LOS ANGELES – North Korea continues to befuddle the rest of the world. For several months, reports have circulated that the country may test its third nuclear device, which some speculate will be a uranium bomb drawn from the country’s enrichment program. But, whether or not the rumors prove to be true, the regime is sending a clear message, which it has enshrined in a new constitution that was made public in April: North Korea is “a nuclear-armed state” that will not abandon its weapons program.
The United States and others continue to seek ways to push back, but to no avail. North Korea’s nuclear commitment remains steadfast, reflected in its continued weapons tests, rocket launches, and production of nuclear materials. To imagine that new diplomatic incentives – whether carrots or sticks – will inspire North Korea’s leaders to reverse course is unrealistic. For the regime and its supporters, nuclear weapons provide a crucial security blanket.
Given these circumstances, America and its allies should abandon diplomatic efforts. They should ignore North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, instead allowing it to stew in its own economic dysfunction, and leaving China to continue propping up its government.
The history of North Korea’s quest for nuclear juche (self-reliance), which began in the 1960’s, reveals that no other course makes sense. From the start, the international community has scrambled to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions. But diplomatic “progress” has repeatedly proved to be a chimera. In fact, North Korean leaders have used the time afforded by diplomacy to advance their nuclear ambitions.
For example, Russia pressed the regime to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985. In 1986, the North inaugurated the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. It took an unenthusiastic North Korea another seven years to enter into an agreement on safeguards.
Similarly, in 2001, North and South Korea, drawing on the 1994 Washington-Pyongyang Agreed Framework, signed a denuclearization pledge aimed at freezing and later dismantling the North’s plutonium program. But, two years later, the North became the only country to withdraw from the NPT.
In the 2005 Six-Party Talks, North Korea consented to abandon its nuclear enterprise, and from November 2007 to April 2009, it took steps to disable the Yongbyon facility. But, in 2006, the North conducted its first nuclear test, which many speculate failed.
Then, in July 2008, the Six Parties (North Korea, South Korea, China, the US, Russia, and Japan) agreed to a “verification mechanism” for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. A year later, the North conducted its second, more successful nuclear test.
Despite the North’s repeated bad faith, the US continued to press for nonproliferation agreements. But the failure of the latest bilateral accord should be the last straw. On February 29, 2012, North Korea consented to moratoria on long-range missile launches, nuclear testing, and enrichment activity, as well as to the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, in exchange for food assistance from the US. But, after North Korea conducted a failed long-range missile test in April 2012, the accord collapsed.
At this point, resumption of multilateral or bilateral talks seems pointless. Without superb intelligence, military action to destroy nuclear facilities will fail – and risk igniting another Korean war. Moreover, strictly isolating the North to bring down the regime – the strategy promoted by John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations – is not feasible as long as China refuses to get on board.
Additional strategies aimed at adapting to this inflexible nuclear reality either are unnecessary or promise to lead nowhere. One approach would enhance deterrence by bolstering conventional South Korean and US forces and reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons in the South. But more conventional power would add little to the capable forces already on the ground, and bringing nuclear weapons back to South Korea would only make both sides more anxious (and offshore US naval nuclear forces already pack a sufficient punch to reinforce deterrence).
Another approach would seek to normalize diplomatic relations, on the assumption that this could enhance communication, thereby diminishing the nuclear threat. But, in such a scenario, North Korea could hold relations hostage to such outsize demands as withdrawal of US forces from the region and economic and energy assistance to prop up the regime.
Ultimately, North Korea’s Stalinist government will rebuff any effort that encroaches on the isolation that it needs to remain in power. To this end, it considers its nuclear program to be a crucial crutch.
With no practical alternative that could transform such thinking, the international community must leave North Korea to fend for itself, while offering only one way out: if the North grants IAEA inspectors access to disable and destroy the country’s entire nuclear program – as was done in Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War – diplomatic and economic benefits will flow.
Failing that, the US and its allies must leave North Korea to its knitting and devote their scarce time and resources to international issues more amenable to resolution.