The Right Way to Manage a Nuclear North Korea

Exploring “Left-of-Launch” Options Is a Dangerous Mistake

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a long range rocket launch into the air in North Korea, February 2016. Kydo via REUTERS

North Korea is a nuclear weapons power, and even though Kim Jong Un signed his name onto three declarations this year pledging “denuclearization”—two with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and one with U.S. President Donald Trump—there’s no indication that he will give up his nuclear capability any time soon. He sees nuclear weapons as essential to his regime’s survival and, ultimately, his security. North Korea’s de facto head of state, Kim Yong Nam, has suggested that nuclear capabilities—the country’s “treasured sword”—may be crucial to the country’s economy, as well: he describes them as enabling rather than inhibiting economic development.

Washington needs to accept that North Korea will remain a nuclear power for the foreseeable future and manage the situation accordingly. For 70 years, the U.S.-South Korean alliance successfully sustained deterrence on the Korean Peninsula, preventing the resumption of hostilities after the 1953 armistice put an end to the Korean War. Now the task will be to build and maintain a stable deterrent relationship with a nuclear-armed North Korea, a perennially insecure state with a fundamentally distrustful attitude toward the United States.

The new reality of North Korea’s capabilities—including the threat to the continental United States—demands careful thought about how Washington might influence nuclear decision-making in Pyongyang. A stable deterrence relationship requires making Kim feel secure about his arsenal, not insecure.

One example of a counterproductive posture is the widely reported U.S. effort to develop “left-of-launch” techniques, designed to disable North Korea’s missiles before they can be fired. North Korean decision-makers, including Kim, are well aware of this pursuit. Although the prospect of disabling an adversary’s missiles prior to launch may sound like a no-brainer for anyone interested in defending the United States and its allies from nuclear attack, the endeavor can backfire in ways that are particularly destabilizing. In fact, given what is known publicly about North Korea’s capabilities and its nuclear command and

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