US Perspective

Deterrence, NPT and the Two Koreas

What Has Changed and What Is New in Engaging North Korea? (from remarks prepared for the Asan Nuclear Forum, February 2013)

The year 2013 marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of talks to address the first North Korean nuclear crisis. That crisis arose when the IAEA found the DPRK to be in violation of its safeguards commitments. The UN Security Council then took action, and North Korea responded by announcing its intention to withdraw from the NPT. The rest, as they say, is history. But now, 20 years later, it is appropriate to begin by asking what has changed over the years, what is new, and what difference does it make? Certainly, there have been many periods of crisis with North Korea over the last two decades, periods that look similar in terms of the flow of events, even though the United States has changed presidents three times since then and North Korea has changed leaders twice. But, while there is a déjà vu about today’s situation, there are obviously important differences as well.

One difference is that we have indeed “been here before,” and we now have experience with each other and, like advanced judo players, we know each other’s moves and favorite throws. There are the recurring threats of death and destruction from the North, followed by nuclear explosions and ballistic missile tests, and sometimes by dangerous and provocative military and naval actions. For our part, we have predictably reacted by intensifying the sanctions regime against the North, increasing its isolation from the rest of the world and probably added to the hardships facing the North Korean people. In between crises we have had periods of political engagement. The North has more than once committed to eventually giving up its nuclear weapons program. Political and economic contacts between South and North have increased, and the United States has engaged in diplomatic activity, at different times, involving different numbers of parties, from the bilateral at two, to a full house at six.

But before we conclude that “le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose,”1 let us remember that 20 years ago North Korea had accumulated only a small amount of plutonium, had no uranium enrichment program, and had neither tested nor built any nuclear weapons. And its most sophisticated ballistic missile was the medium-range No Dong. Now, a fair estimate would be that North Korea has accumulated 20 to 40kgs of plutonium—enough for up to eight nuclear weapons—conducted three nuclear explosive tests, is increasing its fissile material stocks daily with a modern gas centrifuge enrichment program, and is headed for a robust nuclear weapons program mated to a ballistic missile capability of intermediate and eventually intercontinental range. But what does all that mean?

First, however one characterizes the policy we have pursued over the last 20 years—engagement, containment, whatever—it has failed to reduce the threat posed by North Korea to the security of the region. Starkly put, the threat is that some incident or provocation from the North will result in a significant military or naval engagement on or near the Korean Peninsula and, exacerbated by the presence of nuclear weapons in the North, it will lead to a larger conflict and the tragic loss of life on all sides. The threat is also, of course, that nuclear weapons could be used in such a conflict. Short of war, the threat is that the growing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in the North will lead the governments of other countries in the region to reconsider their commitment to non-nuclear status, and then the non-proliferation regime will unravel, reducing the security of countries in the region and around the world.

The threat is also that, at any moment, North Korea will transfer some sensitive bit of nuclear weapons material or technology to a terrorist group or to a country known to sponsor terrorists. I note that this has already happened, referring here to the plutonium production reactor that North Korea built in Syria and which Israel destroyed by bombing before its completion six years ago. This particular threat—nuclear terrorism—is the thing we worry about most in the United States. It is not the major concern in South Korea, but it is one for Americans. Right now, one analyst, Graham Allison of Harvard, argues that the North Korean nuclear test is sort of an announcement that “the store is open for business,” that the North will sell highly enriched uranium, nuclear weapons designs, or even nuclear weapons to all comers. Not a happy thought if you live in one of America’s cities.

For Americans, this threat is far greater and unlike the threat that may someday be posed by North Korean nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles. That threat may be met first by deterrence, the promise of retaliation against a strike, or even by mounting a defense by denial, a ballistic missile defense, which would shoot down an incoming missile. But the terrorist threat —an improvised nuclear device, delivered anonymously and unconventionally by boat or truck across our long and unprotected borders—is one against which we have no certain deterrent or defensive response. This is why the threat of North Korean transfer is so serious from the American perspective.

