North Korea no longer poses a nonproliferation problem; it poses a nuclear deterrence problem


Downtown Pyongyang (Photo: Oliver Stuenkel, 2013)

While the United States still treats the situation in North Korea as a nuclear-nonproliferation problem, it is increasingly obvious that it has become a nuclear deterrence problem. "The window of opportunity for a successful U.S. attack to stop the North Korean nuclear program has closed", Scott Sagan rightly points out in his balanced article The Korean Missile Crisis: Why Deterrence Is Still the Best Option, in Foreign Affairs. It is the same hard truth Trump's predecessors Truman (when the Soviet Union became a nuclear power) and Kennedy (in the case of China) had to learn. Having failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear arms, the key task now will be to deter the regime in Pyongyang from using them.

The challenge is certainly more complex today than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only were the leaders of the Soviet Union and China more predictable than Kim Jon Un, but both Truman and Kennedy were far more rational than the current US president. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that Donald Trump is as much a risk factor in global affairs today as his North Korean counterpart -- particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons, which both leaders can use without any institutional constraints.

Three additional factors complicate the current situation. First of all, Xi Jinping is in the midst of a process of consolidating power ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will be held in Beijing on October 18th. Until then, Xi's room for maneuver will be small, and he cannot risk looking weak to an increasingly nationalistic public debate in China. Secondly, the institutional density across Asia remains remarkably limited, which reduces the number of established channels of communication and personal relationships among policy making elites. That, in turn, increases the risk of misperceptions, which, as history tells us, can spark broad conflicts. Finally, ties between several Asian nations (such as South Korea, Japan and China) are profoundly complicated, which makes any joint action vis-à-vis North Korea unlikely.

Therein lies the challenge which leads Sagan to argue that the current crisis is more dangerous than the US Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, often seen as the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Indeed, while back then it was a civilian leader who cautioned a trigger-happy military command, the situation today is the exact opposite, with an unstable civilian leader being cautioned by pragmatic military men.

All talk of a preventive attack, an invasion, a targeted assassination of Kim Jong Un are therefore both unrealistic and dangerous, as none of them could prevent a retaliatory strike against either South Korea or the United States, with casualties easily in the hundreds of thousands. Specialists also point out that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a US-American anti-ballistic missile defense system, cannot avoid catastrophe, as it is both untested and, most believe, easily penetrable by launching many missiles at the same time. There is thus no military action without massive losses on both sides, which, even if no nuclear weapons would be used, could cause a global recession.

What would deterrence look like? As Sagan writes

Reducing the risk of war will therefore require an end to U.S. threats of first-strike regime change. In August, Tillerson told reporters that the United States did not seek to overthrow Kim unless he were to begin a war. Other American leaders should consistently echo Tillerson’s comments. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s rhetoric has been anything but consistent. Should the United States succeed in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, it should be prepared to offer changes to U.S. and South Korean military exercises in exchange for limits on—and notifications of—North Korean missile tests and the restoration of the hotline between North and South Korea.

Such a strategy -- basically accepting North Korea's nuclear status and waiting for it to collapse on its own at some future point in time -- would require tremendous patience and constraint, not necessarily Trump's strong suit. It is often forgotten that the North Korean economy grew above three percent last year (faster than the South Korean economy), and that the North Korean population is very unlikely to protest even if another famine breaks out. After all, the regime in Pyongyang is not a common dictatorship, but a religious cult.

Yet there are a few bright spots. South Korea's government has shown to be remarkably far-sighted, rejecting calls to acquire nuclear weapons by hardliners (indeed, most South Koreans want their government to obtain nuclear weapons, which would unnecessarily increase tensions, as Japan could follow suit). Secondly, there are some signs that Trump can be controlled by four military men: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, also a retired Marine general; Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Marine general; and national security adviser general H.R. McMaster. As long as both they and South Korea's president remain in power, nuclear catastrophe can most likely be avoided -- even though the situation will inevitably involve getting used to a "new normal". Matias Spektor describes negotiating with North Korea "both imperfect and risky", but agrees it is the least bad option available.

In the midst of all this, third parties such as Brazil would be wise to resist pressure from the United States to cut diplomatic ties to Pyongyang. That is because having a few embassies operating in North Korea is crucial to obtain intelligence. Along with Cuba, Brazil is the only country in the Americas to possess an embassy in the country. Foreign diplomats on the ground can prove important to maintain a rudimentary dialogue, particularly at a moment when a military confrontation seems imminent, or when it is necessary to defuse tensions. There is no way of being informed about these developments without an embassy in the country, particularly in the case of North Korea, which is so difficult to access for independent observers. 

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