to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to halt his mad dash toward a deliverable nuclear weapon. But that is a vain hope. Instead, the world and especially the United States must find a way to live with a North Korea armed with The Bomb. And keep Kim from using — or selling — it.
Discussions with a number of individuals who have dealt with the North Korean government or monitored the actions of its ruling family have convinced me that no Kim — neither Kim Jong Un, nor his father nor his grandfather — ever has or will give up a quest for a deliverable nuclear weapon. Nor is Kim likely to relinquish such a device once it can be deployed. Indeed, North Korea clearly does have any number of such devices — some analysts say it could be more than 60
— though the delivery vehicles are still in development.
Still, it’s not clear that President Biden or his principal advisers are prepared to accept any nuclearized North Korea. President Joe Biden has said
that any diplomacy “has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” At the same time, he and his team are rightly rejecting former President Donald Trump’s “go big or go home” approach — agreeing to remove all sanctions in exchange for North Korea fully dismantling
its weapons program — which Kim rejected
out of hand at their last, abortive summit in Hanoi.
“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters after announcing last month that the administration had completed its months-long North Korea policy review. “Our policy calls for a calibrated practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK, and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and deployed forces,” she said
An utterly commendable goal. But it’s the steps that are needed to get there and the shape of the end result that are so critical to preserving peace — even a nuclear-armed one — on the Korean peninsula.
The essence of any such plan must lie in the United States finding a way to persuade
the North to join the global nuclear non-proliferation club. Implicit would be the acceptance that it already has a weapon. In turn the North will need to make its weapons and their security clearly visible and open to inspection.
China has every incentive to go along with such a plan and see that North Korea respects its spirit and letter. Biden must persuade Xi Jinping to embrace this in his dealings with Kim. At the same time Kim, as well as Xi, should understand that if North Korea launches a nuclear weapon at any foreign power, the United States is capable not only of a targeted nuclear attack on the capital of Pyongyang, but of turning the entirety of North Korea into a radioactive glass bowl.
It’s true that the US is unlikely to engage in a full-scale nuclear exchange that could destroy South Korea and inflict enormous damage on China, but it’s also true that Beijing would not want a nuclear strike on its neighbor given that China’s eastern provincial capital of Dalian is barely 200 miles from Pyongyang and Beijing is barely 500 miles to the west.
Another end result that is simply not tolerable: the North’s sale of its nuclear or missile technology abroad. There are indications that it has embarked on such adventures in the past. Pyongyang was said to have assisted
the father of the Pakistani bomb, A.Q. Khan, in the production of Krytrons, or nuclear triggers, as long ago as the 1990s. Later, international inspectors uncovered
evidence suggesting that the North had supplied
Libya with nearly two tons of uranium and enriched uranium hexafluoride in 2001. By 2007, North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear reactor in the desert that was eventually destroyed
in an Israeli air strike. Four years ago, a UN report suggested that Pyongyang had offered up for sale to all comers, enriched Lithium-6 isotopes used in the production
of thermonuclear weapons. The North claimed to have detonated
its first thermonuclear explosion in September 2017, though that has not been confirmed.
Finally, there is the North’s past behavior. In 1985, Pyongyang, under pressure from the Soviet Union, became
a party to the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). But then, in a fit of pique, Kim’s father withdrew from the agreement 18 years later. In 2009, North Korea ordered
all UN inspectors out of the country.
Still, the Biden administration does not seem to have many other, workable alternatives than to find a pathway for Kim to be lured or coerced back into the process — whether by carrots or the stick of real, enforceable sanctions, especially enlisting China into an enforcement
that is any more than simply lip-service. One of America’s leading negotiators with the North, Evans J. R. Revere, told me that the US “must squeeze the North Koreans from every possible angle (so that) every morning when Kim Jong Un gets up, he needs to wonder whether (he) will make it through the end of the day.” Revere paused then added, “I am convinced he is a rational actor.”
Biden and his negotiators must find some way to persuade Kim they understand his needs, but that he must understand how incumbent it is for him to come to the table as a responsible member of the community of nations and of nuclear powers. That is the best assurance of North Korea’s long-term survival, and his own.