The second thing that seems to be true now is that the dominant, but mostly unspoken question of twenty years ago about North Korea, still plagues us today. Does the North pursue a nuclear weapons program because it fears an attack from the South or an invasion aimed at regime change by the United States, in other words, because it wants a deterrent for defensive purposes? Or, is the North actually unalterably committed to reunifying the peninsula by force and intent on breaking the South’s alliance with the United States by holding American cities hostage to a ballistic missile strike? In other words, is the North’s nuclear weapons program aimed at deterring the United States for offensive purposes? Simply put, if the first characterization is correct, there is hope for diplomacy, hope that, over time, the right formula might be found for reducing tensions, defusing the nuclear issue and building trust among all parties. But if the second proposition is more nearly correct, evolutionary change should not be expected, and perhaps the best that can be achieved is the constant avoidance of armed conflict, but with no genuine reduction in tensions.

Under the circumstances, it is probably true now, as it was twenty years ago, that exploring the North Korean position, carefully testing the North to discern its intentions, engaging diplomatically to see if tensions can genuinely be reduced and a political settlement found, is the best way to proceed. All of this needs to be accomplished, of course, while maintaining military readiness. We cannot afford to leave any doubt in the minds of those in the North about our determination and ability to meet and defeat any threat that they might present.

The third thing that seems to be true then, if this is the route we decide to take, is that an exclusive focus in our diplomacy on the one thing that troubles us most, the North’s nuclear weapons program, is not a productive way to proceed. This is the opposite of what seemed to be true twenty years ago. Then, we needed to limit our goal to stopping the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Now, our engagement must be broad, with the aim to address a range of political, economic, and security issues. That said, the end game must still envision the North’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program. We need not, indeed should not, lead with this objective, but there can be no ambiguity about this being a feature of any political process structured to address all parties’ concerns.

This approach resembles more closely the six-party diplomacy of 2007 than the bilateral approach that gave us the Agreed Framework in 1994. To some, this may suggest that for engagement to work, we should resurrect the six-party formula. But at its core, North Korea’s concern is about the survival of its political system. This suggests that Seoul, Washington, and Beijing are the only essential players, at least initially. There are probably many reasons why the arrangements of 2007 came undone, but I suspect the failure to reach a clear understanding of how the nuclear issue would be resolved was critical to the failure. We should not repeat that mistake; there will be plenty of opportunities for us to make new ones.

Three more points need to be made in connection with any proposal to engage the North. First, there is no basis for successfully dealing with the North absent a solid foundation for policy rooted in the US-ROK alliance. The North will always look for ways to shake that foundation, but the national security of both our countries and the basis for a political settlement with the North that includes the elimination of nuclear weapons from the peninsula, assumes a strong alliance between Seoul and Washington. That has always been true and will remain so. Second, China has a legitimate interest in how matters are resolved with North Korea, and can play an important role in shaping outcomes. Consulting with Beijing early in the development of a policy of political engagement will be critical to its success. Our interests are not congruent with China’s but they do overlap. Neither of us wants to see a military or a naval engagement in Northeast Asia. Other countries, Japan and Russia, for starters, would have to be included as well, of course, before any settlement was finally concluded. Finally, I cannot imagine a protracted engagement with North Korea—and if engagement is to succeed, it will be protracted—which fails to attract sufficient domestic political support in the United States and South Korea. In short, while our diplomacy may begin quietly, it must eventually be open, based on realistic assessments of our national security interests, and reflect neither naiveté nor wishful thinking. We are, after all, democracies.

Among the implications of this proposition is that restraint must be part of a negotiating process. Provocations from the North of the kind we have seen in the past must be understood as incompatible with negotiations, undercutting the domestic support essential to sustain diplomatic engagement. If it were to turn out that for now, at least, there is no way to address the North Korean nuclear program through negotiations, that as Pyongyang intermittently claims and critics of diplomacy have asserted for decades, the North will not give up its nuclear weapons program, then the United States should not engage in broad negotiations with the North, which could only serve to legitimize its nuclear weapons status. Sanctions, political containment, and a strong deterrent and conventional military defense would seem to be more appropriate. But that said, any realist, any pragmatist, would want to test the proposition that there, indeed, is no negotiated way to a nuclear weapons-free North Korea, before we simply act on that assumption.

1. “The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing.”