At the first in-person bilateral meeting of his administration, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minster Yoshihide Suga reaffirmed their mutual commitment to pursuing a denuclearized North Korea. These statements come nearly a month after President Biden singled out North Korea as Washington’s number one foreign policy challenge in response to Pyongyang’s recent ballistic missile tests. However, while the goal of a denuclearized North Korea is nearly considered gospel within the American foreign policy establishment, it would be remiss to allow such a misguided policy to go un-scrutinized. Viewed clearly, the aggressive pursuit of a denuclearized North Korea is not only founded on faulty assumptions, but it threatens to provoke the very nightmare Washington wishes to avoid.
Insecurity greatly shapes the foreign policies of states, and North Korea is no exception. But Washington’s long-running goal to denuclearize North Korea is predicated on the idea that Pyongyang does not cherish its own survival enough to avoid starting a nuclear war. In his 2012 article in Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Waltz argued that fears of a nuclear Iran were founded on “fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave,” and the same can be said in regards to North Korea.
States want to survive. According to the University of Chicago’s Dr. John Mearsheimer, “survival dominates other motives because, once a state is conquered, it is unlikely to be in a position to pursue other aims.”
Alongside being conquered, a state arguably would not be able to pursue other aims once it has been obliterated in a nuclear holocaust, which is precisely what would happen if North Korea ever used its nuclear weapons against America or a U.S. ally. In fact, it is Pyongyang’s rational want of survival that motivated it to build nuclear weapons in the first place.
Over the past three decades, Washington has chosen to place military might at the center of American foreign policy, sowing distrust across the globe while neglecting its citizens at home. From its invasion of Iraq to its violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 in Libya, Washington has shown that it is more than willing to use hard power and this has provided Pyongyang with sufficient reason to be suspicious when told nuclear weapons are unnecessary. Following America’s misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration used its new reputation as regional leviathan to convince Libya to give up its nuclear weapons program; nearly a decade later, Washington returned to overthrow the Libyan government. Why should the North Koreans expect anything different for themselves?
Unfortunately, there is at least one rational reason that could motivate North Korea to use its nuclear weapons in a way that would ultimately prove self-destructive—but it can be easily avoided by policymakers in Washington. If Pyongyang believes the status-quo is so disadvantageous, with little to no chance of improving, it may feel as though it quite literally has nothing to lose.
This was the case with Imperial Japan leading up to Pearl Harbor. As Dr. Mearsheimer notes in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Japan chose to attack the United States “knowing full well that it would probably lose…” because the status quo was just too unacceptable. If the United States continues to cut off North Korea from the international economy, preventing even the slightest form of economic development, it may risk yet another war of choice, with all of the death, destruction, and regional instability that comes with it.
Biden has stated that his administration is “open to diplomacy,” but only if it is “conditioned on the end result of denuclearization.” Unfortunately, this is yet another example of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of good. Lara Seligman at Politico writes that “no mainstream analyst believes the North will ever voluntarily give up its entire nuclear arsenal” and it is foolish for the president to act as though it will. Diplomacy does offer hope for a more stable East Asia, but only if it is predicated on a realistic understanding of the situation at hand. Curbing North Korean cyber-attacks, reuniting Japanese abductees with their families, and fostering closer integration between the North and South are all opportunities for engagement, but none are likely to occur while an unflinching and maximalist policy of denuclearization is required before Washington works toward more realistic goals.
Biden should not sleepwalk down the same path that has failed his predecessors. Washington needs to develop a realistic approach towards North Korea and that can only be achieved once policymakers recognize North Korea for what it is—a rational actor trying to survive. The United States does not have to like North Korea and Pyongyang is likely to continue being a thorn in Washington’s side. But so long as the United States views North Korea as a “rogue state” that must be contained and not merely deterred, it is all too likely that America will find itself in yet another war of choice in a region that was much more stable before Uncle Sam tried to “help.”
Will Goode is an incoming master’s student at the University of Chicago. His areas of interests include American grand strategy and international relations theory.