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Treat N. Korea as nuke-armed adult

16 April, 2013

CISS Fellow Dr John Lee has published an opinion piece in The China Post on the possibility of North Korea becoming a permanent nuclear weapons state.

When North Korea's latest round of bluster and threats subside, hopefully without a shot fired in anger across the Korean Peninsula, how should America and its allies proceed? For almost two decades, Pyongyang has been able to outwit and out-negotiate Washington because America holds on to the prospect that it is possible to persuade or else compel North Korea to give up its weapons of mass destruction.

The overwhelming evidence is that Kim Jong Un, like his father, will never give up the country's nuclear arsenal under any circumstances. Instead, it is time to accept terrible reality and treat North Korea as a permanent nuclear weapons state, put in place enduring measures that will decisively restrain its use of these weapons, and do what little it can to help plant the seeds of domestic reform that will one day sweep the monstrous regime from power in a future time.

First, why conceded defeat and accept the Hermit Kingdom as a nuclear one when it is theoretically possible for any state to give up its nuclear program?

The country and its regime is the most opaque in the world. But we can confidently surmise that regime survival is the primary and ultimate aim of the benevolent sounding Worker's Party of Korea (KWP). Just as controlling the levers of economic power and keeping the military onside preserves the KWP's power at home, possessing a credible nuclear arsenal is used to ward of any plans that Washington or its allies in East Asia might have of precipitating regime change through force.

Indeed, Pyongyang's generals wonder aloud whether Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya would still be alive and in power today had they possessed the capacity to threaten a nuclear strike against an American or Western European ally as a warning against outside forces attempting to topple these regimes. Watching Washington using kid-gloves in dealing with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang is one important reason why the theocracy in Tehran is seeking to develop its own nuclear weapons arsenal. The point is that Pyongyang has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons since the regime believes that its very survival depends on it. And America and its allies have no way to force Pyongyang's dispossession without an extremely risky and escalating war. Moreover, the hope that China is able or else is willing to genuinely help this cause — through enforcing a coordinated sanctions regime and other measures — is all but gone.

What happens if we accept that Pyongyang will remain a nuclear state?

Up to now, the hope of the international community is always North Korea eventually agreeing to sit sincerely at the negotiating table to talk through dismantling the country's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. For 15 years, North Korea has managed to coax or else extort more than US$1 billion of aid and other assistance from America and US$4 billion from South Korea without keeping its promises. Through it all, “hard-liners” remain in control. Accepting the irreversible reality of a nuclear armed North Korea will remove Pyongyang's primary bargaining chip that it could be persuaded to give up its WMDs and put an end to this farce. To be sure, Pyongyang will still have several nukes. But a stalemate based on reality is better than being continually outwitted and out-negotiated through persisting with a fantasy.

Furthermore, moving the policy debate from the impossible goal of denuclearizing North Korea will eventually stop large sections of the population in South Korea or Japan from blaming an overly assertive America or else its poor negotiation skills for North Korean intransigence. Accepting the nuclear reality would allow Washington to squarely meet the challenge with East Asian allies without self- or allied-imposed inhibitions; and distractions based on trying just one more round of negotiations that are bound to fail. Instead, Washington would be free to focus on making deterrence more credible and bluntly inform Pyongyang that it is subject to the same rules as other nuclear adversaries: any use of its nuclear arsenal against America or its allies will provoke a devastating U.S. response that will certainly end the existence of the regime.

By calling a spade a spade, Washington is more likely to convince anxious allies that it is preparing for the worst with a cool and clear head. This would help rebuild grass-roots support for American military and possibly nuclear assets in South Korea and Japan needed to effectively deter North Korea from using its WMDs. Pyongyang will be treated as a dangerous adult that needs to be contained with all that entails and not simply a spoilt child that can be made to respond to economic carrots and sticks — a proper starting point for Washington if it decides to engage Pyongyang at the highest levels in a future time. The red herring of faux disarmament will be removed from the bargaining table. Incidentally, an indication that strategy and diplomacy becomes harder, more dangerous and complicated, rather than easier for rogue states with recently acquired nuclear weapons would send a clear message to those in Tehran with nuclear ambitions.

Few things are more enfeebling for a superpower trying to reassure allies of its staying power in Asia than its reluctance to openly acknowledge reality. America's position is that it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Unfortunately, it already is and will remain so until the Kim dynasty falls.

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow for Energy Security and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.

The article was published in The China Daily on 11 April 2013.