Dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea

Evans J.R. Revere writes: North Korea’s leaders long ago concluded that the United States would not attack a country that has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. North Korean interlocutors have said as much in unofficial dialogues with American experts, and also declared that the DPRK was determined “not to become another Libya or Iraq.”[1] The belief that the only way to defend against American military power is to possess nuclear weapons was a central theme of DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly on September 23, 2016.

Meanwhile, a second motivation for North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is now clear. DPRK representatives have said privately to American interlocutors that they have the United States “deterred.” They believe they have neutralized the U.S. ability to bring its conventional and strategic capabilities to bear against the North. They assert that the United States and the international community must now live with, if not formally accept, a permanently nuclear-armed North Korea. They have declared that the DPRK’s possession of a deterrent means the United States should now accept Pyongyang’s longstanding demand to negotiate a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice agreement.

North Korean officials have also reaffirmed privately what the DPRK has declared publicly: North Korea will not, under any circumstances, give up its nuclear weapons. They have made clear that the DPRK is prepared to use its nuclear assets to strike regional targets and the United States, preemptively if necessary. And they have emphasized the DPRK’s intention to further strengthen its nuclear and missile arsenals, a point Foreign Minister Ri also made in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.

North Korean representatives have said the United States and the DPRK should now engage in “arms control” talks. One goal of such talks would be removing the U.S. “threat,” which the North Koreans, when asked, define as the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, and the removal of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella”—the centerpiece of the extended deterrent that helps defend South Korea and Japan.

DPRK representatives clearly do not understand that none of their beliefs or assertions are true or possible. Nor does it seem that Pyongyang comprehends the unacceptability of its demands of the United States.

Pyongyang appears to believe its nuclear and missile forces have fundamentally changed the dynamics of U.S.-DPRK relations. Significantly, North Korea may also think it can compel the United States to enter a dialogue that would achieve its long-sought goals of ending the U.S.-ROK alliance and removing the U.S. extended deterrent. If Pyongyang were to succeed in doing this, it would open the way for the DPRK to achieve its ultimate goal: the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on its terms.

The DPRK may also believe that the mere existence of its nuclear capabilities will complicate U.S.-ROK alliance crisis management decisionmaking, and give the United States and its allies pause before responding to a conventional provocation.

By threatening the actual use of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is signaling its preparedness to risk more in trying to achieve its goals than the United States and the ROK are willing to in defending their interests. Put another way, Pyongyang’s message to the United States is: “We are willing to risk nuclear war to achieve our goals, are you?”

This thinking represents a unique challenge to the U.S.-ROK alliance and to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to deter North Korea and defend South Korea. The belief that it has changed the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula makes the danger posed by North Korea all the more destabilizing. It requires the United States, its allies, and partners to find a better way to deal with the North Korean threat.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s actions and rhetoric are also designed to make the United States’ choices as stark and difficult as possible. By closing off options that the United States might prefer, Pyongyang hopes to leave the United States with no alterative but to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea on its terms.

The DPRK has declared denuclearization dead, and with it, any possibility of a dialogue on the subject. To reinforce this point, both the DPRK’s foreign minister at the U.N. General Assembly and individual North Korean representatives in informal dialogues have stressed not only North Korea’s intention to retain nuclear weapons, but also its plan to expand its nuclear arsenal and refine the capabilities of its ballistic missile delivery systems.

By making clear what North Korea is prepared to risk, the DPRK seeks to force the United States to choose between accepting a nuclear-armed North or risking war to prevent Pyongyang from realizing its nuclear ambitions.

As the next American president mulls options, he or she will need to take into account the evolution of China’s position on North Korea.

There are signs that the United States may have reached the limits of Beijing’s willingness to do more to isolate and pressure the DPRK. Beijing’s distaste for sanctions, its opposition to unilateral measures, and its concern that excessive pressure could lead to the collapse of the regime are well-known. These Chinese concerns have not abated as Beijing sees growing U.S., ROK, and Japanese interest in taking sanctions and pressure to a new level.

Even after the latest nuclear test, China has resisted demands that it do more against Pyongyang. On September 14, the Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily rejected U.S. suggestions that China take further steps, saying that the United States bears primary responsibility for the current situation. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson had already weighed in along similar lines on September 12, saying that the North Korea issue was a “dispute between the DPRK and the United States” and expressing opposition to the role of sanctions in dealing with North Korea.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang managed to avoid mentioning sanctions at all in his September 21 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly used a September 14 telephone call with his Japanese counterpart to convey opposition to unilateral sanctions on North Korea.

China is trying to have it both ways on North Korea. Beijing’s leadership continues to stress the importance of friendly China-DPRK ties, while China avoids directly challenging North Korea’s assertions about its nuclear ambitions. Constant attentiveness to North Korean sensitivities characterizes China’s approach to dealing with its troublesome neighbor and ally, even as Pyongyang’s actions threaten regional stability.

China is more direct and often critical when it has something to say about the U.S. position on North Korea. This reflects longstanding Chinese misgivings about Washington’s preference for sanctions and pressure. But Beijing’s opposition to tougher steps on North Korea is increasingly being driven by broader, geopolitical concerns, especially China’s strategic rivalry with the United States in East Asia. [Continue reading…]

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  1. Óscar Palacios says:

    “The US is trying to have it both ways on Israel. Washington’s leadership continues to stress the importance of friendly The US-Israel ties, while the US avoids directly challenging Israel’s assertions about its nuclear ambitions. Constant attentiveness to Israeli sensitivities characterizes the US’s approach to dealing with its troublesome neighbor and ally, even as Tel Aviv’s actions threaten regional stability.”