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Facing Reality in North Korea

The Wall Street Journalreports on the North Korea and arms control experts that think pursuing “final, fully verified denuclearization” is a waste of time:

These experts consider the goal of denuclearizing North Korea to be unrealistic. Setting this goal aside, they argue, would open the door to long-overdue policy discussions, such as how to ensure that North Korea manages its nuclear arsenal in a responsible manner and doesn’t sell its components or expertise to other countries or nonstate actors.

“When a country becomes a nuclear-weapons state, you find a common ground in managing the relationship and transparency, like we learned to do with the Soviets and the Chinese,” says Mr. Mount.

“Every week we spend on an unrealistic attempt to disarm North Korea is one where we’re not managing the threat from North Korea,” he says. “There is a range of practical and pressing threats that emanate from North Korea that…are being neglected while we chase this fantasy.”

Our government has been declaring that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is “unacceptable” for so many years that our leaders and policymakers have fooled themselves into believing that it is somehow in our power force North Korea’s nuclear weapons out of existence. Short of magically turning back time by more than a decade, no external power is going to be able to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal short of war. Any war with a nuclear-armed North Korea would be so catastrophic that it could never be justified. The U.S. and our allies have to face the reality that North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons or the means to deliver them. That means focusing our diplomatic efforts on reducing tensions on the peninsula and stabilizing relations with North Korea, and that in turns means giving up on the futile effort of trying to sanction them into submission.

Everything that the U.S. needs to be doing is contrary to the stated policy of this administration, so it is unlikely that the current administration will be able to do what is necessary to manage relations successfully with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Instead of holding worthless summits that accomplish nothing, the Trump administration should drastically lower its ambitions, reduce its demands, and start over by assisting South Korea in its engagement efforts by lifting or not enforcing sanctions that could impede closer ties between Seoul and Pyongyang. Doing that would invite predictable howls of derision from hawks in both parties, but it would be the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, an administration as wedded to imposing “maximum pressure” on adversaries as this one is won’t have the courage or imagination to try.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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