Pyeongyang Press Corps/REUTERS South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a luncheon at in Ryanggang province, North Korea, September 2018. 

Learning to Love Kim's Bomb

The Upside of a Nuclear-Armed North Korea

Upon returning from the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, U.S. President Donald Trump declared the North Korea problem “solved.” Many experts did not share his optimism. Pyongyang, they argued, had done nothing to indicate that it was committed to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” And nothing since then—up to and including the recent meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York—has indicated otherwise. Trump, in other words, was fleeced. 

The president’s North Korea critics are right: Pyongyang has taken no steps to denuclearize in the last three months, and there’s no reason to think that it will anytime soon. Such critics are wrong, however, to assume that this is necessarily bad news. In fact, Kim’s nuclear arsenal may be more opportunity than threat. It makes a new balance of power possible in Northeast Asia—one that could make the region more stable and reduce the risk of war. Ironically, such a settlement can succeed only if the Trump administration’s North Korea policy keeps failing. 

With its nuclear arsenal in place, the survival of the North Korean regime is virtually assured. The regime in Pyongyang no longer has to rely on saber-rattling and warmongering to intimidate its neighbors and keep their superior conventional militaries in check. Just as important, Kim’s arsenal forces the United States, China, and other regional players to find ways to accommodate North Korea. Washington may continue to call for denuclearization, and Kim may continue to issue vague halfpromises to keep this useful fiction alive. But the real driver of lasting regional stability may turn out to be North Korea’s bomb. Trump’s failure thus may sow the seeds for a new and better Northeast Asian power equilibrium.

A NEW NORMAL

Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has threatened stability in Northeast Asia on a number of fronts. The regime is a military

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