Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China
Don’t Start Another Cold War
North Korea’s recent missile tests serve as a reminder that U.S. President Joe Biden faces no more intractable foreign policy problem than Kim Jong Un. Biden’s predecessors have tried every approach to North Korea short of war. Over the years, a succession of U.S. presidents have gradually tightened sanctions, including through multiple UN Security Council resolutions, while keeping the door open to diplomacy. President Donald Trump amped up the threat of military action with rhetoric about “fire and fury”—then tried unsuccessfully to convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons at three high-profile summits in 2018 and 2019.
Throughout all of this, North Korea has continued to produce nuclear weapons at a rapid rate. Estimates vary, but the country produces sufficient fissile material to make 12 new weapons per year and could now have enough for a total of 60 weapons or more. In addition to short- and medium-range missiles that can target Japan and South Korea, North Korea also produces missiles capable of reaching all of the United States. Pyongyang might not have perfected this technology, but Americans can no longer assume they are safe from a North Korean nuclear strike. And the North is working on missiles that it can launch faster, that are more difficult to detect, and that are harder for ballistic missile defenses to stop.
Launching a preventive strike on North Korea—as Trump reportedly contemplated doing in 2017—is a terrible idea. Such a strike would be unlikely to eliminate Pyongyang’s entire arsenal but would be virtually certain to spark a regional war—and potentially a nuclear one. Another round of all-or-nothing diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief would come with less downside risk but is unlikely to be any more successful than Trump’s attempts in 2018 and 2019. And as North Korea reminded the Biden administration earlier this month by reportedly failing to respond to backchannel outreach, Pyongyang gets a vote on engagement, as well. Doing nothing as sanctions continue to bite—a containment strategy—may be safer than either war or diplomacy, but it still allows North Korea to expand its nuclear and missile programs.
There is another way the Biden administration could approach North Korea, however. It could explore a more limited strategy, one that stops trying to convince Kim to disarm entirely and instead seeks to slow the growth of his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and reduce the risk of war. In other words, the United States could seek a freeze or a partial rollback of North Korea’s capabilities and a lessening of tensions, rather than the total elimination of Kim’s nuclear arsenal. The United States should not give up the long-term goal of denuclearization, but in the meantime, it could try to strike a more realistic bargain and prevent the threat from getting worse.
Washington should test whether a limited arms control approach could work. Such a strategy is not guaranteed to succeed—far from it. But its odds are better than any of the other options at this point, as long as the Biden administration is clear about what it expects to achieve. A good arms control agreement that verifiably reduces the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons without endangering the security of Japan or South Korea—and that does not give the North any unearned concessions—would be a considerable improvement over the current standoff, but a bad agreement could be worse than the status quo.
There is a wide range of limits that the United States might seek as part of an arms control approach, everything from shutting down North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center to halting the country’s production of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The United States might also pursue measures—perhaps even unilaterally—aimed at reducing the risk of inadvertent war, such as a strategic dialogue with North Korea.
Washington should focus its initial efforts on limiting North Korean capabilities that could pose the biggest threat to U.S. security and that Pyongyang might consider giving up—likely those capabilities that it has not yet mastered. This means focusing primarily on delivery systems rather than on nuclear warheads themselves. For instance, the Biden administration could ask for limits or prohibitions on the development, testing, production, and deployment of long-range solid-fuel missiles, multiple reentry vehicles, and ICBM warheads. Mastery of these capabilities would enable North Korea to launch missiles faster and with less warning, improve its ability to successfully strike the United States, and potentially evade U.S. missile defenses. The United States could also seek to ban the development of tactical nuclear weapons that Kim might view as more “usable” and that might therefore generate greater instability during a future crisis.
Freezing all fissile material production—and thereby preventing North Korea from increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal—would also be worthwhile. Yet it is not just the size of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal that matters; it is also the quality. For this reason, the Biden administration should be cautious about entering into an agreement that merely slows the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal—but does not stop the improvement of its warheads or delivery systems—in return for substantial concessions.
The Biden administration must not pursue an arms control deal at any cost.
In exchange for serious, verifiable limits on emerging North Korean capabilities, the United States could offer incentives such as waivers for U.S. unilateral sanctions or the removal of some UN sanctions on North Korea’s exports or oil imports. Washington should insist on a “snapback” mechanism similar to the one contained within the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in case North Korea cheats, although China and Russia may oppose doing so after the Trump administration abused that provision of the Iran deal. In addition to sanctions relief, the Biden administration could consider declaring an end to the Korean War, allowing exchanges of liaison offices (a measure that was on the table at Trump’s 2019 summit with Kim in Hanoi), and restarting inter-Korean joint projects. Ultimately, however, the North will likely value sanctions relief above anything else.
The Biden administration must not pursue an arms control deal at any cost. Kim will no doubt drive a hard bargain for any attempt to limit North Korea’s ability to quickly and reliably target the United States—which he likely views as a key component of his deterrent—if he does not reject U.S. demands outright. Any U.S. incentives would need to be commensurate with North Korea’s verifiable concessions.
What Kim offered Trump during the Hanoi summit in 2019 was a bad deal and a good reminder of how far apart the United States and North Korea may be when it comes to even smaller agreements. Pyongyang offered the permanent dismantlement of its Yongbyon Nuclear Research facility—an older complex that is likely not its only source of material for nuclear weapons—in exchange for the lifting five UN resolutions passed in 2016 and 2017 that imposed crippling sanctions on the North’s exports of iron and coal as well as its imports of petroleum. While Kim insisted that this was “partial” sanctions relief, the removal of these sanctions would have unlocked billions of dollars in revenues that Pyongyang could have then funneled back into the very programs the United States seeks to halt. Trump was right to reject this offer, and Biden should not accept such a one-sided deal, either.
Should the Biden administration decide to pursue arms control negotiations with North Korea, it will need to work hard to keep Japan and South Korea—the United States’ two most important regional allies—on the same page. Japan and some officials in South Korea will worry that any kind of limited deal focusing on long-range missiles will solidify North Korea’s nuclear status in perpetuity and leave short-range capabilities—to which both countries are particularly vulnerable—in place. Those fears would be exacerbated if Kim demands adjustments to U.S. and allied military capabilities and postures that mitigate North Korean vulnerabilities but leave Japan and South Korea exposed to North Korean attack. For example, if Biden seeks limits on long-range North Korean systems, Kim may very well ask for limits to U.S. missile defenses designed to protect allies and even the U.S. homeland; restrictions on the deployment of nuclear-capable U.S. aircraft, missiles, and ships to the region; or restrictions on South Korea’s burgeoning missile program or “kill chain” strategy, which calls for preemptive strikes against the North’s artillery and missiles in the event of an imminent attack.
These asks are consistent with North Korea’s long-standing strategy of using talks to gain international recognition as a nuclear power and to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies. Biden will therefore need to weigh the possible effects of negotiations on deterrence, ensure that U.S. allies are onboard with any concessions, and ensure that North Korea’s reciprocal actions are commensurate and verifiable. Biden will also need to examine how such actions would bear on his China policy and vice versa. The deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missile systems to the region in order to deter China, for instance, would almost certainly make arms control talks with North Korea more difficult.
The biggest obstacle to an agreement with North Korea, however, will not be allied apprehension but Pyongyang’s resistance to verification. As hard as it is to reach a deal with North Korea, history has repeatedly shown that enforcing one is even harder. The North is deeply resistant to intrusive verification measures, in particular the deployment of international inspectors, which it fears will allow the United States to map its nuclear facilities for a military strike. Pyongyang allowed international inspectors to visit the Yongbyon facility after it signed a framework agreement to stop its plutonium production with the President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994, but the deal collapsed eight years later after the United States discovered that the North was secretly enriching uranium. Subsequent attempts by President George W. Bush’s administration to revive limits on the North Korean nuclear program in 2005 and 2007 failed because the two sides could not reach an agreement on verification.
For the Biden administration to reach an agreement—and for Congress and Republicans to go along with it—verification would need to be robust. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal subjected key Iranian nuclear facilities to around-the-clock monitoring and gave international inspectors the ability to request access to any undeclared sites. But Republicans and even a handful of Democrats criticized the accord as insufficiently transparent. North Korea has never agreed to even that level of verification. From a technical standpoint, verification would be easier for a deal that focused on a specific number of sites involved in the fuel cycle, because international inspectors are well equipped for that type of work. But any arrangement that covered facilities related to warheads or missile production would be more challenging. U.S. intelligence could plug some gaps, but on-the-ground inspections would be necessary.
An arms control approach might well meet the same fate as other failed U.S. strategies for dealing with North Korea, but the Biden administration should still test whether it can work. Last year was one of North Korea’s toughest since the famine of the 1990s. The measures that Kim took to save his country from COVID-19—including closing the border with China—did more economic damage than sanctions have done. Kim has not been easily swayed by economic pressure in the past, but it is possible he is desperate enough for sanctions relief—and confident enough in his existing nuclear and missile capabilities—that he would trade some limits on his weapons programs for a significant reduction in sanctions.
Such a strategy would not be risk free, and just because arms control aims for less doesn’t mean it will be any easier to achieve. Unlike the distant objective of total denuclearization, a limited arms control agreement would force tough, near-term tradeoffs with other U.S. policy goals. But given the failure of existing approaches, arms control is at least worth a shot. As long as Biden doesn’t make premature sanctions concessions in return for empty North Korean promises, the worst that can happen is that his administration winds up back where it started with the current containment regime.
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