“They that sow the wind, shall reap the Whirlwind” is a proverbial phrase taken from the Old Testament, the Book of Hosea 8:7, which alludes to the notion that those who pursue false idols shall face the severity of God’s judgment. There is no better phrase that captures the current reality of American arms control policy with North Korea, which for decades has been built on the dual objectives of containment and regime change.
This policy has collapsed in the face of sustained North Korean recalcitrance and defiance; North Korea today has a strategic nuclear weapons capability that is firmly attached to the survival of its regime. Any effort to remove the North Korean regime will result in the employment of these weapons in its defense; any effort to forcefully eliminate these weapons through military force will likewise result in their employment. Given the horrific consequences of any such action, that awful truth is that there simply is no military solution worthy of the name.
It is a little understood reality that it was the United States that first introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula and, by including South Korea and Japan in its strategic nuclear umbrella, has made nuclear weapons an ever-present reality of any foreign policy or national security discussion on North Korea. The decision by the United States in 1957 to abrogate paragraph 13(d) of the Korean armistice agreement prohibiting the introduction of new weapons into the Korean peninsula was seen as an economy of force measure by then-President Eisenhower, who believed that the deployment of nuclear weapons to South Korea would allow the United States to withdraw its large conventional military presence there. For North Korea, it was seen as a direct threat to its existence, given the fact that the American policy at that time was, and continues to be, one that seeks regime change through containment and destabilization.
There is a linkage between arms control and regime change that has existed, and continues to exist, in America’s post-Cold War foreign and national security policy calculations. This linkage is obvious, especially when it comes to nations that have been labeled by Washington as being “rogue” in nature. Iraq stands out in this regard; the effort by UN weapons inspectors to disarm Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were only useful to the United States in so far as it facilitated the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. The attack on Libya followed suit—the United States moved to eliminate Muammar Gaddafi’s chemical and nuclear capabilities prior to overseeing his forceful eviction, and ultimate demise. Until President Trump’s reversed course on American policy vis-à-vis the need for Syrian President Assad to step aside as a precondition for peace in that troubled nation, the efforts to disarm Syria of its chemical arsenal were viewed only in the light of defanging a threat before eliminating it.
Regime change in Pyongyang has always underpinned American policy toward North Korea. North Korea’s considerable conventional military capability, combined with the proximity of China and a history of Chinese military intervention when North Korean sovereignty was violated, has meant that the United States has pursued a non-kinetic solution, focusing on economic containment and diplomatic isolation to compel internal unrest that could lead to the peaceful transition of power within North Korea, and eventually the unification of Korea as a singular political entity governed out of Seoul.
When, in the 1980’s, North Korea undertook to develop an indigenous nuclear capability, the United States treated this initiative as a subset of its larger policy of containment and isolation. America never really negotiated in good faith. North Korea was never given any options other than that which furthered American policy objectives of containment and isolation by denying North Korea the ability to meaningfully integrate with its neighbors and the rest of the world.
This policy of economic and diplomatic isolation of North Korea did produce two dividends to the detriment of American policy—it strengthened the resolve of Pyongyang to build an economy hardened against the pressures of economic sanctions, and it produced a paranoia within the North Korean leadership that turned every military move by the United States in the region into a direct threat to North Korea itself. History has shown us the results: Economic sanctions have proven incapable of compelling change within North Korea, and North Korea has perfected a long-range ballistic missile delivery system and a miniaturized nuclear payload that brings parts of the United States into range.
There are no good options for resolving the unfolding crisis with North Korea. There is no viable military option worthy of the name—the United States simply lacks the concentration of conventional military power in the region to conduct the kind of broad-spectrum, sustained interdiction required for successful preemption of any North Korean attack. Significant North Korean forces, both conventional and strategic, would survive. The devastation of Seoul through conventional artillery fire would all but be assured, along with the real potential of a nuclear missile attack on South Korea, Japan and the territory of the United States. In short, an American preemptive military strike would only accelerate a North Korean nuclear attack.
Total diplomatic capitulation in the face of North Korean intransigence is likewise an unacceptable outcome. It would preserve the North Korean nuclear and strategic missile capability as an unconstrained reality, embolden North Korean action on the Korean peninsula and beyond, while exposing as impotent both America’s conventional and nuclear military deterrence capability. Moreover, both South Korea and Japan would likely embark on building their own independent nuclear deterrence, undermining American and international objectives on nuclear nonproliferation.
Stuck between two unacceptable options, the United States will need to think out of the box in its search for a solution to the North Korean nuclear conundrum. One thing not being considered is the strengthening of economic sanctions targeting either North Korea or those who continue to trade with Pyongyang. Sanctions represent little more than the antithesis of policy, and have played a significant role in boxing the United States in a corner when it comes to resolving the issue of North Korean nuclear capability. Moreover, a policy of seeking to punish China as a means of garnering Chinese support is inherently counterintuitive.
China is the key to any solution. At this juncture, the United States has little choice but to accept the reality of North Korea’s nuclear armament. The problem now becomes how best to contain this reality, and eventually roll it back. One solution would be to turn to the Chinese, and invite them to extend their nuclear umbrella over North Korea, incorporating the North Korean nuclear arsenal into a unified nuclear deterrence capability. China would announce a no first use policy, which would extend to the North Korean nuclear force. Any unilateral violation of this policy by North Korea would result in the Chinese nuclear umbrella being automatically withdrawn. The North Korean strategic nuclear force would be capped at an agreed level, perhaps a regiment-sized force of some dozen missiles.
The United States could then enter into serious arms control discussions with China that included North Korea and Russia (and later India and Pakistan) to scale back the size of their respective nuclear arsenals (understanding that Chinese nuclear disarmament cannot take place in a regional vacuum). One of the key objectives of any such negotiation would be a freeze on the deployment of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems by all parties, and the institution of on-site inspections as a means of verifying compliance; this would get American eyes on the North Korean arsenal, increasing confidence among American politicians that North Korea was not operating in violation of the accord (it would also halt a trillion-dollar nuclear modernization program currently planned for the American nuclear arsenal.)
The nuclear negotiations could go hand in hand with a larger regional conference on stability in the Korean peninsula which would involve the reduction of conventional military forces on both sides of the demilitarized zone, the removal of destabilizing weaponry, such as the American THAAD anti-missile capability and North Korean medium ranged missiles, and the normalization of economic relations between North Korea and its regional neighbors, free of sanctions. The endgame in this dual approach would be to create a situation where North Korea would no longer feel the necessity to possess an independent strategic nuclear capability, and instead be willing to exist under the protection of a Chinese nuclear deterrence force that would, over time, be negotiated down to zero, along with the other nuclear arsenals of the world.
This kind of creative diplomacy has been lacking over the years, mainly due to the arrogance on the part of American diplomats and policy formulators that blinded them to the good of the global collective in the name of sustaining unilateral American nuclear supremacy. The American struggle to maintain its place at the top of the world’s power structure has, at times, taken on machinations that would rival “Game of Thrones” in conspiratorial complexity. “Chaos is a Ladder” may work as a policy thematic in fantasy, but in reality it is a recipe for disaster, as the current American policy failure with North Korea underscores. It is high time Washington divorces itself from decades of failed policy formulation and instead embark on a new path that leads to a resolution that offers something other than American supremacy at the cost of regional and global instability.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).