How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
North Korea’s flurry of military activity this year has put it back in the international spotlight. Stuck in a diplomatic stalemate with the United States and a self-imposed COVID-19 lockdown since early 2020, the reclusive nation has conducted more than 60 ballistic missile tests, its highest annual total ever, including its biggest and longest launches to date. In September, North Korea enshrined in a new law the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect itself. And there is growing fear that the country will carry out a seventh nuclear test in the near future—its first since 2017.
This inflammatory behavior has the United States and its allies scrambling for appropriate countermeasures. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has emphasized the need to pursue additional sanctions and shore up defense and deterrence capacities “so we’re not standing still in the face of provocations.” In October, Cho Hyun-dong, a high-ranking official in South Korea’s foreign ministry, went further, vowing an “unparalleled scale of response” if North Korea followed through on a detonation. In the meantime, the United States and South Korea have responded by augmenting their joint military exercises and deterrence demonstrations, such as deploying the USS Ronald Reagan near the Korean Peninsula.
This slow-motion crisis has contributed to a gnawing sentiment among many analysts in Washington that the policy of “denuclearization”—in which Pyongyang would agree to give up its nuclear weapons program—has failed. Instead, this camp argues, the United States should accept North Korea as a nuclear state.
But abandoning denuclearization is still premature for several reasons. Pyongyang has not explicitly articulated U.S. acceptance of its nuclear status as a precondition for returning to talks, only that Washington drop its “hostile” policy that warranted North Korea’s nuclear weapons development in the first place. Also, North Korea may have recently announced that it would never bargain away its nuclear weapons, but it made this claim before, only to recommit to denuclearization in the 2018 Singapore statement, an agreement that it has yet to renounce. Moreover, the United States has not yet exhausted the range of promising options for coaxing better behavior from Pyongyang. Officially acknowledging North Korea as a nuclear weapon country could also precipitate nuclear weapons development in South Korea, Japan, and other countries. Perhaps most important, from a U.S. political standpoint, accepting North Korea’s nuclear status would be a nonstarter since it would effectively mean normalizing diplomatic and economic ties with a nuclear pariah state—something Congress would never support. And so denuclearization must remain a U.S. policy goal, even if an aspirational, long-term, or fig-leaf one, to ensure the viability of an ultimate deal with North Korea and the nonproliferation regime.
Today, policymakers should focus on coming up with a new plan to get North Korea back to the negotiating table. It is unclear why the United States continues to rely on a pressure-based, coercive approach that has failed to improve the security of the United States and its allies. During the last 15 years, North Korea has advanced from a rudimentary to full-fledged nuclear weapon country. Moreover, U.S.-North Korean relations have worsened from promising to nonexistent. There is little mutual understanding or trust between the two countries, and the tensions between them are contributing to a growing regional arms race that increases the risk of nuclear war. Nearly 70 years after the end of the Korean War, it is long past time for the United States to change tack. It should go on a peace offensive to get back to talks, with the goal of pursuing peaceful coexistence and denuclearization in parallel.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the United States has dealt with North Korea largely through diplomatic isolation, economic pressure, and military deterrence. Pyongyang began to seek bilateral talks with the United States in the 1970s to replace the armistice, which ended the war, with a peace agreement, but Washington remained wary of North Korea and its desire to remove U.S. troops from South Korea. The United States was also trying to manage relations with its ally South Korea, which did not want to be excluded from talks, and broader strategic matters related to the Cold War.
Washington finally began engaging with Pyongyang in 1992, after North Korea started developing a nuclear weapons program, which led to a period of consistent—albeit turbulent—negotiations over the next 16 years. Sufficient progress on denuclearization eventually led to various milestones in improved relations, including a 1996 proposal for peace talks by U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam, reciprocal visits by Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok of North Korea and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000, and a performance by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang in 2008.
By 2009, however, the United States returned to its position of deep skepticism. After the collapse of the six-party talks and North Korea’s second nuclear test in May of that year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned against “buying the same horse twice” and suggested the United States increase pressure on Pyongyang. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted a policy of “strategic patience” to wait for talks on the United States’ preferred terms. The two sides eventually resumed negotiations in 2011 culminating in the February 2012 “Leap Day” deal, under which North Korea agreed to temporarily halt its weapons testing and nuclear activities, but two months later, a North Korean satellite launch in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, scuttled the agreement.
