October 10 was the 75th anniversary of the foundation of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party. It was, in classic North Korean style, accompanied by a massive military parade. These are a good opportunity for foreign observers to see North Korea’s newest and flashiest hardware on display. The regime is typical quite secretive.
This week Pyongyang rolled out its largest nuclear missile yet. This intercontinental ballistic missile was carried on a transporter-erector launcher with eleven axels. This is large, almost certainly a heavy weapon with a long-range and expanded throw weight – and almost certainly intended for striking the United States. There is really no other reason for North Korea to build such a massive missile, reminiscent of the large platforms made by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War. (Here is a useful thread on the technical specs, at least as far as one can guess from the imagery provided by North Korean state media.)
This is not unexpected. North Korea has hinted for a while that it might soon reveal a ‘new strategic weapon.’ The general take among analysts is that this weapon is intended to signal North Korea’s frustration with the slow pace of negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea in the last few years.
This is almost certainly correct. If the U.S. and South Korea will not deal, then North Korea likely sees that it has no choice but to build out in order to deter any possible U.S. action against it. The U.S. has a long post-Cold War record of attacking small opponents – ‘rogue states’ like Iraq, Yugoslavia, or Afghanistan. It is not irrational for North Korea to fear similar actions against it. President George W. Bush, for example, placed the North on the axis of evil.
It is unlikely that North Korea intends its strategic nuclear weapons – the ones which could strike the U.S., as this new one can – for offensive purposes. North Korea is dangerous but not irrational. Its elite does not wish to go down in a blaze of glory like Hitler in the bunker or ISIS. The leadership knows the North would lose a war. These weapons are primarily intended for defense via deterrence.
But they also serve as bargaining chips in any negotiation, and they subtly push U.S. and South Korean elites back to diplomacy. Without them, North Korea was more easily subject to coercion and isolation. The Americans particularly could threaten force credibly, because North Korea lacked the ability to strike the U.S. mainland in response. Now it can. Now any U.S. president must confront the possibility of nuclear detonations in the U.S. if he/she were to attack Pyongyang. It is highly unlikely a president would make such a choice.
In short, North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state. We may not accept it, but there is little we can do about it. This is now the reality on the ground. So what do we do?
First, some realism: we should stop asking North Korea to completely denuclearize while offering little in return. The North Koreans are not stupid. They are not going to give up their weapons without commensurate concessions from the US, South Korea, and Japan. And they are certainly not going to ‘completely, verifiably, and irreversibly disarm’ (CVID) without massive counter-concessions. This is a fantasy.
This is the core problem of U.S. President Donald Trump’s entire approach in the last few years. He dramatically overhyped the possibility of a huge breakthrough. Again and again, he and his team spoke of complete denuclearization, when this was always highly unlikely. Even if the North Koreans are willing to give up a lot of their weapons, they are very unlikely to give them all up. CVID set the bar extraordinarily high. Worse, team Trump offered nothing remotely commensurate to the scale of concessions it demanded. If Trump really wants CVID, the price is probably something extraordinarily high, as the end of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Second, if the U.S. is unwilling to make such massive concessions, as seems likely, then Washington must either: A) simply accustom itself to North Korea as a nuclear weapons state (which is already tacitly happening), or B) negotiate smaller deals with North Korea which do not carry such a high price for the allied side.
For example, there are widespread concerns about nuclear safety in North Korea. No foreign inspectors have observed its facilities. A Chernobyl-style incident would be a regional disaster. China has an interest in preventing this too. So here is a possible small deal involving multiple powers – not just the U.S. – engaging the North on an issue – safety – about which it also likely has concerns. We would need to offer the North something in return – some sanctions relief perhaps, or development assistance.
This is hardly ideal, of course. The North should follow safety protocols out of self-interest, not because we bribe them. But this is the nature of the regime. And if we can get North Korea talking about issues peripheral to its weapons this time, perhaps we can move that onto the next time.
There is no big bang deal to be had with North Korea at a price Washington would find acceptable. The U.S. is not going to retrench from South Korea or Japan to end the North Korean nuclear program completely. That no one is even discussing concessions on that scale tells you that the U.S. would rather live with North Korea’s nuclear weapons than make the concessions necessary to end it. So either we simply live with it, or we start searching for smaller deals. There is no other alternative.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Political Science and Diplomacy Department of Pusan National University in Busan, Korea. You can follow him on Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly.