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The United States wants a denuclearized North Korea, but is not willing to pay for it

- By Peter Harris and Meriel Hahn

- Reasearch Article available here


North Korea recently tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that can deliver “multiple nuclear warheads” to “any target” in the United States, from Hawaii to Florida. The message to US leaders was clear: Pyongyang cannot be pushed around, at least not without risking a devastating nuclear exchange.

It is easy to understand why North Korea’s rulers cling to their nuclear deterrent. For them, nuclear weapons are about survival. Without the means to threaten the United States and its allies with massive retaliation, Kim Jong-un and his inner circle would feel much more vulnerable to external pressure – perhaps even forcible regime change.

But what if the United States were to offer the North Korean regime a way to stay in power that did not depend upon weapons of mass destruction? Might Pyongyang agree to “permanent, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization if presented with the right mix of political, economic, and security inducements?

In a recent article for The International Spectator, we considered what it would take for the United States to persuade North Korea that denuclearization is the safest and most attractive path forward. We concluded that the price of such a peace deal with Pyongyang would almost certainly be too high for any US leader to seriously consider.

The central problem is that, for North Korea to choose denuclearization, its leaders must be given an enormous amount in exchange. Most importantly, Pyongyang must have guarantees that denuclearization would not diminish either national security or the regime’s grip on power.

We strongly suspect that no US leader could give North Korea any such guarantees in the current political climate.

What would happen, for example, if a sitting US president proposed to withdraw US forces from South Korea or Japan so that a denuclearized North Korea could feel secure in its own neighborhood? What would be the response if the US Senate were asked to ratify a nuclear agreement that contained insurance policies for North Korea (such as a short “breakout time”) that the deal’s provisions would be kept?

More likely than not, such terms would be unacceptable for a decisive portion of the US political class. So, too, would any nuclear agreement that required the United States to repudiate the goal of regime change, normalize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, and provide economic support to a brutal dictatorship. Yet such concessions are the minimum that North Korea would expect in return for giving up its nuclear prize.

This is why we call the United States a “hobbled peacemaker” on the Korean Peninsula: the gulf is just too wide between what North Korea can be expected to demand in exchange for denuclearization and what self-interested US leaders are willing to give up.

North Korea’s recent missile test is a reminder that Pyongyang poses a serious threat to regional security. However, it is also a reminder that every US-led diplomatic initiative toward North Korea has failed. In the future, regional powers – especially Japan and South Korea, whose security is even more closely affected by North Korea’s missile program – ought to recognize the limitations of US influence and develop their own proposals for denuclearizing the peninsula.

Meriel Hahn is a graduate student of International Relations at Queen’s University Belfast.

Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University.


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