As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more it changes the more it stays the same). Kim Jong-un continues working on a sizeable nuclear arsenal of dozens of weapons and hundreds of missiles, including ICBM-capable Hwasong series and recently declared that Pyongyang’s commitment to nuclear weapons remains irreversible. The United States, Korea and other allies continue to demand completely, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. There is little prospect that this stand-off will end soon.
So it is not surprising that the chorus of voices that always wanted to compromise with Pyongyang is now singing out for us to do something new — to finally recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state as Pyongyang has long demanded.
Ankit Panda of Carnegie says with seemingly irrefutable logic that “we simply have to treat North Korea as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.” Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University states that we should accept that “North Korea is a nuclear arms state, and North Korea has all necessary delivery systems including pretty efficient ICBMs.” Arms control expert Jim Lewis argues that Biden needs to acknowledge “that we are not going to get North Korea to disarm” and that means “fundamentally accepting North Korea as a nuclear state.” This week the Stimson Center in Washington formed a panel of fellow arms control advocates Sig Hecker, Joel Wit and Sharon Squassoni to make a similar case.
What most of these experts advocate is not an official acknowledgment of North Korean nuclear weapons status, but instead a negotiating strategy based on the de facto acceptance of the North as a nuclear weapons state. For example, we might reassert a verifiable freeze at Yongbyon in exchange for sanctions-lifting and other incentives, but without insisting on verifable controls over the HEU programs that are more difficult for us to detect by planes and satellites. Put another way, we would give up on complete denuclearization in the hope of getting some limits on the threat. That was essentially the deal Kim Jong-un wanted from Donald Trump in Hanoi — and the US side rejected it.
This logic is superficially appealing. We never achieved arms control agreements with the Soviet Union by demanding complete denuclearization, after all. But we are not talking about the Soviet Union in this case.
First, we know with high certainty that Pyongyang uses these partial deals to pump up the missile and nuclear programs we don’t control to the then break-out and demand more concessions several years down the road. The 1992 North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization was followed almost immediately by Pyongyang’s break-out at Yongbyon. Pyongyang began cheating on the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework within only a few years by pursuing nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment. Multiple other agreements from the Japan-DPRK 2002 agreement to the 2005 and 2008 Six Party Talks agreements were blown apart by North Korea. North Korea has an almost perfect track record of cheating. The Soviets definitely cheated at the margins, but nothing like the North Koreans.
Moreover, to achieve an arms control agreement with North Korea, Pyongyang will first require lifting of sanctions and other steps that will only make it easier for the regime to obtain materials and technologies needed to accelerate nuclear weapons at an even faster pace and to weaken the deterrence needed to defend against their weapons. We know that in the more permissive international environment after the Agreed Framework, for example, the North tapped into networks around the world to obtain all the centrifuges and other materials it needed to develop highly enriched uranium. Christopher Hill was only able to achieve a rhetorical diplomatic victory in 2007 by rolling back sanctions on Banco Delta Asia and relaxing the pressure on North Korean illicit banking activities. Pyongyang quickly violated that agreement and resumed testing, but it took years for our side to try to rebuild the network that had been strangling the North’s financing of proliferation. Donald Trump’s 2018 unilateral suspension of military exercises — at Putin’s suggestion — may have lubricated his romance with Kim Jong-un and contributed to a temporary cessation of nuclear tests, but it also weakened readiness for US and ROK forces and took years to reinstate because the Moon government was trapped into self-deterring fear of provoking the North. It must be clearly understood that the price of arms control talks with a de facto nuclear North Korea will always be demands that we weaken our own defenses. If we thought these agreements might hold, it would be worth it. But we know they won’t.
And while it may seem that not officially recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state is sufficient reassurance for the world, the fact is that de jure recognition of North Korean nuclear weapons status through new negotiating frameworks would do almost as much damage to the credibility of US alliances and international commitments. As Bruce Klingner of Heritage emphasizes, this would mean throwing out the 11 UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea for one thing. Appeasing the North to get an agreement would also rattle US allies in Asia (with the exception of the progressive left in Korea, perhaps). This is precisely the dynamic we should be avoiding in the face of North Korean provocations and Chinese and Russian coercion. Indeed, the biggest advocates of moving to recognize North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state outside of arms controllers in the United States and Korea are Putin and Xi Jinping. Why? Because the move would weaken the US alliance system.
Containing North Korean nuclear ambitions through sanctions and deterrence is an unsatisfying approach for those who want quick wins. It is the worst option we have —except for all the other options. We are not going to decapitate the regime because that would involve far too much risk. We now know from thirty years of experience that accommodating the regime buys short-term gain — but at the cost of far greater risk down the road. Despite the pleas from the arms control community, I see little appetite for making that mistake again in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo. But neither are these binary choices: Presidents Biden and Yoon should energize diplomacy with the North to see what confidence-building or limitations are possible without the self-defeating move of surrendering on de-nuclearization. Deterrence is most important, but that does not completely obviate the need for some supporting diplomatic efforts.