The Debate | Opinion

Peace in Korea Can Happen Without Denuclearization

Pyongyang is going to remain a nuclear weapons state for the foreseeable future. U.S. policymakers must learn to live with this reality. 

By Daniel R. DePetris for
Peace in Korea Can Happen Without Denuclearization

If the Trump administration still possessed an inkling of hope that North Korea would denuclearize, Kim Jong Un gave an unambiguous answer during a July 28 address — not in your wildest dreams.

“We have become able to reliably defend ourselves against any form of high-intensity pressure and military threat by imperialist reactionaries and other hostile forces,” the Korean Central News Agency reported Kim as telling a group of war veterans that day. “Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word war would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever.”

Struggle through the flowery jargon typical of North Korean state media and one can’t miss the elephant in the room: North Korea’s nuclear weapons are here to stay.

It is far past time for U.S. policy to account for that reality. 

Since North Korea’s first underground nuclear test in 2006, three consecutive U.S. administrations have based U.S. policy on the same set of dubious propositions: that peace on the Korean Peninsula is not possible until the Kim dynasty proves its willingness to surrender its nuclear program; that economic sanctions will over time force Pyongyang to meet Washington’s denuclearization demands; and that North Korea is a dangerous, revisionist state ruled by an irrational government.

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Each one of these assumptions has grown more irrelevant with the passage of time and should be immediately discarded.

The third assumption — North Korea as a suicidal state — is the easiest to refute. While no one can doubt Pyongyang’s ability to ruthlessly suppress its own people or ignore its talent for massive displays of propaganda, the Kim dynasty has revealed itself to be shrewdly focused on its own survival and imminently rational. Attaining a nuclear arsenal to ensure regime survival is actually a wise choice for North Korea, an isolated and impoverished state with no real allies, the United States as its long-time adversary, and neighbors infinitely wealthier and more technologically capable than anything the Kim dynasty could hope for. You don’t need a doctorate in political science to recognize why asking North Korea to trade away its ultimate security guarantee for promises of sanctions relief, economic development, and diplomatic normalization is the definition of a tall order.  

This leads us to the second assumption about sanctions. Utilizing the U.S.-dominated financial system to punish adversaries and force competitors to change their behavior has become perhaps the favored tool in Washington’s foreign policy toolbox. Yet time and again, U.S. policymakers and lawmakers are unable to grasp the concept that targeted countries have independent agency and often an incentive to resist this kind of economic pressure from more dominant powers. As the North Koreans have demonstrated for the last 14 years, they are far more likely to skirt the banking and trading sanctions by exploiting an ever more innovative list of tactics than take the risk of submitting to U.S. policy demands and leaving Pyongyang exposed to a number of unpleasant future scenarios. No amount of U.S. or international sanctions, export quotas, or military exercises in the region will scare Pyongyang into signing away its nuclear life insurance policy. 

But the most significant reason Washington’s North Korea policy has failed is because the U.S. foreign policy establishment continues to link peace on the Korean Peninsula with Pyongyang’s denuclearization. By this logic, one can’t occur without the other. Any outside-the-box thinking on this matter is shunted aside as unworthy of discussion.

Unfortunately, this is the same logic that prevents the two Koreas from making even the slightest diplomatic progress with one another. Despite efforts from South Korean officials who aim to increase cross-border trade and incrementally break down barriers with the North, Washington’s unwillingness to give Seoul the flexibility to implement in its own policy toward its neighbor is gumming up South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s inter-Korean initiative to the point of immobility.

The conventional paradigm that has dominated Washington’s outlook on North Korea for so long presupposes that Washington and Pyongyang are incapable of coexisting peacefully, decreasing hostility, and improving their relationship. But recent history shows how inaccurate this kind of statement is. If the United States and the Soviet Union could maintain a degree of comity with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons between them, there is no reason the U.S. and North Korea can’t at the very least manage their relationship to ensure miscommunication is checked and war is avoided.

Let’s face it: Pyongyang is going to remain a nuclear weapons state for the foreseeable future. U.S. policymakers must learn to live with this reality. They can begin by replacing the tired, stale approach of yesteryear with one that is new, bold, and far more realistic.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.