A common question that one comes across is: “can we live with a nuclear North Korea?”
I’ll save everyone a bunch of time and just give you the answer: not only can we live with a nuclear North Korea, we already are. This genie is out of the bottle and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to mop up the spilled milk. That’s a no-brainer. The more important question is: “what’s next?”
It doesn’t matter how many more punishing sanctions we impose on North Korea — they’ve been able to make their way around sanctions for years. If they’re not actively breaking sanctions, China – one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – is. There is only so much that sanctions can do.
It also doesn’t matter how many carrots we give them. From Kim Dae-jung to Roh Moo-hyun to Moon Jae-in, the North Koreans were promised security, energy, money, food aid, international recognition, respect, summit meetings, and even peace treaties.
None of it has been able to convince the North Koreans that they have more to gain from abandoning their nuclear weapons than they do by keeping them. Neither the carrot nor the stick has worked or seems likely to work.
The only thing that could possibly lead to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is a war. However, unless the rest of the world is perfectly willing to sacrifice South Korea and see tens of thousands of American troops all go up in smoke, that’s just not going to happen.
And that’s assuming that the war would be limited to just the Korean peninsula. Most experts seem to agree that should the Korean War reignite, it would expand to become an international war very quickly. In short, with perhaps the exception of John Bolton and Lindsey Graham, no one wants to see a war break out on the Korean peninsula.
We are at a stalemate. Short of war, the only thing that could possibly end the stalemate is if the United States government, under Trump’s leadership or someone else’s, decides to call it quits, go home, and ‘leave Korea to the Koreans.’
However, as long as the United States continues to see its relations with East Asian nations as a strategic part of its own national interest, and as long as China continues to see itself as the Middle Kingdom and East Asia as its traditional sphere of influence, then we’ll all be stuck where we’re currently standing.
“Diplomacy is the only way forward,” some say. We must be willing to give up a lot for North Korea to be willing to give up a lot in return. But what are we willing to give up? There is a lot at stake, and it’s not limited to the Korean peninsula.
We could lift sanctions. Many in the current South Korean government are calling for it. But that would be a huge and very bitter pill for the United States to swallow. If sanctions are lifted despite the fact that North Korea has done nothing to get rid of its nuclear weapons, forget hurt pride. What kind of message would that send to the mullahs in Tehran?
Assuming that the Trump administration is telling the truth, the Iranians have already attacked oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, presumably because they are reacting, violently, toward ongoing American sanctions. If Kim Jong Un is allowed to have nuclear weapons and be rewarded for having them, why on Earth would the Iranians not develop their own? And can the United States tolerate the existence of a nuclear-armed Iran? Can Israel? More importantly, can Saudi Arabia?
The only realistic way forward that would dissatisfy everyone the least… is to maintain the status quo
Putting aside the absolutely disgusting and morally repugnant nature of the North Korean regime and all that it stands for, from a purely calculated and realpolitik point of view, lifting sanctions seems like the only way forward – but only if the Korean peninsula existed in a vacuum.
As a matter of fact, however, that is not the case. What happens in Korea could have far-reaching and potentially devastating consequences halfway across the world. And no matter how many platitude-filled speeches that President Moon Jae-in gives, that reality is not going to change.
But if not the lifting of sanctions, then what else could we possibly give? A peace treaty? I suppose we could, but when put into practice, how different would a peace treaty be from the armistice that we currently have? Despite Donald Trump’s treatment of U.S. troops as guns-for-hire mercenaries and South Korea’s unwillingness to pay more for defense sharing costs, it’s unlikely that U.S. troops would leave the Korean peninsula anytime soon.
And as long as American troops and aircraft carriers are just a stone’s throw away, and as long as a freer and richer Korea exists just south of the thirty-eighth parallel – whose mere existence serves as a daily threat to Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy – how much peace-of-mind could Kim Jong Un ever get from that? Such a treaty wouldn’t be worth the paper that it would be printed on. And the North Koreans would know. They’ve been signing meaningless agreements for decades.
So, what about the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean peninsula? The North Koreans might find this more tempting than a meaningless peace treaty (if we assume that the North Koreans aren’t secretly hoping that U.S. troops continue to stay in Korea because they actually fear China more than they fear the U.S.). American troops and military assets would still be parked in Japan, but it would offer the North Koreans some relief.
However, would South Korea’s conservatives just let that happen? If President Moon Jae-in agreed to the withdrawal of American troops – an idea that he has never toyed with before – South Korean conservatives would be galvanized into voting against his party, the Minjoo Party, in droves.
That would ensure that everything that South Korea’s progressives have achieved will get reversed and other policies they want to pursue will never see the light of day. For all sorts of reasons, the withdrawal of American troops is a bridge too far.
Also, considering that the Cold War 2.0 is currently well underway between Washington and Beijing, would the United States be willing to “lose” Korea? It would only be a matter of time before South Korea, the world’s eleventh largest economy whose largest trading partner is China, falls under China’s sphere of influence, dramatically tilting the entire Indo-Pacific region in China’s favor. In time, the United States would cease being a Pacific power. It’s highly unlikely that even the most paleolithic America Firster would want to see that happen.
However, there is another way forward. It’s neither diplomacy nor confrontation. Neither is desirable as the costs are far too great, and the benefits wouldn’t satisfy anyone. The only realistic way forward that would dissatisfy everyone the least – with perhaps the exception of Kim Jong Un – is to maintain the status quo.
Not only can we live with a nuclear North Korea, we already are
Maintaining the status quo would not lead to war. The Kim dynasty – from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Un – has shown for decades that they will do anything it takes to survive. Even the most trigger-happy hawks in Pyongyang know that a war with the United States would result in a swift death for all of them. The United States wouldn’t even need to deploy its tactical nuclear weapons since its conventional weapons alone can turn the entire northern half of the Korean peninsula into rubble.
They did it before in the 1950s. It’d be even easier now. Just because the North Koreans have several dozen nuclear weapons does not change the fact that deterrence, when backed up by the full might of the United States Armed Forces as well as that of the Republic of Korea (just to add insult to injury), ensures that no one will do anything too stupid.
Maintaining the status quo would also continue to stunt North Korea’s economy. While this may be a cruel fate for the average North Korean, this is important geopolitically because the mullahs and the House of Saud need to be reminded that there is much to lose by attempting to join the nuclear club.
The last thing the world needs is yet another nation (or nations) run by megalomaniacs armed with nuclear weapons.
And maintaining the status quo would allow everyone to kick the can down the road. Contrary to what H.R. McMaster said, there is still plenty of road to go. Considering the alternatives, kicking the can down the road, and kicking it further each time we see it, is the best solution available to us.
In the meantime, the rest of the world can take whatever steps that can be taken to undermine the Kim regime by empowering the North Korean people with information. And then we can all hope – despite the seeming futility of such hopes – that positive change happens from within North Korea, because it sure as hell isn’t going to come from the outside.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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