When Washington engages with Pyongyang, North Korea tends to behave better.
U.S. officials have grown tired of Pyongyang’s propensity for brinkmanship and its unwillingness to denuclearize. They have been chastened, too, by the hollow summitry that took place between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Today, Washington appears to have resigned itself to managing the North Korea problem rather than trying to solve it. Other than the brief negotiations in 2011–12 and 2018–19, three successive U.S. administrations have relied on a global pressure campaign to tighten the vise on North Korea while stopping short of instigating war. The United States has persuaded countries to downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea, ramped up its military deterrence posture, increased interdiction and law enforcement measures, and cut off North Korea’s access to the dollar-based international financial system. Washington also spearheaded the imposition of major multilateral sanctions on North Korea in 2016 and 2017. These measures banned all of the country’s publicly reported exports, such as coal, textiles, and seafood.
This approach has succeeded in achieving limited goals. The Korean Peninsula has avoided war, and cross-border conflicts have been limited to relatively small incidents, such as North Korea’s 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and harder-to-attribute provocations, such as an incident in 2015, when land mines exploded inside the demilitarized zone, wounding two South Korean soldiers. In addition, the Kim regime’s ability to generate hard currency, at least through legitimate means, has been significantly curtailed. North Korea’s exports to China, its main trading partner, decreased 88 percent to $209 million in 2018 and dropped another 78 percent to $48 million in 2020 as a result of the country’s pandemic lockdown measures.
On the other hand, the United States’ approach has fallen short in realizing many other important goals. The glaring failure is North Korea’s continued possession of enough fissile material to produce around 50 nuclear weapons and the ability to build six more each year. The pressure campaign also has not deterred North Korea from conducting progressively successful tests of larger-yield nuclear devices and various delivery mechanisms, including long-range ballistic missiles, multiple-warhead payloads, mobile launchers, and underwater systems. Nor has it prevented North Korea from using illicit means to circumvent sanctions, such as covert smuggling, ship-to-ship transfers, and cybertheft.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the United States’ lack of progress is its inability to improve diplomatic relations and enhance mutual understanding with North Korea. Given that Pyongyang is insecure, isolated, and impoverished—but also nuclear armed—Washington should be taking steps to strengthen engagement, reduce misperceptions, and build mutual trust to lower the risks of a nuclear war. If threat is a function of intent and capabilities, and the capabilities have become intractable, then it is imperative that the United States mitigate North Korea’s negative intent. For that, isolation, pressure, and deterrence are ill-suited tools.
Thirty years of empirical evidence indicates that although pressure may inflict pain on North Korea, it does not engender positive behavior. Instead, when the United States applies a hawkish policy against North Korea, it responds negatively. Between February 2012 and April 2018, the United States held no official negotiations with North Korea—the longest absence of bilateral engagement during the last three decades—and instead embarked on an intensified pressure campaign. Notably, the United States responded to North Korean adventurism in 2012 and 2013 by increasing the number of B-2 and B-52 bomber flights, sending a carrier strike group to South Korea, and dispatching a nuclear submarine to visit the southeastern city of Jinhae. During this period, however, North Korea countered with the greatest advances in its nuclear weapons program, including four nuclear tests and over 90 ballistic missile tests. Today, the administrations of U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have adopted an almost identical approach, agreeing to “expand the scale and scope of combined military exercises” and “deploy strategic U.S. military assets.” Not surprisingly, North Korea has embarked on its historic missile-testing spree.
Conversely, when Washington engages with Pyongyang, the evidence shows that North Korea tends to behave better—not perfectly, but better. A 2017 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found a strong correlation between engagement and a decrease in North Korean provocations. Consider the period between 1994 and 2002, when the two countries complied with the Agreed Framework (a deal in which Pyongyang froze its nuclear activities at its main Yongbyon site in exchange for heavy fuel oil and civilian nuclear reactors) and engaged in peace and missile talks. North Korea conducted only one missile test and reprocessed no plutonium. Or take 2011–12 and 2018–19, when the two sides were engaged in negotiations. North Korea refrained from nuclear and missile testing. Kim himself has acknowledged this reciprocal relationship, saying in 2021 that North Korea will approach the United States on the principle of “power for power and goodwill for goodwill.”
Engagement is clearly desirable. But how do the two countries get back to the table? The past pattern is not encouraging. Pyongyang would seek favorable talks through saber rattling, and then Washington would reciprocate with its own military flexing, bringing both countries to the brink of war before Washington warily engaged to avert catastrophe. The goal today should be to skip the unnecessary brinkmanship and proceed directly to negotiations. Understandably, the Biden administration argues that it has already reached out to North Korea multiple times, to no avail. From North Korea’s perspective, however, U.S. outreach may appear disingenuous when the overall U.S. posture signals hostility. Biden told Congress in 2021 that he would deal with North Korea through “diplomacy as well as stern deterrence,” which North Korea viewed as a chiding continuation of the “hostile” U.S. policy. A year later, Biden and Yoon’s decision in Seoul to expand deterrence measures, which Pyongyang finds threatening, reinforced the perception of insincerity. When asked during the May summit if he had a message for the North Korean leader, Biden replied tersely, “Hello. Period.”
Instead of passively dreading a nuclear test as a fait accompli, the Biden administration should proactively offer bold measures to entice North Korea back to talks. A body of literature suggests that unilateral conciliatory gestures can help dissolve mistrust and spur rapprochement, especially when offered first by the stronger country. The scholar Charles Kupchan has argued that the initiator’s relative strength puts it in a better position to make accommodations since it has greater confidence that it can weather costs if the target state does not reciprocate. In the present case, the United States has the strongest diplomatic, economic, and military foundation in the world, especially when combined with South Korea’s. This should allow it to take diplomatic risks.
The Biden administration could begin by announcing a new approach that explicitly reinvigorates the two countries’ commitment in the Singapore statement to establish new U.S.-North Korean relations. This policy should be accompanied by unambiguous conciliatory gestures—for example, a moratorium on the deployment of U.S. strategic assets. Washington could also temporarily reduce military exercises, show a willingness to declare an end to the Korean War, offer sanctions relief in exchange for commensurate denuclearization measures, end the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea, and provide humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines. At the same time, Biden could convey good faith and dangle the offer of a summit in a letter to Kim. Most of these measures were already implemented or on the table during the Trump negotiations, and none would materially undermine U.S. national security. This approach would also keep denuclearization as a long-term U.S. goal but would not require it as an immediate concession for U.S. accommodation.
These moves have their risks, but these can be mitigated. Employing so-called snapback provisions—clauses that reimpose sanctions if a country fails to comply with an agreement—when offering sanctions relief protects against the risk of noncompliance. An end-of-war declaration could be negotiated so it has no legal effect on the armistice agreement and the United Nations Command—the U.S.-led international force that fought against North Korea and China during the Korean War whose legitimacy is challenged by North Korea, China, and Russia—until certain security milestones are achieved. U.S.-South Korean military exercises could be pared down to reduce their provocative aspects, such as the deployment of carrier strike groups and strategic bombers and threats of “decapitation strikes” against North Korean leadership, without meaningfully sacrificing military readiness. But ultimately, Washington must take calculated risks to escape the current quagmire.
There is precedent for U.S. unilateral gestures leading to détente. In the early 1990s, the United States withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea, suspended joint military exercises, and held senior-level talks with North Korea—all of which led Pyongyang to sign major diplomatic, denuclearization, and nuclear safeguard agreements. In 2018, likewise, Trump met with Kim and suspended combined military exercises. Both decisions were viewed as major concessions, but they allowed the Singapore statement to be realized.
The Biden administration will need to offer North Korea a more full-throated, less equivocal olive branch to transform the vicious cycle of provocation into a virtuous cycle of accommodation. North Korean denuclearization may well be an impossible goal, but if it were to happen, it would not be through coercion. Despite his hard-line stance, Yoon has already recognized the need for a bolder appeal through incentives, having offered Kim an “audacious” plan that would provide significant economic and security incentives in exchange for denuclearization progress. But North Korea scoffed at the proposal, recognizing correctly that only Washington, not Seoul, can guarantee what Pyongyang really wants. The United States has an opportunity to offer something that is both truly audacious and in its own interests: a push for peace.