North Korea is as close as it has ever been from being able to reliably deliver a nuclear-tipped missile to the U.S. mainland. Twenty-five to thirty years of failed policy has all come down to this: A nuclear-armed Kim dynasty theoretically has the military capacity to deter the United States, South Korea, Japan, and any other country thinking about overthrowing it.
North Korea’s nuclear success, however, is not just a time for U.S. officials to gear up for a new era, plan for the worst, and hope for the best. While it is highly likely that Washington missed the opportunity to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula by pressuring Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons program in return for a peace agreement or a normalization of relations, U.S. policymakers, analysts, and scholars now have a duty to look into the history of how we got here and determine where U.S. policy went wrong.
This isn’t an especially happy exercise for those in the national security community who have spent decades studying North Korea and trying to avert its nuclear program. But it could get much, much worse if the U.S. fails to analyze what went wrong, what strategies may have made the situation better, and whether lessons can be learned from the experience.
It’s Tough to Negotiate With a Paranoid Country
The leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is inherently paranoid. The entire structure of the regime, as far as outsiders can discern it, is dependent on the wishes and whims of one man and one man only. The DPRK is a totalitarian, hereditary monarchy underpinned by vehement anti-American beliefs and founded upon the principle that the United States is an ever-constant predator conspiring to replace the Kim family with a puppet government.
As the popular saying goes, “just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.” The Kim regime has good reasons to be concerned about how many U.S. sailors are at sea at any given moment and how many fighter and bomber aircraft are taking off from Guam for a practice run—not because Washington will launch an invasion, but rather because North Koreans can see quite clearly over previous decades how the U.S. deals with governments it doesn’t like. Whether it was Saddam Hussein in 2003, Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, Maurice Bishop in 1983, or Bashar al-Assad today, North Koreans are observant enough to connect the dots and come to a conclusion quite difficult to refute—governments that get on the wrong side of the U.S. leaders and don’t possess nuclear weapons will eventually be targeted by America. The lesson: Get a nuclear deterrent.
We know this because North Korea’s state news agency has cited the fates of Hussein and Qaddafi as justification for their nuclear development. “The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya,” one state commentary read, “could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord.”
Three generations of the Kim family have watched enemies of the U.S. come and go, swept into the dustbin of history and overthrown from power. Fielding nuclear weapons is a guarantee that the DPRK won’t join the Saddams of the world. For U.S. negotiators, it’s a steep climb to convince a government so focused on self-preservation and so worried about their more powerful neighbors to eliminate the one deterrent that would shield it from a foreign attack.
Maximalist Demands Don’t Work
During the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations, bilateral or multilateral diplomacy with the North Koreans seldom worked out when the default U.S. policy revolved around a combination of economic sanctions and idealistic demands. While full, unimpeded, and unconditional denuclearization was an appropriate and desirable objective for the United States and many of its European and Asian allies, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un viewed giving up these weapons as an extreme gamble that would remove the regime’s insurance policy against a U.S. invasion.
The result was a stalemate that only solidified during the eight years of President Obama’s tenure. U.S. preconditions, like refusing to engage in a dialogue with Pyongyang until it took active and concrete steps to reverse its nuclear work, was counterproductive and spoiled exploratory diplomacy before it even started. And when diplomacy isn’t an option, coercive measures like U.N. Security Council sanctions, B-1 overflights, and military exercises don’t serve a purpose other than to punish bad behavior.
Engage in Pragmatic Diplomacy Before the Window Closes for Good
There is still a chance, however small, for talks to work. But that opening won’t last forever and indeed might not occur at all if the Trump administration doesn’t learn from its predecessor’s mistakes.
For talks to succeed, President Trump will have to find a way to aim far lower than Clinton, Bush, or Obama ever did. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have advanced so quickly that the Kim regime may consider a full dismantling of its nukes out of the question. As difficult as that reality is be to stomach, President Trump can’t afford to let any additional time go by basing his policy on the delusion that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is still a possibility.
But if Trump can define success down and concentrate on capping Kim’s nuclear arsenal, suspending further missile research, development, and testing, and re-admitting international nuclear inspectors into North Korea—all while increasing the the U.S. posture of deterrence in Northeast Asia—he may have an opening to reach a mutually acceptable agreement with the Kim government. This, of course, will require extensive and creative diplomacy before any of this is a possibility, as well as the political bravery to defend an effort that will be frowned upon by many in Washington as as a capitulation.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has entered a phase when it will be forced to live with a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. It’s now up to the United States to choose between a nuclear-armed North Korea that is unrestrained and free to continue stockpiling its warheads and improving its missile technology, or a nuclear-armed North Korea that is hemmed in by a global nonproliferation regime that has helped keep the peace between nuclear powers for the last 72 years.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.