As one might expect, North Korea was a top agenda item during U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. In Suga’s own words, the two leaders reiterated their joint commitment to the elimination of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, including ballistic missiles of all ranges.
Idealistic declarations aside, North Korea isn’t likely to be a cooperative partner. Even today, with an economy so depressed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently compared the country’s current state to the famine-stricken mid-1990’s, Pyongyang remains strongly resistant to the concept of denuclearization as the United States defines it: The North hands over the keys to its nuclear kingdom and receives financial, diplomatic, and security assurances in return. The Biden administration, unfortunately, seems set on sticking with the same old policy.
But as the old parable goes, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Washington needs to accept the obvious reality. Whether we like it or not, North Korea is a state with nuclear weapons. The United States can either continue dreaming of a denuclearization that is not likely to come, or it can adopt a policy framework that has a greater chance at success.
This framework would consist of three key pillars: deterrence, arms control, and normalization of dialogue.
Maintaining deterrence, the ability to convince the other side that the costs of waging aggression are far higher than the benefits, can be a delicate endeavor. Fortunately, Washington has extensive experience deterring North Korea, sending clear messages to Pyongyang that any reckless adventurism on the Korean Peninsula or attacks against the U.S. and allies like Japan would put the North’s very survival at risk.
While the Kim regime may be a perplexing entity for those of us in the West, it has proven itself to be quite rational about deterrence. There is a reason North Korea refers to its nuclear arsenal in speeches and Workers Party guidance as a deterrent against external attack rather than as an offensive weapon. Far from being an irrational, unpredictable leader, Kim recognizes what would be in store for him if he dared to use these weapons: the physical destruction of his country and the complete and total annihilation of the dynasty his father and grandfather bestowed on him. If Kim hopes to rule North Korea for a half-century and die peacefully in his bed, playing around with the world’s most destructive weapons is an awfully bad way to do it.
Negotiations are the second pillar of a new U.S. policy. The last four administrations in Washington have taken the position that any nuclear talks with Pyongyang must result in North Korea’s final and verifiable denuclearization. While Washington has shown a willingness to talk to the North Koreans directly, anything short of denuclearization is still viewed by U.S. policymakers as an unacceptable outcome. The result is a long and consistent thread of diplomatic failure.
It should be self-evident by now that pressuring North Korea into abolishing its nuclear deterrent is a fool’s errand. Economic sanctions and threats of military force merely reconfirm in Kim’s mind how important nuclear weapons are to his dynasty’s survival. No diplomatic or economic sweeteners have proven to be as appetizing to Pyongyang as an effective life insurance policy.
An arms control negotiation is not only more palpable to the North Koreans, but it is more likely to succeed. Indeed, a growing number of counter-proliferation and North Korea experts are coming around to the view that a traditional arms control dialogue may be the next-best thing to the denuclearization fantasy. The North has never ruled out discussions on nuclear caps or limitations on its plutonium production, intercontinental missiles or launch vehicles. Talks would still be extraordinarily difficult, of course — particularly when verification issues are broached. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what the Biden administration would experience if denuclearization remained the only acceptable U.S. policy outcome.
Third and finally, the Biden administration should go beyond the nuclear question with the North and begin to establish the kind of consistent communication channels the United States possesses with other countries. Sending messages to Pyongyang through third parties or seeking to contact North Korean officials through U.N. channels is hardly sufficient. Instead, representatives from the U.S. Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the State Department should reach out to their respective North Korean counterparts in an attempt to explore the building of pragmatic, durable relationships.
Critics will suggest that normalizing relations with the North is deeply irresponsible. Diplomatic contact, however, should be not be treated as a reward. Bilateral engagement is a normal part of statecraft. It can also provide both countries with a direct forum to share best practices in the nuclear realm, keep tensions from boiling over, establish rules of the road in the event of a crisis, and increase mutual understanding about one another’s respective policies.
The North Korea file is synonymous with failure for multiple U.S. administrations. If President Biden is more realistic about what he can accomplish and supports bold, common-sense reforms, he can break this string of failure and defend U.S. national security interests in the process.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek. The views expressed are the author's own.