The United States should admit defeat in its campaign to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and focus instead on risk reduction and arms control measures, experts have urged.
On Tuesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile at Japan for the first time since 2017, drawing renewed condemnation from Washington and its allies.
The United States and South Korea responded by holding joint military exercises and firing missiles in the Sea of Japan, while the USS Ronald Reagan, a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, made a rare U-turn to return to waters east of the peninsula. from Korea after a recent visit.
But analysts said the military gestures and combative words emanating from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo belie the reality that they have run out of ideas and options to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The experts argued that the US and its allies should focus on agreeing with Pyongyang on measures to reduce the risk of conflict on the Korean peninsula, even if doing so amounted to a tacit acceptance that North Korea would continue to possess nuclear weapons.
“The insistence on denuclearization is not just a failure, it has become a farce,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“They test, we respond, we get on with our lives,” Panda added. “North Korea has already won. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but at some point we’ll have to swallow it.”
US and Korean officials have insisted that even a tacit acceptance of North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state would have dangerous consequences for global non-proliferation efforts.
Last month, Kim Jong Un modified North Korea’s nuclear doctrine to allow preemptive strikes. The previous policy only allowed the use of nuclear weapons in a second strike scenario.
“There will never be any declaration of ‘giving up our nuclear weapons’ or ‘denuclearization,’ or any kind of negotiation to meet the other side’s conditions,” Kim said. “As long as there are nuclear weapons on earth and imperialism remains. . . our path towards strengthening nuclear power will not stop.”
Jenny Town, director of the 38 North program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said “the window for a denuclearization-led process has closed.”
Town pointed to the intensifying arms race in East Asia and rising tensions between the United States and China. “It’s unrealistic to think that in the midst of all this, North Korea will contemplate denuclearization when everyone else, including South Korea, is arming,” he said.
“Once the relationship improves and geopolitical trends change in a more positive direction, maybe we can get back to talking about the nuclear program. But that seems to be a long way down the line.”
Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a leading expert on North Korea, said “Kim’s message is this: ‘We have nuclear weapons, we will have them forever, and we will use them as we see fit.’
Lankov argued that Pyongyang would not approve of the talks as long as Washington maintains North Korea’s denuclearization even as a distant political goal, while Congress and the American public will not accept anything less than North Korea’s capitulation on the issue.
“The American public wants their government to pursue a dangerous and unattainable dream, but the North Koreans have made it clear that they are not going to play this game,” Lankov said. “The only way to persuade them to consider restrictions on their nuclear weapons will be to pay them obscenely well for it.”
North Korea has avoided diplomacy since 2019, when the latest in a series of summits between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump broke down in Hanoi.
In January 2021, Kim outlined the capabilities he intended to gain in five years, including tactical nuclear weapons, maneuverable missiles, solid-fuel ICBMs, and nuclear submarines.
Weapons experts said the North Korean regime has made considerable progress on multiple fronts, despite tough international sanctions and Kim sealing the country’s borders in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cooperation between the permanent members of the UN Security Council on North Korea also broke down in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, further easing pressure on Pyongyang.
North Korea has also taken advantage of Russia’s international isolation to foster closer ties with Moscow. On Wednesday, the Security Council failed to condemn Pyongyang’s missile launch after Russia and China blamed Washington for ignoring North Korea’s security concerns.
“Most of the top American officials who work on North Korea policy now privately acknowledge that denuclearization is not going to happen, but are unable or unwilling to say so publicly,” said Chad O’Carroll, founder of consultancy Korea RiskGroup.
Panda noted that policymakers should be especially concerned about North Korea’s development of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons that could be deployed against South Korea.
“A nuclear war can end with an ICBM, but it is more likely to start with a tactical nuclear bomb – they are incredibly dangerous and concerning,” Panda said. “This could be the capability that Kim is waiting for before resorting to nuclear coercion or territorial revisionism against the South.”
He said the longer Washington waited before acknowledging the reality that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were here to stay, the larger and more sophisticated Pyongyang’s arsenal would become, and the higher the cost Kim could fetch in an inevitable future negotiation. .
“It is not in the national interest of the United States to let this fester,” Panda said.