By Daniel DePetris
If you happened to watch the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang this weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking that reunification of the Korean Peninsula was just around the corner. With North and South Korean athletes marching under one flag, Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo Jong stealing the show, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in being invited to Pyongyang, talks of inter-Korean peace are swirling in the air.
If all of this sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When the Olympic festivities are over, the world goes back to reality, and the calm that has made the Pyeongchang Games a success will revert to the pre-Olympics status quo.
Kim Jong-un is as uninterested in denuclearizing today as he was when he first took over from his father in 2012—remember, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is to deter regime change and other perceived security threats, and North Korea has dedicated a vast amount of resources to securing them, so they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
When the South Koreans sought to put denuclearization on the table during their bilateral negotiations leading up to the Olympics, the Kim regime angrily swatted away the idea as a non-starter. In Pyongyang’s view, trading its nuclear weapons capability for political and economic concessions would rise to the level of being idiotic. This was, after all, exactly the deal Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi signed up for in 2003 and 2004, only to be overthrown and killed seven years later by the help of the very same western powers he negotiated with.
While Kim Jong-un is certainly a danger to anyone in the North Korean elite who tries to usurp his authority, Kim has proven to be an uncanny operator who understands when to pull back before crossing an irredeemable red line. Kim is in many ways an ordinary dictator—concerned first and foremost with ensuring his physical survival, preserving his hereditary regime, and maintaining his supremacy in the system. Doing anything rash, like authorizing an attack on South Korea or launching an intercontinental ballistic missile toward U.S. interests, would mark the end for him. And he absolutely understands that fact.
Dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea—as we have the last decade—is not ideal. But neither is it the disaster that the foreign policy establishment in Washington frequently proclaims. North Korea, after all, has been a nuclear weapons power since 2006 and has boasted the capability to target U.S. soldiers, the South Korean capital, and Tokyo for years. Yet the Kim regime has refrained from doing so, no doubt crystal clear of the regime-ending consequences.
The Trump administration, in the mold of ones before it, remains fixated on the policy of denuclearization. Denuclearization, however, won’t come anytime soon, if it comes at all. The U.S. should instead devote the time, resources, and diplomatic capital needed to improve its deterrence and containment policies. The White House must also remove the middle-men and directly engage the North Koreans in order to make it abundantly clear what the U.S. and its allies will not tolerate.
First, just as the South Koreans have utilized a military-to-military hotline with the North at the Demilitarized Zone, the Washington should establish a direct channel of communication with the leadership in Pyongyang. The channel would be less an opening to exploratory nuclear diplomacy and more as an opportunity to clarify to Pyongyang what belligerent actions would spur a U.S. military response. Diplomacy is the only viable way to bring about denuclearization in North Korea at an acceptable cost, but in the here and now, the U.S. must engage in a dialogue to decrease misunderstandings that could lead to miscalculation by Kim. In the event a military mishap were to occur, the channel would also be a tool both nations could exploit to quickly resolve prevent a further escalation.
Second, the White House must better manage the dynamics at play within our alliance to benefit our security objectives of preventing Kim Jong-un from ever using his weapons. Relations between South Korea and Japan have been rocky beyond the North Korea file, but Seoul and Tokyo both share a mutual interest in protecting their homelands. In addition to holding trilateral consultations on a regular basis and improving intelligence coordination between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, the Trump administration should publicly support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive toward a strengthened Japanese military—the U.S. benefits greatly from strong, capable allies who can share the burden of common defense. Allies prepared to sacrifice more for their own national defense bolster the collective power of our military and political alliance and decreases dependency on the U.S.
China’s interests must also be considered if there is to be any sustainable solution. Using the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue established last year by Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping, U.S. and Chinese military officials should continue planning for all Korean Peninsula contingencies, including an internal Kim regime collapse. While there is no way to tell how close the regime is to imploding, the mere possibility of a lack of authority in the North and the prospect of unguarded nuclear facilities are serious enough concerns to warrant a conversation about what Washington, Beijing, and Seoul would do in response to such a scenario. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that conversations with Chinese military officers have already taken place, and they should continue in more detail.
The U.S., however, cannot let fear overtake logic or insist on goals that are unnecessary and simply not possible, at least in the short run. Washington’s national security community should push for an honest, inter-agency debate about the reality in front of us. A nuclear North Korea has been deterred for the last 11 years—there is no evidence it won’t be deterred far into the future.
The U.S. nuclear and conventional capabilities deterred far more dangerous dictators, like Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong, from using nuclear weapons against—there is no reason Washington cannot do the same thing with a cash-strapped, geopolitical nothing like Kim’s North Korea.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow for Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on February 13, 2018. Read more HERE.