Could the U.S. Live with a Nuclear North Korea

by Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins

World Politics Review

Photo: Courtesy of World Politics Review

The long-standing goal of U.S. policy on North Korea has been the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantling of its nuclear weapons program and arsenal. While the Trump administration remains committed to pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, the U.S. should begin to consider its policy options in the event North Korea decides to keep them. 

Why have the Trump administration’s efforts to convince North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons program so far been unsuccessful? To begin with, the normal processes for working these types of international disarmament issues have been lacking. The integration of the U.S. State Department’s expertise and leadership on international exchanges and agreements has been limited, and there have been too few working-level exchanges before the two leader summits between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump’s decision to add new terms to the negotiation at the Hanoi summit complicated the possibility for an agreement. Finally, there was no common understanding of what denuclearization means. 

Perhaps the Trump administration’s biggest error has been to focus almost exclusively on denuclearization, one of the most difficult issues to resolve, without raising enough additional issues as a basis for continued discussions. With no discussions, nothing can move. 

Since the failure of the Hanoi talks, it has become clear that the Trump team did not have a clear fallback strategy in case its approach did not work. What would such a fallback strategy look like? To get an idea, it helps to look at how the U.S. and the international community have adjusted to other countries that decided to develop, test and possess nuclear weapons. 

The U.S. and the international community were up in arms when India and Pakistan went nuclear in 1998. However, the U.S. continued to engage with both countries and, in the case of India, went on to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement in 2006. That allowed the two sides to advance cooperation on shared security interests, including nonproliferation. At the most recent U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in March, both countries agreed to continue working on bilateral security and civil nuclear cooperation, and the U.S. agreed to build six U.S. nuclear power plants in India. There have also been exchanges during the U.S.-India Space Dialogue on issues of space threats, national space priorities and areas of future cooperation. 

Historical ties and shared democratic values helped shape the American reaction to New Delhi’s decision to go nuclear. There is another factor at play as well. During my time at the State Department’s International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau, we regularly worked to ensure that issues related to the nonproliferation and disarmament of weapons of mass destruction were among the top agenda items when U.S. officials met with their counterparts from other countries. Whether or not we were successful often depended on the competing policies the U.S. was advocating in a particular country or region. In other words, Washington’s reaction to a country that goes nuclear is often affected by overall U.S. interests with that country. 

In the case of North Korea, there are other competing concerns, such as human rights, the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War, the official end of the Korean War, illicit trafficking of weapons and other WMD concerns. However, none loom as large as nuclear weapons.

The U.S.-North Korea relationship is fraught with other challenges. There are no official diplomatic relations outside of the communication channels for preparing the leader summits. There is significant mutual mistrust between the two countries dating back many years. North Korea is not a democracy and has no other significant shared values with the United States. North Korea is no longer a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty and is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and in addition to its nuclear arsenal has amassed chemical and biological weapons. Pyongyang violates U.N. sanctions via its illicit sales of prohibited arms and materials. Finally, it continues to threaten the security of South Korea as well as U.S. forces stationed there. 

Clearly, the situation today leaves very little space to maneuver for better overall relations between the two countries if North Korea retains its nuclear weapons.

This scenario would also have an impact on relations with Seoul. To date, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been able to thaw relations with North Korea somewhat independently of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy. But a decision by North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons could present a major challenge to keeping that process moving forward.

The situation today leaves very little space to maneuver for better overall relations between the U.S. and North Korea if Pyongyang retains its nuclear weapons.

There are also wider regional implications to consider. China would not be happy if North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons, since it would lessen the likelihood that the U.S. would withdraw its forces stationed in South Korea, a major concern for China. The same is true for Japan, which has its own very personal history with nuclear weapons and also feels a direct threat from North Korean ballistic missile tests, one of which flew over its territory in 2017. A North Korean decision to keep its weapons would anger Japan and make it more concerned about Pyongyang’s intentions.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a long-term strategy in the U.S. regarding what to do if North Korea keeps its weapons or on engaging North Korea on other issues. There continues to be a significant reliance on the relationship between Trump and Kim as setting the basis for negotiations. One would hope that the U.S. and North Korea do not return to the “fire and fury” language that characterized relations prior to the Singapore summit, particularly after negotiations have failed, as it is hard to imagine where such language would then lead.

North Korea is no more anxious to give up its nuclear weapons, which it sees as its security guarantee, than is the United States. To convince Pyongyang otherwise, the U.S. must make a better case for why that would be in its interest. That means working the goal of denuclearization into a broader strategy, and expanding the dialogue to address other critical issues of concern, such as the official end of the Korean War, the return of U.S. military remains, the reunification of Korean-American and North Korean families, while addressing North Korea’s biological and chemical weapons possession, its human rights record and its practice of illicit trafficking.

Although some of these issues will also prove challenging, a broader dialogue with North Korea, if established, could prove easier to sustain. Absent such a shift, the U.S. will be left with no dialogue at all. No matter how one tries to spin that, it is not progress. It is back to the old status quo, and perhaps even a further step backward.

Bonnie Jenkins is the founder and executive director the Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Previously, she was an ambassador at the U.S. Department of State from 2009 to 2017, where she served as coordinator for threat reduction programs in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation