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In 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama met then President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office for the customary handover. The outgoing president told his successor that he would need to deal with North Korea as the country’s most proximate security threat.
Four years later, President-elect Joe Biden will find that diplomacy on North Korea has at best floundered under Trump. Made-for-TV summits have accomplished little beyond allowing North Korea to expand and deepen its nuclear weapons arsenal.
As it did during the last two U.S. presidencies, North Korea will likely provoke the new administration by carrying out missile or nuclear tests. These will in turn drive administration policy in a tough direction. Yet more UN and U.S. sanctions are unlikely to prove any more effective than the many previous ones. Meanwhile, North Korea is inching toward—or perhaps already possesses—the capacity to hit U.S. cities with multiple nuclear warheads on long-range strategic weapons.
President Biden must learn what has worked, and what has not, from past approaches to halt the world’s only runaway nuclear weapons program. He will require a strategy that draws on both diplomacy and coercion to prevent the North from acquiring a nuclear force that the United States cannot neutralize without possible retaliation. Washington and its allies will need to bolster their deterrence and defense capabilities while halting threatening elements of North Korea’s program (for example, testing, production of fissile material, and nuclear transfer to rogue actors). Biden’s least bad option will combine elements of past policies with a political approach that is boldly new.
The United States has had a hard time devising a denuclearization policy toward North Korea that doesn’t backfire and lead on a circular path to more nuclear weapons. Pyongyang now has amassed roughly 20 to 30 nuclear warheads and fissile material for scores more, according to experts. It has carried out more than 100 ballistic missile tests in the last three decades. Denuclearization is not a near-term possibility, and insisting on it has proved not to work. In fact, it has resulted in more nuclear tests.
Obama tried a policy of “strategic patience,” waiting out the North Koreans and pressuring them with sanctions, but that didn’t work: the North carried out 61 missile tests during Obama’s two terms. Trump tried summit diplomacy and a “bromance” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—another approach that didn’t deliver. Despite all the glad-handing in Singapore and Hanoi, North Korea has conducted 30 ballistic missile tests since the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit in February 2019 and proudly paraded two massive new sea- and ground-based long-range ballistic missiles last month, while continuing to churn out untold amounts of fissile material.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry once said that the United States must deal with North Korea as it is rather than as it would wish it to be. In practice, this means adopting a denuclearization strategy that contends with North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state. The first priority in that case should be to rein in a runaway program.
The United States must deal with North Korea as it is rather than as it would wish it to be.
Washington has done this before. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made agreements, in 1994 and 2005–7, respectively, that outlined the incremental steps each side would take to freeze nuclear operations at the main nuclear complex, Yongbyon, in return for some sanctions relief. The Biden administration will want a more comprehensive plan, one that adds new measures to curtail the program’s growth. Experts on the two sides would need to work closely with one another, and given the high level of mutual distrust, the two countries would need to agree on detailed mechanisms for verifying each other’s compliance.
The Biden administration should first negotiate an initial verifiable freeze of all plutonium and uranium nuclear operations in and around the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Additionally, it should seek a stop to North Korea’s fissile material production. Such a mini-deal—unlike the all-the-weapons-for-all-the-sanctions deal that Trump failed to achieve in Hanoi—will be criticized by Republicans, but it is the most pragmatic way forward. Moreover, while negotiations are ongoing, North Korea will likely pause its provocations—which policymakers in the United States and South Korea can sell to domestic audiences. China, South Korea, and Japan would likely support such a freeze on operations and production.
In the past, this approach has often led to an impasse: the freeze attained, North Korea then refuses to provide a verifiable declaration of its nuclear and missile inventory. The Biden administration will need to shift the terms of negotiation if it is to avoid this dead end. Agreements under both Bush and Trump referenced a “new relationship” but failed to play one out. Without a fundamental transformation of the political relations between the two countries, nuclear negotiations will continue to be tit for tat and eventually collapse.
After negotiating the freeze agreement, the Biden administration’s approach should shift the focus of the negotiations from simply stopping all North Korean nuclear operations to laying a pathway for that “new relationship.” The two countries could seek to normalize ties with a peace declaration, a dialogue on human rights, security assurances, and the North’s pledge not to transfer weapons, material, or technology. The United States and North Korea would then negotiate new denuclearization steps, including a verifiable declaration, in an atmosphere of greatly reduced distrust.
Such a political approach will appeal to Biden if officials with a humanitarian focus, such as Susan Rice or Samantha Power, are steering U.S. diplomacy. The human rights element would align with U.S. values and could provide a credible signal of North Korean intentions, so long as Kim is willing to make concessions—releasing South Korean detainees, for example, or allowing aid and visits to orphanages. The South Korean and Chinese governments would support pursuing a peace declaration as part of a political settlement but would balk at pushing North Korea too hard on human rights. If the United States presents this as a comprehensive approach, where the basket of peace declaration and sanctions relief (things that Kim wants) can be discussed only with the human rights basket, then Kim might be inclined to talks. If the bid fails, it will give a good indication of whether the isolated regime truly seeks to end purported U.S. “hostile policy” and wants to join the community of nations.
After political relations, negotiations might then shift to establishing a framework for North Korea’s long-term abandonment of all nuclear weapons and programs. The talks should focus on threat reduction and arms control in the short term. Such an approach has no precedent in U.S. negotiations with North Korea, but it does have antecedents in arms control talks during the Cold War. The parties would seek to cap and contain the most dangerous elements of North Korea’s weapons programs in order to stop their growth and minimize chances of inadvertent use, proliferation, and leakage. The countries would open a nuclear deterrence dialogue to avoid nuclear miscalculation, cooperate on nuclear safety (avoiding meltdowns and loose nukes), and limit the range and payload of missiles.
In order to avert criticism that the United States is resigned to accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, Biden would have to frame these agreements as interim steps on the path to a verifiable declaration and ultimate denuclearization. China and South Korea would accept such an approach, as long as it did not supplant the ultimate pursuit of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Japan would be ambivalent if the strategy suggested a de facto acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
An engagement strategy is most effective and credible when backed by strength. Biden will need to work with U.S. allies, not over their heads as Trump has done, in dealing with the North and with China. He must maintain and improve the deterrence and defense capabilities of U.S. partners in the region, including by negotiating early defense cost-sharing agreements with Korea and Japan, reinstating military readiness exercises, and expanding missile defense and intelligence cooperation, and even consider joint offensive strike capabilities. The Biden administration should retain tough sanctions unless or until the North Koreans start to take the nuclear and political steps forward on the road to denuclearization. And it should consult with Seoul and Tokyo regarding any steps in negotiations that might render bilateral alliance interests vulnerable.
Republicans are sure to become super-hard-liners on North Korea as soon as Trump leaves office. Critics will suggest that the United States demand unconditional denuclearization, but that stance is unrealistic given the size of North Korea’s program; it lacks regional support, and it has repeatedly proved counterproductive. Biden can consider holding summit meetings, and he should pocket Kim’s denuclearization commitment to Trump in Singapore, but summits will avail little without spadework on the matters outlined above.
A political strategy, accompanied by incremental steps to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, may sound unpalatable, but previous approaches have not worked. Moreover, the longer Washington goes without a strategy, the likelier that North Korea will perfect its ability to hit the United States with multiple nuclear missiles. Integrating the policies that have worked in the past with some new elements may be the least worst choice in a land of lousy options.
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