North Korea is a nuclear weapon state. America needs a new strategy

Washington must learn to negotiate with a nuclear North Korea: Kim Jong-Un’s declaration in early September that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons should be the final nail in the coffin of Washington’s strategy toward that country. Since Pyongyang officially declared that it is now a nuclear power, the United States and its allies must abandon the fanciful goal of getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. For nearly 3 decades, Washington led an international effort to isolate the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) until it accepted a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to its nuclear program. Pyongyang’s refusal to comply with this demand led to increasingly severe economic sanctions, but it is now indisputable that the isolation strategy did not work.

Washington’s antiquated approach is both futile and dangerous. Experts believe that North Korea already has a small arsenal of 20 to 30 nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang is rapidly developing sophisticated ballistic missile systems to deliver these weapons at increasingly greater ranges. In less than a decade, Pyongyang could have a nuclear arsenal rivaling that of Pakistan’s roughly 165 warheads. However, Washington has no diplomatic or economic relations with this rising nuclear power.

This situation perpetuates a pattern of Washington’s behavior toward regimes that it finds grossly uncooperative and unpalatable. American leaders refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1933, well over a decade after the Bolshevik Revolution. A new generation of policymakers took the same approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after that country’s communist revolution in 1949. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon transformed American politics that Washington established meaningful relationships with Beijing, even on an informal basis. The formal recognition of the PRC and the establishment of diplomatic relations waited several more years, until Jimmy Carter took this step.

While efforts were made during the Obama years, the United States still refuses to fully restore diplomatic relations with Cuba’s communist regime more than 6 decades after Dwight Eisenhower’s administration severed relations. A similar process occurred with regard to Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution in that country. In the cases of Cuba and Iran, Washington tried to impose its strategy of isolation through unilateral and international economic sanctions. This approach did not work much better than in the case of North Korea.

Frankly, it’s an obtuse and juvenile strategy reminiscent of the behavior of a middle school playground. Washington doesn’t like certain governments, so it refuses to play or even talk to them. He also spends a lot of effort trying to get friends and classmates to accept attempts to isolate and harass the targeted opponent.

It is high time for American leaders to abandon this approach and act like adults. Just as he damaged so many other aspects of American foreign policy, Woodrow Wilson added a selective criterion of moral purity to traditional Washington standards for establishing diplomatic relations with foreign regimes. Wilson’s successors, especially since World War II, have continued this foolish approach. The standard has always been very selective; regimes that defer to the United States are rarely penalized, no matter how ugly their domestic or international behavior. The regimes that cause problems in Washington, however, experience isolation, or worse.

The selective test of moral purity is toxic because it escalates international crises and prevents the United States from changing policy even when existing policy is clearly ineffective, counterproductive, or dangerous. Refusing to have the necessary range of diplomatic and economic relations with an emerging nuclear-weapon state is the essence of such reckless behavior.

Washington must immediately abandon its current strategy toward North Korea. Instead, the Biden administration should approach Pyongyang with an offer of direct, high-profile talks. The first objective of the negotiations would be to conclude a peace agreement to replace the 1953 armistice and explicitly end the Korean War. The second step would be to establish formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK, provide embassies and consulates in both countries and appoint ambassadors to their new posts. President Biden can take all of these actions under his own authority. He may also withdraw US military forces from South Korea as part of the process of normalizing relations with Pyongyang.

Repealing the vast regime of unilateral and international sanctions is more complicated. Most other governments would likely follow Washington’s lead, should the Biden administration decide to end most of the sanctions that the United Nations (under intense US pressure) has imposed over the decades. The reversal of unilateral US sanctions would, however, be more difficult. While the president could lift some of the measures, others would require congressional action. Given the hostile attitude of most members of Congress towards the DPRK because of its appalling human rights record and its bullying rhetoric towards its neighbors, there will be intense opposition to the repeal, or even the relaxation of existing sanctions. It will be a major test of US diplomatic skills to impress on Kim Jong-Un’s government that some sanctions will remain for the indefinite future, even if the White House wishes otherwise.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 2nd Conference of Secretaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Primary Committees, in this photo released on March 1, 2022 by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) from North Korea. KCNA via REUTERS.

Despite the obstacles, it is imperative that Washington adopt a new, more realistic and constructive policy toward North Korea. The current approach is completely bankrupt. North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, and the United States should not want a situation in which it has no meaningful relationship with a nuclear-weapon country. Washington’s ineffective North Korean policy has remained on autopilot, and there are few signs of fresh thinking from Biden’s foreign policy team. This situation must change, or the United States risks a nuclear calamity.

Biography of the expert: Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and editor of 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs.

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