It doesn’t take an international relations genius to recognize that President Donald Trump’s diplomatic standoff with North Korea is on tenterhooks. Yet, as demonstrated by U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun’s trip to Seoul this week—a trip that produced nothing more than a plea from the new deputy secretary of state to resume talks immediately—U.S. officials are coming around to the view that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was serious last April when he spoke of embarking on a “new way of calculation” if the talks prove unproductive.
If nothing changes between now and New Year’s Eve, the world will likely witness more of the military tests Kim conducted at the Tongchang-ri facility on Dec. 10 and 14. The likelihood of the Kim regime launching additional ballistic missiles of greater range is quite high. (The commander of U.S. Pacific Command said as much on Tuesday.) After 18 months of uneven diplomacy with Washington, Kim is disappointed at the lack of results and skeptical that the Trump administration is truly interested in establishing a more constructive relationship.
Trump’s three face-to-face meetings with Kim were daring attempts to shock U.S.-North Korea relations out of its dormancy. But since in recent months, negotiations have floundered, thanks to unrealistic, short-sighted U.S. demands. Trump can still sustain that diplomacy, but it will require him to swim against the tide of a Washington orthodoxy that remains wedded to Pyongyang’s immediate, final, and verifiable denuclearization. U.S. policy will remain stuck as long as the administration continues to convince itself that the North’s nuclear dismantlement can be achieved on Washington’s timeline.
Reality tells the opposite story. The Kim regime has been abundantly clear that denuclearization is—and may always be—a mirage. Kim has treated the June 2018 Singapore statement as a glossy press release rather than a formal agreement. The Yongbyon Nuclear Research Reactor is operational; the centrifuges continue to spin; and bomb fuel continues to be produced. The recent comment by Kim Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N., that denuclearization is off the table is a confirmation of what many realists already know but too few in the Beltway can bring themselves to admit: North Korea will remain a nuclear weapons state for the foreseeable future whether the world likes it or not.
This was predictable. Pyongyang has completely rational reasons to retain a nuclear weapons arsenal as a deterrent against external attack. Wedged between a far wealthier South Korea, a hostile Japan, a fickle China, and a cynically pragmatic Russia, it would be illogical for Kim to trade away this security blanket for ill-defined concessions. There is nothing Washington can provide that would be worth abandoning the ultimate deterrent. Denuclearization is not a realistic option for the United States and has not been for years.
Fortunately, the United States doesn’t need denuclearization to fulfill our national security interests in East Asia, as 74 years of history in the atomic age amply demonstrate. If the U.S. and the Soviet Union could deal with one another pragmatically during the Cold War when they possessed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons apiece, there is no reason the United States and North Korea can’t do the same.
The United States can live with a nuclear North Korea in the furture just as it has for the last 13 years. Washington’s superior military capability, its ability to deploy forces quickly, and its extensive alliances and partnerships in the region all provide indefinite deterrence against an unprovoked first strike by Pyongyang. Moreover, Kim is no suicidal maniac; his prime concern is protecting his regime. Attacking South Korea or launching an ICBM towards U.S. territory would result in the very thing—the destruction of the family dynasty—Kim is so desperate to avoid. As long as the U.S. doesn’t unnecessarily provoke the North with talk of military action, Kim will have no reason to escalate to a point of no return.
Trump, therefore, must exercise restraint. North Korea may well ring in the holiday season with another ballistic missile test or perhaps a satellite launch. Such tests will inevitably raise howls of protest in the Beltway, increase discussion on Capitol Hill about passing even tougher sanctions, and prompt concern in the White House that Pyongyang is no longer interested in diplomacy.
But the North’s “Christmas gift” need not mark the return of the tense days of 2017, when Trump and Kim bragged about the size of their nuclear buttons. A nuclear North Korea, though not ideal, is not the end of the world, nor does it have to spoil progress on any number of possible deals short of denuclearization that could still introduce more stability in U.S.-North Korea relations. Signing a peace treaty that finally ends the Korean War, assisting North and South Korea in rejuvenating inter-Korean reconciliation, and exploring the prospects of a transparent arms control agreement are still very much alive.
None of that will happen if Washington won’t budge from a status quo that has failed in every conceivable way. Denuclearization over the short- to medium-term is a key to a locked room. The door to stability, peace, and predictability on the Korean Peninsula, however, is very much open.