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The Sane Alternative for North Korea Policy

Bolton reminded everyone today why we should be very glad that he no longer has any influence on U.S. foreign policy:

In his remarks, Bolton raised the specter of the United States’ using military force to prevent North Korea from maintaining its nuclear threat. He also said one outcome of U.S. policy should potentially be regime change in Pyongyang.

Bolton’s answers to virtually any foreign policy issue are war and regime change, so it is no surprise that he continues to peddle the same bankrupt ideas now that he is out of government. Considering that Bolton was involved in blowing up the Agreed Framework and encouraging North Korea to abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is remarkable that anyone would still be listening to anything he had to say about North Korea’s nuclear weapons now. Bolton has made a career out of contributing to and creating new national security problems for the U.S. and then arguing for the most destructive and reckless responses to the new problems, and it is an indictment of the Republican Party that he continues to be taken seriously on foreign policy despite his horrendous record.

Hard-liners like Bolton assume that North Korea won’t disarm voluntarily and conclude that North Korea must therefore be compelled to give up its weapons by force. That is clearly the wrong answer, and it is an incredibly dangerous thing to believe. If disarming North Korea requires a war, it isn’t worth doing, and a war would invite the disaster of nuclear war that disarmament is supposed to prevent. The right answer to North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons is to treat it as an arms control problem, and that means pursuing an agreement that will put limits on what they can build and deploy. Van Jackson explains why this is necessary:

In a recent report with the Center for a New American Security, I therefore propose redesigning Washington’s North Korea policy to acknowledge that the underlying premise of America’s longstanding approach has been overtaken by events. The assumption that the United States can convince North Korea to denuclearize is not only incorrect; it leads to coercive policies that increase the risk of nuclear conflict. As I recount at length in On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War, the goal of denuclearization justified a maximum pressure approach to North Korea in 2017, and maximum pressure played a leading role in causing the nuclear crisis. Rather than dial back a quixotic goal, the Trump administration ratcheted up the means employed and the risks taken to realize it. The nuclear confrontation might have been avoided entirely if the United States had more realistic expectations for what could have been achieved with North Korea.

To better manage the risks of nuclear instability in Korea, the report urges policymakers to stop treating denuclearization as a realistic planning factor and instead pursue an arms control approach that prescribes for the United States a series of unpalatable but essential actions.

U.S. policy towards North Korea is stuck in a time warp, and it is burdened by an impossible goal that prevents our government from ever reaching a negotiated compromise with North Korea that would significantly improve the security of all concerned. Bolton’s policy options range from the absurd to the insane, and the Trump administration’s policy of demanding capitulation while ignoring reality is an obvious failure. The path that Jackson lays out is the only one that makes any sense, and it one that still has a chance of producing a mutually beneficial agreement. The current administration isn’t likely to pay any attention to it, but the next one absolutely should.

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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