IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

North Korea's ongoing nuclear missile tests prove it's time to normalize relations

Given the history of repeated dead-end disarmament talks, déjà vu begs the question whether it is time to cut bait and accept the unacceptable.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a drill of long-range artillery sub-units of the Korean People's Army
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a drill of long-range artillery sub-units of the Korean People's Army, in North Korea, on March 2, 2020.KCNA / via Reuters file

Pyongyang’s recent flurry of missile tests — most recently, a submarine-launched ballistic missile South Korea says North Korea launched Tuesday — and the apparent resumption of nuclear weapons materials production at the Yongbyon reactor are reminders that North Korea remains a central perennial problem befuddling U.S. foreign policy. Despite North Korea's acknowledged shaky economy — further weakened by strong international economic sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic — leader Kim Jong Un’s commitment to maintaining the country’s bomb program remains unbowed.

Despite North Korea's acknowledged shaky economy, leader Kim Jong Un's commitment to maintaining the country’s bomb program remains unbowed.

The Biden administration’s ill-defined “calibrated approach” looks unlikely to move the nuclear-elimination needle. Nonetheless, Washington continues soldiering on — reaching out to China for help with its efforts to draw North Korea back into disarmament negotiations.

Given the history of these repeated dead-end disarmament talks, déjà vu begs the question whether it is time to cut bait: accept the unacceptable — nuclear North Korea is here to stay — and complement current U.S. military containment with an offer of diplomatic relations unconditioned by Pyongyang’s nuclear status.

History demonstrates that not only do such ties keep contacts on an even keel in normal times, they can play a critical role in resolving nuclear crisis.

This path would build on precedent. President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 opening of relations with China, for example, did not involve questioning Beijing’s nuclear program.

Today, blunting North Korea’s nuclear threat relies on deterrence and defense — embodied in the long-standing U.S.-South Korea alliance, bolstered by nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in the South, an offshore nuclear umbrella and an emerging sea-based ballistic missile defense. What’s lacking is a durable diplomatic component.

With the exception of the United States and North Korea, all nuclear weapons states have diplomatic relations. Granted, relations have not been the cure-all to prevent nuclear crises. Adversaries have frequently used diplomatic connections to misrepresent, lie to and ignore the opponent as tensions rose. But when events have reached the peak “this could get out of control” moment, direct or third-party diplomacy has repeatedly proved critical to tamp down tensions before they exploded into nuclear war.

Think the Cuban missile crisis. The presence of Moscow’s representatives in Washington — notably Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who sat down with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at a vital moment — proved a lynchpin to bring events to a safe conclusion. In multiple Indo-Pakistani crises, as well as conventional fighting between the two nations that risked nuclear escalation, U.S. mediation was essential for resolution. In the serious 1969 Ussuri River conflict between China and the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin’s Hail Mary visit to Beijing in September marked the beginning of the unwinding of events that had clear nuclear overtones.

That diplomatic formulas varied in different crisis settings demonstrates the importance of keeping as many lines of communication open as possible. Applied to North Korea, it only makes sense to broaden the diplomatic outreach given Pyongyang’s self-imposed isolation and leadership insecurity that can contribute to risk-taking — in addition to distortion and misinformation about South Korean and U.S. intentions.

There are, of course, hurdles. Were Washington to follow the U.S.-China political and nuclear normalization model, it would legitimize a more worrying North Korea nuclear wild card, while politically tarring the Biden administration for giving in. It might also encourage other nuclear aspirants — notably Iran — to think they, too, can out live impediments to proliferation.

Were Washington to follow the U.S.-China political and nuclear normalization model, it would legitimize a more worrying North Korea nuclear wild card.

In addition, even if Pyongyang and Washington normalized relations, concerns about North Korea’s execution would remain. Would it withdraw its Washington embassy officials or otherwise stop communication in time of upset? These and other unknowns naturally suggest the United States should press on to get nuclear elimination.

The problem, however, remains that Pyongyang shows no inclination to quit what it believes is its vital security crutch.

Evidence for this comes from two sources. First, there is the long, unsuccessful international effort to get disarmament. Each agreement and understanding with Pyongyang failed, including: commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1992 accord with South Korea to maintain a nuclear-free peninsula, the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005 six-party talks pledge to abandon the nuclear program, the 2012 leap day agreement to halt enrichment and missile testing and the Singapore joint statement between President Donald Trump and Kim endorsing nuclear disarmament.

But perhaps a clearer understanding for why North Korea will not eliminate its nuclear arsenal comes from an unlikely source: South Africa.

It remains the only country to have built and then quit the bomb. Like North Korea, the politically isolated nation during the apartheid era acquired weapons to deter a superpower — the Soviet Union. Moscow was pushing wars of national liberation in the southern continent that Pretoria feared could breach its borders in the absence of a nuclear deterrent.

Once that threat expired with the Soviet demise, however, the rationale for Pretoria’s nuclear weapons evaporated. With the country’s leadership finding no other advantage, it pushed back the defense lobby that wanted to keep the program.

North Korea, however, presents a far different profile that makes nuclear rollback look implausible. Its leadership believes it confronts an enduring superpower threat to its survival — reinforced by the U.S. military’s toppling of Libyan and Iraqi regimes, which both had unfulfilled nuclear ambitions. The Kim family also regards nuclear weapons as its crowning technological achievement, able to cast a continuing shadow over South Korea. In addition, North Korea’s military and scientific establishment likely possesses the clout to keep the program intact.

In all, North Korea remains much like all other nuclear-armed nations today: committed to the bomb for a trifecta of security, institutional and vanity reasons. But unlike others, it is not subject to the brakes diplomatic relations provide. Here normalization could arguably help.

Of course, Pyongyang's response to such an offer remains unknown. Would it demand that "good faith" diplomatic normalization requires Washington to first vacate the South Korea alliance and lift economic sanctions? Would it regard a U.S. Embassy on its territory as a nest of spies dedicated to undermining the regime? Or would Kim be more attracted to the tacit legitimization of the nuclear program and the possibility that diplomatic normalization would bring sanctions relief?

Without committing the United States, the periodic practice of extra-government meetings between former U.S. authorities and scholars and North Korean officials in third countries could begin, testing to determine Pyongyang’s interest. Should that prove promising, official negotiations could follow. If successful, Washington would establish a vital diplomatic adjunct to deterrence and defense to help keep the nuclear peace.