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It’s Time to Face Reality on North Korea

Daniel DePetris agrees that denuclearization is an unrealistic goal in North Korea:

After over a quarter century of failure in demanding the very same concessions from Pyongyang, and relying heavily upon the same conventional strategy (more sanctions, threats of force and diplomacy on American terms), it’s time for the United States to change the policy. The longer U.S. political leaders continue to believe that denuclearizing North Korea is realistic, the longer it will take for the White House to craft a strategy to the problem that actually has a possibility of working: Cold War–era deterrence.

Trying to prevent nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula made sense twenty-five years ago, and the Agreed Framework had some success in doing that before it was foolishly blown up by the Bush administration. Once that effort failed, U.S. policy should have adapted to the new reality, but that didn’t happen. For more than a decade, the U.S. has stubbornly clung to the fantasy that North Korea would give up nuclear weapons once it had them. Some states have done so in the past, but no government has ever done this if it considers having a deterrent to be essential to its survival. Furthermore, Washington has assumed that all that is needed to compel North Korea to do this is to organize sufficient international pressure and wait for the other side to yield.

The Iraq and Libyan wars gave the North Korean government vivid demonstrations of what happened to regimes loathed by Washington that didn’t possess nuclear weapons. Those wars of choice have helped ensure that North Korea will hang on to its nuclear weapons as tightly as possible. Once again, instead of adapting our North Korea policy to acknowledge that our government’s regime change wars have made a deterrent even more attractive to Pyongyang, the U.S. has carried on as if nothing changed. North Korea views its nuclear weapons and missile programs as non-negotiable, and the U.S. continues to treat them as the only things worth negotiating over and sees their elimination as the only acceptable outcome. When “diplomacy” is defined by Washington as the terms of the other side’s surrender, it is little wonder that the other side has no interest in it.

The U.S. has learned to accept and deter far more dangerous nuclear-weapons states than North Korea, and there is no reason why it could not do so again. The chief obstacles to doing this are not in Northeast Asia, but are to be found in Washington. There are very few people in Washington that want to acknowledge the limits of U.S. power, and so there are few political leaders or policymakers that want to acknowledge that the U.S. cannot achieve a longstanding goal of North Korea policy. Refusing to recognize that the goal is now out of reach ensures that each new administration will keep trying to do something that it can’t achieve. Because there is such strong resistance to acknowledging the failure of past policy, there is no ability to learn from that failure and to adapt accordingly. That learning needs to happen soon before the U.S. blunders into an avoidable war that would have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

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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