korea’s types and numbers of ICBMs, might be possible. As Sue Mi Terry, the Korea Chair senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote to the National Interest, “There is no ‘endgame’ per se.” However, Terry elaborated: “An interim freeze deal or a deal on ICBMs is still possible, although unlikely, and either would acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear weapons power, which will have huge consequences.”
Terry told the National Interest: “Rather than imagining that the North Korean threat will disappear soon, the U.S. needs to continue to act to contain, deter, and reduce the threat. The best way to do this is through a sanctions policy designed to deplete the North’s hard currency holdings and a military strategy designed to integrate regional missile defenses between the U.S. and its allies.”