When You Get to the Bottom of the Hole with North Korea Stop Digging
I hate to say it, but US North Korean policy makes no sense. For several decades the Intelligence Community when asked agrees unanimously that short of war Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons. Despite this a series of Democratic and Republican administrations have all insisted that before any progress can occur in the relationship Pyongyang must completely denuclearize. Any policy based on wishful thinking rather than the harsh reality of North Korean maintaining what it considers an essential deterrent to the threat posed by the US and South Korea cannot succeed. Worse still those who continue to stand firm on the demand for total denuclearization are complicit in the meantime for any additions to the North’s nuclear weapons stockpile, the almost certain advances in the sophistication and capabilities of its missile force, expected warhead improvements, and its continued willingness to transfer its technological advances to the likes of Iran and Syria. Those holding firm to a policy of complete denuclearization should be held accountable for their actions.
Unfortunately, it may be impossible at this point to moderate North Korea’s strategic policy and programs. Pyongyang likely believes that they have played the US even better than it had any right to expect over several decades, and China will continue to provide essential fuel and foodstuffs regardless of what Washington might do to change Beijing’s mind. For China it is a matter of its national security not something any country is likely to put on the bargaining table regardless of the price. Why make any changes in its approach now? Yet for the US to do nothing in the face of the growing threat from North Korea puts us, Seoul, and Tokyo in great danger. Unless we base our policy on what North Korea is – a nuclear weapons state – rather than what we wish it was – a country willing to forego its deterrent based on our promises to improve relations and provide material support -- we are for all intents and purposes shooting ourselves in the foot and putting the security interests of South Korea and Japan at greater risk.
I will leave it up to the policymakers to design a more effective North Korean policy. As an intelligence officer my expertise is telling you as best I kind the facts on the ground and how they may impact your policy choices. But policymakers know far better than I what changes may be necessary to moderate North Korean strategic behavior. I appreciate how difficult it will be to build a new bipartisan support for any changes to the current consensus in support of complete denuclearization, but it must be done. I think the place to start is convincing those most focused on North Korean policy in the Congress that continuing our current path is a fool’s errand bound not to succeed. Here I think the intelligence community can play an important role. You will not find anyone who truly believes Pyongyang will give up its nuclear weapons at any price. Ending the Korean War and moving toward normalizing relations will be a much harder sells but essential elements in any new approach. South Korea of course must be in full agreement with any steps that we might take and maintaining a US military footprint on the peninsula an absolute requirement. I would tie any troop reductions on our side to substantial reductions in the size of the North Korean army and Pyongyang backing its forces away from the DMZ. Normalizing relations is a no brainer to me as I think anything that opens the North even a crack is a positive development for our side. Plus, we have relations with many nations that have nuclear weapons and quite a few we don’t even like or have good relations with. I can’t help but believe that we have a far better chance of making some progress on nuclear testing, missile advancements, and proliferation by dropping our current focus on complete denuclearization.
The only mistake we can make is continuing like blind mice to chase a piece of cheese that doesn’t exist.