It’s time to accept nuclear-armed North Korea, policy experts say
Former officials and academics believe US and China should give up on denuclearisation and focus instead on deterrence
Former officials and policy experts from China and the United States say it’s time to find a new way of dealing with Pyongyang’s threats – by accepting the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Their long-term push for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is now being seen as unrealistic in some quarters given Pyongyang’s rapid progress in developing nuclear capabilities.
Instead, there are growing calls for Beijing and Washington to work towards ensuring that the North will not use the weapons – seen by leader Kim Jong-un as essential to his regime’s survival.
“A nuclear-armed North Korea is not the end of the world,” said Jie Dalei, from Peking University’s School of International Studies. “In fact, China and the US have been facing a North Korea with nuclear capabilities for some time.
“China has long stated that denuclearisation, and peace and stability, are its two major policy goals for North Korea,” he said. “But when the two goals cannot coexist, it’s time to reconsider the strategy.”
Jie added that while China and the US should not recognise North Korea as a legitimate nuclear state, it was time for a shift in focus towards deterrence.
Former US national security adviser Susan Rice meanwhile argued in an op-ed in The New York Times last week that the US could tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way it tolerated nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union during the cold war.
Rice’s suggestion was rebuffed by her successor, the current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. “No, she’s not right,” he said when asked of Rice’s comments. “And I think the reason she’s not right is that the classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?”
He went on to argue that the same tolerance cannot be applied to a regime that “engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people” and that “poses a continuous threat to its neighbours in the region and now may pose a threat – direct threat – to the United States with weapons of mass destruction”.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and since then has steadily advanced its technology and conducted four other tests over the years.
The recent escalation in tensions saw US president Donald Trump threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” over its plan to send missiles into waters near the US Pacific territory of Guam – a threat it has since put on hold.
Both US and Chinese experts said it was time Washington and Pyongyang ended their war of words and returned to the negotiating table.
“After what was done to Ukraine in 2014, no country having nuclear weapons is ever going to renounce them,” said Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations with the University of Pennsylvania.
“There’s no such thing as a surgical strike that will take out all of North Korea’s missiles. North Korea is 48,000 square miles – the size of England or Pennsylvania – and everything is underground,” he said, adding that it was also impossible to verify denuclearisation.
Instead, the US must diplomatically recognise North Korea, he said.
Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies at Shanghai-based Fudan University, agreed. He said the US should acquiesce to a nuclear North Korea and focus on pushing for Pyongyang to freeze development of its programme.
“The US should engage North Korea based on this new reality and give up their policy goal of toppling the North Korean regime,” he said, adding that while the new approach was high-risk, it was also the most practical option.
Wu said the perception that Washington’s ultimate goal was to topple the regime was a source of unease for China that had made it reluctant to put too much pressure on the North.
But Beijing has already quietly shifted its policy goals for Pyongyang, according to Yue Gang, a retired colonel in the PLA’s General Staff Department.
“There has been a subtle shift in China’s policy towards North Korea,” said Yue. “Diplomatically, it has maintained the stated goal of denuclearisation, but on the operational level it is slowly accepting and adjusting to this new reality. It is no longer so forceful in pushing for a nuclear-free North Korea.”
Yue said that instead of pushing Pyongyang to the brink, Washington should sign a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement that ended the Korean war in 1953. He said Pyongyang’s belligerence stemmed from a lack of security, which a peace treaty would bring.
Wu, from Fudan University, said Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s “double suspension” proposal showed a shift in Beijing’s goal of forcing the North to give up its nuclear weapons. The proposal calls for North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-South Korea military exercises.
Additional reporting by Robert Delaney