North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear weapons test in early September, claiming to have successfully detonated a ballistic missile-deliverable warhead. Although this was North Korea’s most powerful test to date, the international community’s response was standard. Countries around the world expressed varying degrees of frustration, anger, and outrage, but none articulated a clear plan to disrupt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Even with the United States and China working together in an unprecedented fashion to pass a new round of trade and financial sanctions through the UN Security Council, North Korea has continued to pursue nuclear capabilities and antagonize its neighbors.
Since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, the world has achieved little progress in its quest to disarm the country. In fact, the United States and its Pacific allies may be further from coercing Pyongyang to change its nuclear weapon policy today than they were a decade ago. North Korea has defied U.S. appeals for disarmament and instead flaunted its program by testing ballistic missiles on a near-monthly basis.
When the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) concluded its seventh congress in May 2016, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un declared North Korea’s byungjin policy of pursuing both economic growth and nuclear development a success. If Pyongyang’s nuclear belligerence intends to be the new status quo, then it is time to think critically about the future of U.S.-led efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As North Korea’s nuclear weapons program becomes more entrenched in its foreign policy, aggravating tensions with South Korea and threatening global security, the international community is prioritizing North Korean disarmament over its human rights situation. Although less than ideal, this decoupling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program from its domestic political and civil rights abuses may be the only way to achieve any type of arms deal.
Some analysts argue that the United States and like-minded allies should indict North Korean officials for human rights abuses in order to subdue the nuclear threat. Others suggest that China should act as a liaison between the United States and North Korea to facilitate a “grand bargain” that would resolve the Korean War and guarantee the Kim government’s security. While a “grand bargain” may be appealing in principle, a plan to resolve the Korean War, reform and North Korean politics, and end Pyongyang’s nuclear program simultaneously is unrealistic. Instead, if the U.S. government wants to accomplish nuclear arms control on the Korean peninsula, it should consciously separate the nuclear issue from the country’s other issues, such as human rights, and focus its efforts accordingly.
Since nuclear disarmament efforts began in the 1960s, negotiated, verifiable, and enforceable deals have proven to be the best way to change national nuclear weapon policies. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union shared the goal of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and both wished to reduce nuclear tensions between themselves. Just as the relationship between the United States and North Korea today, the relationship between the United States and the USSR was marked by profound disagreements across a range of issues. However, rather than trying to resolve all their differences in one fell swoop, arms control agreements between the two countries were just that. Moscow and Washington dealt with other contentious issues through separate means. The United States, for example, pressured the USSR and the Eastern Bloc to change their human rights policies not by linking the issue to arms control but by engaging in a separate negotiation process that ultimately resulted in the Helsinki Accords.
Just as the United States did with the USSR, it has also cemented successful arms control agreements with North Korea in the past. The 1994 Agreed Framework required North Korea to halt its nuclear weapon activities in return for economic aid from the United States. Though the deal fell apart in the early 2000s, the Framework nevertheless resulted in eight years during which North Korea’s plutonium production program was nearly frozen. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the deal that put verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear activities—is also instructive. Washington and Tehran made the deal after a long bargaining process and without linking it to other contentious issues. Rather than reinventing the relationship between the Washington and Tehran, the JCPOA targets Iran’s nuclear activities, and nothing more.
Of course, there are significant differences between U.S.-Iran relations and U.S.-North Korea relations. While the United States convinced Iran to halt nuclear weapons development, North Korea already has an arsenal. Furthermore, because the Iranian economy is more integrated in the global financial system, it is more vulnerable to international sanctions than is North Korea. While international sanctions negatively impacted Iran’s economy and currency, in North Korea, economic mismanagement and a predatory government have already ensured that the currency is illiquid and unconvertible. North Korea’s economy has also already adapted to years of trade sanctions through a well established and adaptable sanction-evasion network facilitated by shell companies and Chinese intermediaries. Thus, while sanctions might – at the margin – hurt North Korea’s economy, prospects for using “Iran-style” sanctions to cripple Pyongyang are few and far between.
The power asymmetry between the United States and North Korea also complicates matters. The United States and the USSR overcame their hostilities and agreed on nuclear arms agreements because neither was strong enough to dictate terms to the other, resulting in a stalemate and making negotiation a more attractive option. However, the United States is reluctant to engage in talks with North Korea; after all, given the United States’ absolute military and economic dominance, it should, in theory, be able to dictate terms to the relatively weak North Korean government.
While it may be tempting to conclude that efforts to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with North Korea are doomed to fail, there is no better policy alternative waiting in the wings. Armed force was not an option during the 1994 nuclear crisis, and has little appeal now. Threats of military force against North Korea might be useful bargaining tactics, but they would need to be credible. Economic sanctions—designed to hurt, but not to collapse North Korea—may be attractive as they do not raise military tensions on the peninsula and do little economic harm to the United States, South Korea, Japan, or China. However, sanctions do not significantly impact the Kim regime either. Sanctions simply impoverish North Korean citizens and are ultimately insufficient in toppling the regime or crippling its nuclear weapons program.
The way forward is therefore unappealing but clear: the best policy tool to reduce North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is a sustained effort to negotiate an arms control deal. However, this strategy is not as simple as it sounds. President Obama continues to focus U.S. foreign policy efforts on the Middle East and Russia, and will likely not spend his final days trying to negotiate a deal with North Korea. The next American president is similarly unlikely to want to risk his or her reputation by working with a historically unreliable negotiating partner in his or her first term. It will therefore be years before the world sees any serious, sustained effort by the United States to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons policy. Until then, North Korea’s people will toil under sanctions, tensions on the peninsula will simmer, and North Korea will continue its march toward a deployable nuclear weapon.