Nuclear North Korea: Perpetuating the fiction

For Pyongyang, a “double suspension” agreement could be a turning point towards the goal of being recognized as a nuclear state.

Tensions are again reaching new heights in Northeast Asia. After a first peak in mid-August, the DPRK launched a ballistic missile over Japan this week.

In this dangerous game of chicken – brought to a new level by President Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks – the logic of deterrence prevails over diplomacy and sanctions. US deterrence may not have prevented Pyongyang from launching a missile, but it did succeed in convincing North Korea to back down from its initial threat to fire missiles into the water around US territory Guam.

Many questions remain regarding Pyongyang’s progress towards its ultimate goal of a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile. The state of warhead miniaturization, reentry vehicle, accuracy and range of the missiles, survivability of the missile arsenal to a first strike – these are all open questions. But after five nuclear tests, there is no longer any question that it possesses a rudimentary nuclear strike capacity in addition to its existing stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.

Defense Secretary James Mattis had promised that a missile fired towards Guam would be “taken out”. Yet it chose not to intercept the test over Japan, missing the chance to demonstrate to allies the accuracy of its missile defense systems and to demonstrate to North Korea the vulnerability of its missile systems. The absence of interception of North Korea’s missile tests suggests a calculus that the risk of escalation was not worth taking for this benefit. It allowed the official North Korean news agency KCNA to comment that missile defense would “never offer comfort” – in reality it is unclear how the DPRK would react to an interception.

As the security dynamic on the Korean peninsula has completely shifted to a deterrence logic, the prospect for nuclear disarmament is fading away in the background. US deterrence is not about denuclearizing North Korea: it is about maintaining peace and the security of Japan and the Republic of Korea. The very fact that the Trump administration reaffirmed deterrence (the unusual violent language being the President’s personal style) suggests a tacit acceptance of the reality of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons.

The only remaining instrument designed to create the conditions for nuclear disarmament is currently sanctions. UNSC Resolution 2371, approved unanimously this month, will hurt North Korea badly, but few believe that this will create favorable conditions for a resumption of denuclearization talks. The same goes for the US Treasury’s indirect sanctions on individuals and entities trading with DPRK based in China, Russia and Namibia.

A robust sanctions regime is more about containing proliferation activities and sending a consistent message to the international community regarding the costs of proliferation. In short, sanctions are more about punishment than prevention. In strategic circles, more time is spent discussing the risk of future North Korean nuclear blackmail than on devising realistic diplomatic options for peaceful denuclearization.

This is where the Sino-Russian “double-suspension” proposition deserves serious consideration. The idea initially came from North Korea: In January 2015, Kim Jong Un proposed a suspension of nuclear tests in exchange for a suspension of joint US-ROK military exercises. But in July this year, at the occasion of President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow, the two sides agreed to a joint “de-escalation plan” based on the idea of double suspension. The initiative is a variation on the idea of a freeze, which has long been advocated in Chinese strategic circles as the only realistic diplomatic approach. The logic of a freeze is that as tensions would immediately lower, a policy of economic engagement with North Korea could be resumed, which, if it was sustained for a sufficiently long period, could change the strategic calculus in Pyongyang – the decisive factor if denuclearization is the goal. 

The double suspension initiative contributes to a shifting policy debate on North Korea, where the main dividing line is increasingly whether the world should ‘accept the reality’ of a nuclear armed North Korea or work on the assumption that reality should be denied. The Sino-Russian idea – currently the only alternative proposal on the table to the logic of deterrence – could temporarily lower tensions. From the perspective of Pyongyang though, a “double suspension” agreement could be a turning point, maybe a decisive step, towards reaching the goal of being recognized as a nuclear state. What would remain would be a merely cosmetic commitment to achieving denuclearization.

During her speech at the opening session of the EU Ambassadors’ annual conference in Brussels, High Representative Federica Mogherini mentioned that the EU’s partners in Asia knew that the EU would do all it can “to find a mediation, keeping in mind the goal of a full and verifiable de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, putting forward the experience gained by the EU during the negotiations of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The EU does not yet have a position on “double suspension”. But as many in Europe already think that denuclearization is a “lost cause”, to paraphrase the former director of national intelligence James Clapper, it is worth pointing out that a freeze of testing would do nothing to promote “full and verifiable denuclearization”. The likelihood that it would provoke instead the opposite effect should not be dismissed, as the DPRK is seeking signs from the international community that it is gradually accepted as a nuclear state.

Even though the present course may appear as an uncomfortable fiction to many,  the EU should oppose formats like the double suspension that do not clearly rule out accepting North Korea as a nuclear state. Creating a space for ambiguity can sometimes help negotiations but, in the case of the DPRK, ambiguity will likely be exploited to reach a goal that is stated very clearly and loudly and for which a freeze of tests would constitute progress

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Deputy Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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