At North Korea’s ninth plenary meeting two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un broke with decades of official policy and declared reunification with South Korea “impossible,” describing the two Koreas as “belligerent states” at war.
In his diatribe, Kim took particular aim at South Korea’s relationship with the United States, saying, “South Korea at present is nothing but a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state whose politics is completely out of order, whole society tainted by Yankee culture, and defense and security totally dependent on the U.S.”
He also threatened to annihilate South Korea and the United States if they provoked North Korea.
Whether Kim concocted these words himself, or if it was his propagandist younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, the sentiment is striking and paints a grim outlook for a region at the center of U.S. foreign policy.
By officially defining South Korea as an “other,” Kim has eliminated one obstacle inhibiting him from aiming his nuclear weapons at what his father and grandfather considered part of a larger Korean family.
Naturally, this rhetoric and the potential for escalation that it brings require a thoughtful response from Washington. Especially given the Korean Peninsula’s strategic geographic location at the intersection of U.S.-China relations.
The only question is, what should that response be?
Publicly, the best response is no response. While Washington undoubtedly understands the implications of Kim’s policy reversal, the American public won’t have much of a reaction. After all, bellicose threats from Kim are so commonplace they’ve become somewhat of a storied pastime. Responding in kind would only legitimize Kim’s outburst and create unnecessary fodder for the 24-hour cable news networks.
Behind the scenes, however, Washington is in dire need of a rethink of its North Korea policy, and Kim’s own policy change underscores that necessity.
Since North Korea’s exit from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and subsequent inaugural nuclear test in 2006, Washington’s sole guiding light for relations with Pyongyang has been and remains complete denuclearization. This policy may have made sense during the infancy of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but given its increasing capacity and capability, North Korean denuclearization is nothing but a pipe dream.
North Korea has an estimated 20-30 assembled warheads as well as enough fissile material to build 40-55 more. Since its 2017 test launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) dubbed the Hwaseong-15, it has also possessed the capability of delivering a nuclear payload to the continental United States.
More importantly, as long as his regime is in power, and he shows no signs of relinquishing his hold anytime soon, Kim will continue to view his nuclear deterrent as his only means of survival. One need look no further than the lessons Kim has learned from Libya and Pakistan for assurance of this notion.
In one instance, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to dismantle his country’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program in exchange for economic engagement with the West. For his trouble, he was thanked with NATO intervention on behalf of his opponents during the Libyan civil war and was eventually killed by militia members after a NATO warplane bombed his convoy.
In a counter-example, Pakistan leveraged its position vis-a-vis the United States and Washington’s interests concerning Islamabad’s relations with India and China to negotiate a more lenient cap, but not destruction, of its nuclear program. Today Pakistan counts itself as a well-equipped nuclear state that has remained free from foreign intervention.
From Kim’s perspective, it’s no secret which of these options looks more attractive.
If the U.S. accepts the reality that Kim will under no condition abandon his nuclear program, it can start formulating a realistic strategy toward Pyongyang that would benefit not only its own interests and the interests of its Northeast Asian allies but the people of North Korea as well.
North Korean Nukes in the Wrong Hands
The real danger from North Korean nukes is not that they will be used directly by Pyongyang. Afterall, Kim views his nuclear arsenal as a means for regime survival. Should he preemptively use nuclear weapons all bets would be off, and he could guarantee a second strike aimed directly at him within minutes of him pressing his own button. The real concern is North Korean nukes finding their way into the possession of rogue actors who don’t possess the survival instincts Kim does.
For the right price, it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that North Korean nukes end up in the hands of a terror group like Hezbollah, Hamas, or even a state actor like Iran. Considering North Korea’s prowess in supplying Russia with extensive amounts of artillery to support its war against Ukraine, that possibility should be taken very seriously.
By accepting North Korea’s nuclear status, at least quietly, the U.S. can push for agreements on inhibiting cross-border proliferation. It would also allow the U.S. to move the focus of talks with North Korea from its nuclear program to its human rights abuses. If Kim had no reason to fear foreign threats to his regime’s survival, he would be much more willing to make concessions on the harsh repression of his own populace.
The only reason Kim would participate in clandestine nuclear arms dealing would be for substantial monetary reward. If the U.S. offers relief on economic sanctions in turn for agreements regarding the overwatch (not demolition) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and improved treatment of its people, then Kim would have no reason to risk his neck on the nuclear black market.
This change in U.S. policy would also allow for a more normal diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang, and the potential to slowly peel it away from Beijing’s sphere of influence. North Korea is inherently distrusting of China, and the two nations’ interests are not as intertwined as their leaders’ rhetoric might lead one to believe.
A nuclear weaponless North Korea would be a prime target for Xi Jinping’s growing imperial ambition, and for this reason, Kim’s nukes are just as much a deterrent against Chinese aggression as they are provocation from the U.S. or South Korea.
Adopting a Realist Foreign Policy
By shifting its North Korea policy away from denuclearization to a broader focus on nuclear containment, the U.S. could leverage its potential role as an economic and security benefactor for Pyongyang in exchange for cooperation with Washington’s greater Indo-Pacific strategy. In the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a neutral, if not friendly North Korea could prove extremely beneficial.
Of course, there are many potential obstacles to undertaking such a drastic shift in policy. For one, upsetting years of policy inertia would be a hard sell on Capitol Hill, especially while Washington is dominated by liberal internationalists. However, a return to a more realist foreign policy approach under a second Trump administration would make the potential shift much more feasible.
Second, there is the chance it would embolden other regimes to follow in North Korea’s footsteps. To mitigate that likelihood, the U.S. would have to be clear that any other country that attempts to nuclearize will be met with swift force, similar to how Israel manages Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On top of that, very few if any hostile nations find themselves in such a strategically important region as North Korea does. For that reason, these nuclear wannabes would find themselves with much less wiggle room.
Finally, the U.S. would have to convince regional allies, specifically South Korea and Japan. For leadership in both countries, this would be a terribly difficult sell to their voting publics. However, as Seoul’s recent rapprochement with Tokyo proves, there are no limits to what Chinese aggression can accomplish in Northeast Asia.
The reality is North Korea has nuclear weapons and high-level capabilities. No amount of carrot or stick is going to convince Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear deterrent when he views it as the only thing standing between him and annihilation. The U.S. can either come to terms with this reality and adjust accordingly or continue to scream platitudes that have a less than zero percent chance of affecting any real change.