After threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. has to defend itself or its allies against the Kim regime, President Trump pushed for another round of sanctions against North Korea by signing an executive order (EO) that expands U.S. authority to target individuals and firms doing business with Pyongyang. Trump hopes this EO “will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea’s efforts to develop the deadliest weapons known to humankind.”
No doubt North Korea will feel some pain from the latest rounds of sanctions. But what is our end game? If the end game, as President Trump said in the past, is the “nuclear disarmament” of North Korea, hoping sanctions will get us there is wishful thinking.
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud these tough sanctions and President Trump has done more to squeeze the North Korea’s regime in a few months than the previous five administrations’ efforts combined. Had these sanctions taken place 20 years, or even a decade ago, it might have effectively stopped Pyongyang from becoming a nuclear power. But it’s simply too late.
North Korea Is Already A Nuclear Power
Given that Pyongyang got its nuclear technology mostly from Pakistan, we can trace Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory to get a sense of where North Korea is heading.
Pakistan started its nuclear program in the 1950s, in response to its archrival, India, who was also working on its own nuclear program. Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”
With China’s generous help, Pakistan made fast progress towards building nuclear bombs. On May 28th, 1998, the country performed its first nuclear test, detonating five nuclear devices in response to India’s nuclear test just two weeks earlier. Two days later, Pakistan performed its final test by detonating another nuclear device.
These six tests marked Pakistan’s nuclear success and its official entry into the small club of world nuclear powers. Since 1998, Pakistan hasn’t done any more nuclear bomb tests. Instead, it has focused on building a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems on land, air, and sea.
So far, North Korea also has conducted six successful nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009, 2013, in January and September 2016, and in August 2017. Technically, North Korea is already a nuclear power. What Pyongyang has been working on in recent years is miniaturization: making a nuclear warhead small enough to put on an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) that will reach the U.S.
While Pyongyang claims it has already mastered the technology of miniaturization, international experts have long discredited Pyongyang’s claims until this year. According to the Washington Post’s report, U.S. intelligence now believes “North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.”
No amount of economic pain caused by sanctions will stop North Korea at this point. As Ri Yong Pil, the vice president of the Institute for American Studies, a division of North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters from the Wall Street Journal, “It is too late, we have grown up. We are not interested in dialogue to undermine our newly built strategic status.”
If de-nuclearization is the United States’ goal, nothing short of a military strike will get us there. If there’s no political will for a military strike, there are two likely scenarios for our end game with North Korea.
The Most Likely Scenario In North Korea
North Korea could become a full-fledged nuclear power as early as next year—and the global community, including the U.S., will have to recognize that reality, however grudgingly. Some in the U.S. have already reached this point, and have argued that “it is time for the United States to accept the reality that North Korea is a nuclear power.” People who advocate for this believe that deterrence, rather than disarmament, is the end game.
Some hope that North Korea will follow the model established during the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, based on the rule of mutually-assured destruction (MAD): an understanding that the launch of nuclear weapons by one nation will lead to the destruction of its own. By this argument, Kim Jong Un won’t be mad enough to strike the U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons, because he knows the U.S. will annihilate North Korea in response. This school of thought points to other nuclear powers such as China, India, and Pakistan as evidence that the rule of mutually-assured destruction has helped maintain world peace and successfully prevented any nuclear power from conducting a nuclear strike.
Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power seems to be where most world opinions are tending. That’s why I call it the most likely scenario. However, people who advocate for this outcome miss an important point. This most likely scenario will bring us only temporary peace. I agree that Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, and he may very well understand the rule of mutually-assured destruction, so he won’t strike the US first. But illicit weapons trade has long been one of the few income sources for the cash-strapped North Korean regime. What if Kim sells his nuclear weapon technology to someone who is mad enough to want mutually-assured destruction, because they believe that’s their surest way to heaven? By accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, we could open the door for one of these mad men, who won’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons to destroy the West, even if such action may bring destruction to themselves.
The Most Desirable Scenario In North Korea
The most desirable scenario is that the U.S. and China can reach a grand bargain. China will use its influence to work with North Korean elites through a covert operation to either overthrow Kim Jong Un or send him to exile with a guaranteed luxurious lifestyle and personal safety in a neutral place like Switzerland. With Kim Jong Un out of the picture, the North Korean elites will negotiate with South Korea to have South Korea unite the Korean peninsula. A united Korea would destroy all its nuclear weapons. In exchange, the U.S. would pull its 30,000-plus troops out of South Korea and remove the missile defense system, THAAD.
This outcome is the most desirable, since it will avoid a full military strike, incur minimum damage, and ensuring lasting peace in Korean Peninsula.
Some people may consider this grand bargain a pipe dream. But it’s not completely out of the question. China and South Korea enjoy a very significant bilateral trade relationship. South Korean culture, especially its pop stars, TV series, and fashion, are hugely popular in China. Chinese people had much more favorable views of South Koreans than North Koreans until the installation of THAAD in Seoul. Pyongyang’s continuous nuclear weapon tests not only threaten China’s security, but also China’s environment.
So far, China hasn’t warmed up to the idea of a unified Korea, largely due to the presence of American soldiers in South Korea. China wants North Korea to serve as a physical buffer. But if America offered to pull out its troops, Beijing could change its mind on a unified Korea.
Of course, the Chinese are known tough negotiators. China may take advantage of this situation to extract even bigger concessions from the U.S., i.e. the U.S. Navy’s ceasing its freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas. My hope is that President Trump is as good a negotiator as he said he is, and receives wise counsel from competent people, so that the U.S. won’t give up too much to the Chinese in order to reach a grand bargain.
The end game for North Korea is near, whether we like it or not. We need to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.