Special envoy Stephen Bosworth has returned from Pyongyang after what he called "exploratory talks, not negotiations" over North Korea's nuclear program. Before that the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea was on the agenda in both Seoul and Beijing during President Barack Obama's trip to East Asia. Administrations change and years pass, but the threat of a nuclear North Korea continues.
No one, other than Kim Jong-il and a few devoted acolytes, wants the DPRK to develop nuclear weapons. However, what the world wants doesn't matter much to Kim.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to restrain him. Even if military strikes eliminated his nuclear facilities, they likely would trigger a destructive war in which South Korea would suffer almost as much as the DPRK. Tighter sanctions would hurt the population, but the North Korean elite was unmoved by mass starvation in the countryside. And without Chinese backing, tighter sanctions in theory won't be much tighter in practice.
Which leaves diplomacy.
No one should be optimistic about Pyongyang's willingness to negotiate away its nuclear program. There is increasing pessimism among U.S. policy makers. Polls indicate that the South Korean public doubts the North will disarm. Even Chinese analysts who once assumed Kim Jong-il was using brinkmanship to enhance his negotiating leverage now suspect he intends the DPRK to become a nuclear power. It's a daunting prospect. But the proper response is realism, not surrender.
The Obama administration's objective is complete denuclearization. Even the most pessimistic policy makers hesitate to admit the obvious: their efforts may be doomed to fail.
A back-up strategy is necessary.
Washington should work with South Korea, in particular, and Japan to develop a package of benefits as part of a "grand bargain"-peace treaty: diplomatic recognition, trade and aid. The proposal should be presented to China along with a request for the latter's assistance. Beijing insists on a peaceful resolution of the issue, achieved through U.S. engagement with North Korea. Washington should indicate that it is willing to take this approach, but needs Chinese help. Not just to get Pyongyang to the negotiating table, but to get results at the table.
Even so, unless the People's Republic of China is willing to risk its relationship with the North, prospects for success seem bleak. Warn John Park of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Drew Thompson of the Nixon Center, North Korean-Chinese "interdependence is growing, a trend having implications for U.S.-led efforts to denuclearize North Korea."
Thus, Washington should bargain for the verifiable elimination of Pyongyang's nuclear program, but consider accepting the DPRK as a limited nuclear state if necessary. It's an obvious second best, but most other alternatives are worse.
The essential point is simple: not all nuclear threats are equal. The creation of a North Korean nuclear capability would generate obvious unease throughout Northeast Asia. Kim is an unpredictable—though not irrational (and certainly not insane)—actor. His is not a regime to be should be trusted with nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, possession of a small arsenal would not much change the regional balance of power. The North would face destruction if it attacked South Korea or Japan; the former would receive no support from China but would face massive retaliation from the United States. The more promiscuous North Korea's threats to use its limited arsenal, the greater would be the temptation for Seoul and Tokyo to create their own weapons, and the greater would be the incentive for America to acquiesce in such a development.
Pyongyang still might feel more secure with nuclear weapons, and thus be more willing to engage in other provocative behavior. However, if its ability to expand its arsenal was capped, it would have only limited ability to engage in further geopolitical extortion. Kim's most potent threat today is to produce more nuclear materials and make more bombs. A few weapons also would satisfy the other presumed objectives of a regime that does not appear bent on suicide; by all accounts Kim prefers his virgins in this life rather than the next one. The purpose of the DPRK's nuclear program always appeared to be more deterrence and defense rather than aggression and offense. Even a limited arsenal would fulfill these goals. (The North would have less ability to engage in extortion, but a Western benefits package would address that urge.)
Most important, buying off the North's potential for future production would limit the threat of proliferation. Possessing the globe's most potent conventional and nuclear forces, America need not fear a minuscule DPRK nuclear capability. However, Washington cannot be so sanguine about the prospect of the spread of nuclear weapons.
First, if Pyongyang proceeds to develop (and continues to expand) a larger arsenal, moving it toward mid-range nuclear powers such as India, Israel, and Pakistan, neighboring South Korea and Japan would feel greater pressure to develop countervailing capabilities. They could reasonably believe that an otherwise North Korean defensive potential would eventually turn into an offensive capability. Fearing national destruction, they might prefer to develop the ability to defend themselves rather than rely on Washington's willingness to go to war on their behalf.
Second, if Pyongyang regularly produces nuclear materials, the regime might be tempted to take over the old Pakistani franchise of Nukes-R-Us and sell both materials and expertise around the world. North Korea already has supplied missile technologies and conventional arms to Iran and other nations. Such sales have been an important source of hard currency for the cash-poor regime.
There are charges, backed by varying degrees of evidence, that the North has cooperated on nuclear matters with Burma, Syria and Iran. The first is an improbable nuclear power and the second is an ugly rather than frightful potential nuclear weapons state; the third, however, poses as great a geopolitical challenge as North Korea. Iran probably could develop a nuclear capacity on its own, but Pyongyang could accelerate the process.
A greater fear is that the North might sell nuclear materials to terrorist groups. Absent unique circumstances, nation states, since they possess "return addresses," can be deterred. It is much harder to retaliate against groups and movements. Worse, some of them welcome or at least do not fear martyrdom.
The possibility of proliferation requires attention irrespective of the state of nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. The United States should work with allied states to interdict any nuclear shipments from the DPRK while informing the regime that proliferation to non-state actors would be a casus belli. Kim should be made to understand that there are far safer ways for the North to make money—particularly if he makes a deal.
Moreover, Washington should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. In any negotiations halting future North Korean nuclear development should be a higher priority than eliminating the DPRK's existing nuclear materials. The Obama administration should pursue full denuclearization. However, if this effort proves unavailing, the United States should raise the possibility of offering more modest benefits in exchange for more modest objectives.
As part of this effort, the United States should concentrate on enlisting Beijing's assistance to support the diplomatic process. Washington should point out that proliferation likely would result in the very regional instability which the PRC gives as a reason not to enforce tough economic sanctions against the North. While American policymakers most fear the possibility of out-of-area nuclear sales, China likely would most fear regional proliferation, leaving Seoul, Tokyo, and potentially even Taipei with nuclear weapons. North Korea's nuclear program remains a grave geopolitical challenge.
There may be no answer. There certainly is no easy answer. But in formulating its strategy, the Obama administration should remember that the greater danger is Pyongyang's potential sale of nuclear materials.
Ultimately, America might have to live with a second best solution involving the North's nuclear program. But second best would remain far better the other possible outcomes.