During meetings with nearly two dozen regional security specialists in Northeast Asia in 2017, I often asked whether they considered North Korea to be a de facto nuclear weapon state. Their answer was “Of course!” Often these interlocutors then volunteered the advice that it would be wise for the United States to adapt its regional policy according to the new reality.
Those conversations came to mind as I read Robert E. Kelly’s recent op-ed about how maintaining the status quo with North Korea is “better than a bad deal.” In the year since I returned from Asia, I have been amazed by how many of our “Korea experts” are in denial of the matter “of course” reality accepted in Northeast Asia.
Kelly argued that “the world can learn to adjust to a nuclearized North Korea.” I agree, while noting that many countries in Northeast Asia have been making that adjustment for years now. It is no longer in the U.S. national interest to pursue policies that are premised on the denial of North Korea being a de facto nuclear power.
Kelly wrote: “North Korea will almost certainly insist on keeping most of its warheads.” Indeed, the notion is still popular in Washington that North Korea, having paid a very dear price to obtain nuclear weaponry, will agree to disarm unilaterally. This is quickly becoming a dangerous delusion.
Kelly continues, “Washington need not make reckless, desperate concessions, such as the removal of U.S. forces from South Korea . . . as nuclear deterrence with North Korea is stable.” Again, I agree, although I think the probability of Trump actually making such a bargain concerning U.S forces is extremely low; in part, because Congress has made it clear, it will not allow it.
U.S. nuclear capability is already enormously superior to North Korea’s minimum deterrent. North Korea surely understands that, and so we can be assured that the deterrence of North Korea will hold firm for decades to come.
The worrisome scenario is that the United States will opt for citing North Korean nukes as reason for “enhancing” its northeast Asian nuclear and anti-missile posture, thereby providing a good reason for the North to build more bombs and missiles rather than agree to limits in negotiations (a very real possibility with some sanctions relief.)
Kelly concludes the article, saying, “Slow-but-steady, reciprocal, and verifiable concessions is still the best way forward.” I concur, but I propose a small edit to his diplomatic guidance, thus: “Slow-but-steady, reciprocal, and verifiable steps toward a mutually-acceptable political future for Korea.”
What is the essential and significant difference in my re-write? The insertion of the phrase “steps toward a mutually-acceptable political future” is the key. I was introduced to this construction by a paper on the diplomatic history of the Agreed Framework authored by Christopher C. Lawrence, currently a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
In his paper Lawrence seeks to move the discourse from one of transactional diplomacy with its talk of ‘carrots and sticks’ and ‘concessions’ to one of relational diplomacy wherein the first task is to discover and establish a mutually-acceptable and shared political goal and then negotiate particular steps (especially ones that involve costly physical commitments) by which the parties move slowly and steadily toward the goal. The mutuality of the goal provides the incentive to cooperate. This is a much more productive approach to diplomacy, especially in cases where parties are seeking to overcome a long history of conflict and the related low levels of trust.
Robert Kelly’s preferred alternative to war or a bad deal is the status quo which he describes as “containing and deterring, sanctioning and isolating North Korea.” Yes, this might be a better option than starting a counter-proliferation war in which millions are likely to die. However, the status quo is a failed approach to Korean conflict and tension, being at least partially responsible for North Korea becoming a small, but real nuclear power.
There are numerous other options. The United States would do itself and the world a great service by exploring these with an open mind. For instance, rather than continue to isolate North Korea, the new realities require America to bring nuclear North Korea into as close a relationship as possible—so that there are opportunities to influence the North in regards to responsibly and safely managing its nuclear weaponry. At this time, it is hard to imagine that degree of trust between North Korea and the United States, but the United States can encourage China to play that role starting this year. Chinese and American interests align very closely in that regard.
This is not the place to explore the fifty ways to build a constructive relationship with the North. But I will mention a way that sits in plain view right in front of us. Our ally the Republic of Korea has been actively building a better relationship with the North for over a year now. The Panmunjom Declaration of 2018 set out in general terms the aspirations of a shared North-South Korean mutually acceptable political future. Sure, there is not yet a lot of meat on those bones, but both North and South Korea continue to work at many levels of government, week to week, on building the functioning body of that relationship.
Reverting to the status quo of no relationship is a remarkably uncreative response to the security dilemmas of the moment. Rather, by supporting its ally in building out the aspirations for Korean peace found in the Panmunjom declaration, the United States will strengthen the mutuality of the alliance while opening many paths to an acceptable political future for Korea.
Charles Knight is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, Washington, DC. His work since early 2017 has been focused on Korea.