Dealing with a Nuclear North Korea

November 22, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Korea Times on November 22, 2010.

North Korea is a nuclear power. The U.S. should get used to it. Washington’s drive to prevent the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons is dead.

Yet the Obama administration is pushing to restart nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell recently opined: “We need to see a very clear signal that this new leadership — or some structure in North Korea — accepts the very clear commitments that North Korea made in 2005 to denuclearization.”

There’s little reason to believe those commitments were ever sincere. Nuclear weapons offer the Kim regime obvious advantages internationally.

The domestic reasons are no less compelling. How better to run a “military first” policy than to give the armed services the ultimate weapon?

Whether Kim was ever willing to trade away his nuclear program may never be known. Maybe he’s still prepared to yield up future production. But he has given no indication that he is willing to turn over his existing arsenal.

Indeed, the regime appears to have restarted construction activity at the Yongbyon nuclear site, where in 2008 it demolished an old reactor’s cooling tower. Moreover, Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator with the North, warned: “They have continued to work on their systems for delivering nuclear weapons.”

Pyongyang’s recent policy toward the South has been unreservedly hostile. Last March the DPRK sank a South Korean frigate, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

Unfortunately, the situation is only likely to worsen as “Dear Leader” Kim Jong‐​il attempts to pass power on to his youngest son, Kim Jong‐​un. Despite the formal anointment at the recent meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, the succession may not be smooth.

There are many potential claimants for power — Kim Jong-il’s sister and brother‐​in‐​law, a slightly older son criticized as effeminate by his father and an even older son by a different wife living in disgraced but luxurious exile in Macau. Plus numerous party and military officials who have been waiting for years for their turn at the top.

Moreover, an uncertain political environment discourages serious negotiation over nonproliferation. A weakened “Dear Leader” dependent on military support is not likely to sacrifice the nuclear weapons developed at enormous expense. No one struggling for power after his demise is likely to stand against the military.

Thus, the best outcome in the next several years likely is the status quo. Negotiations may not hurt, but they are unlikely to provide any discernible benefit.

Unfortunately, none of the DPRK’s neighbors are inclined to be particularly helpful.

South Korea’s policy has ranged from isolation of the North to provision of subsidies for the impoverished communist state, while relying on the U.S. for its defense.

Seoul recently softened its position again. Japan has subordinated policy toward the DPRK to resolving the status of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang’s agents in past years.

The ever more assertive Beijing obviously believes that stability matters more than anything else. Indeed, the Chinese have been expanding investment in the North. The result has been to discourage reform.

Nothing is likely to change in the near future. Washington should step back and leave the issue to the North’s neighbors.

The only Americans within easy reach of Pyongyang’s arms are those stationed in South Korea. Given the ROK’s manifold advantages over North Korea, an American military garrison is unnecessary. The troops should come home.

Then Washington should adopt a policy of benign neglect toward the North. Let Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing bear the risk of implosion, war, or proliferation.

In particular, the U.S. should point out to China that North Korea remains a potential national powder keg, with a rushed power transfer amid a continuing economic crisis. Moreover, a regime willing to risk war by sinking a South Korean vessel may make a deadlier miscalculation in the future.

Moreover, Washington should indicate that it does not intend to allow a nonproliferation policy to leave only the bad guys with nuclear weapons.

Should the North continue with its nuclear program, the U.S. would reconsider its opposition to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by South Korea and Japan. Proliferation in Northeast Asia might be a nightmare, but if so, it will be one shared by Beijing.

Then the U.S. should turn its attention elsewhere.

Washington’s policy toward the DPRK has failed. North Korea is a nuclear power and is unlikely to voluntarily surrender that status.

Rather than continue a fruitless campaign to denuclearize the North, the U.S. should hand off the problem to those nations with the most at stake in a peaceful and stable North Korea. Those nations with the most at stake should take the lead in resolving Northeast Asia’s problems.

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