There is a tension between limiting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and pursuing the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. To emphasize the former — through arms control and risk-reduction measures — can seem at times like a repudiation of the latter. Conversely, a focus on disarmament — still the core of U.S. policy — can seem outright fanciful given North Korea’s stunning technological advances. In North Korea, the United States faces a nuclear-armed state whose capabilities continue to expand despite international opposition and extensive economic sanctions. Disarmament simply isn’t in the cards right now.

 Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft conduct a mission with the South Korean air force over the Korean Peninsula. (Staff Sgt. Steven Schneider/U.S. Army)
Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft conduct a mission with the South Korean air force over the Korean Peninsula. (Staff Sgt. Steven Schneider/U.S. Army)

However, it is a false choice to see arms control and denuclearization as a zero-sum game. The United States can pursue a realistic policy toward North Korea without rejecting commitments to nonproliferation and disarmament. A revised policy should not accept North Korea’s nuclear program but must acknowledge it in order to secure pragmatic constraints that, in the long run, will put the peninsula and the world back on the path to disarmament.

The Reality of the Threat

The unfortunate reality is that North Korea has a highly advanced nuclear weapons program — so advanced, in fact, that to talk about denuclearization in anything but the very long term makes no sense. Last year, the Kim regime conducted around 90 missile tests, making 2022 its most active year on record. The tests displayed North Korea’s wide variety of weapons, from cruise and short-range missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States. North Korea also debuted a new nuclear posture last year that allows for preemptive strikes in some scenarios, a particularly concerning development given the South Korean government’s own emphasis on striking first in a conflict.

North Korea is not a nuclear upstart — it has had nuclear weapons for more than 15 years. While not a perfect parallel, it is worth considering the growth of the U.S. program between the primitivism of 1945 and the relative complexity of 1960, by which point the arsenal included everything from small tactical nuclear weapons to ICBMs. In some ways, North Korea is in an even better position for advancement because it benefits from decades of knowledge acquisition by the other nuclear-armed states. What Trotsky once called “the privilege of historical backwardness” allows for the rapid development of destructive as well as productive prowess. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been able to leapfrog ahead, a process that continues apace due to the lack of formal constraints on its arsenal.

Experts have argued for years that the North Korean program is well past the point where politically safe notions like CVID — complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement — are a real possibility. But perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from the U.S. military, which now approaches North Korea not as an emergent challenge to be solved, but as a sophisticated threat in need of deterrence. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported on a meeting in which military and intelligence officials gathered with outside experts to examine the state of the North Korean threat. Individual views varied, but the general takeaway from the meeting was that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program “is now so far advanced that the priority is preventing its use.” One senior military official said that the chance of North Korea relinquishing its arsenal was “zero percent.”

Official U.S. policy does not align with this assessment and the Biden administration continues to resist an adjustment. In October, when Under Secretary of State Bonnie Jenkins seemed to endorse talking with North Korea about arms control, the administration quickly walked back her comments. And in December, White House Indo-Pacific policy coordinator Kurt Campbell declared that that the United States was still on the “right track” when it comes to North Korea.

Proliferation Risks

Opponents of revising U.S. policy often argue that it will reward a flagrant proliferator and raise the risk of further proliferation. By focusing on arms control or risk reduction, they contend, the United States will be tacitly accepting the North Korean program. And that, in turn, could cause other states — South Korea first among them — to consider nuclear arms themselves. After all, didn’t North Korea get away with it? The precedent would be troubling.

Anyone who supports disarmament or international law will find it distasteful to concede that, for now at least, North Korea is going to keep its weapons. And there certainly is a risk that states could learn from the North Korean example, although one wonders how many would be willing to pay the heavy price of sanctions in exchange for nuclear armament. But the question is: Are the proliferation risks of changing U.S. policy greater than those of continuing with the status quo? I would argue they are not. In fact, there is evidence that the current policy is itself creating proliferation risks in South Korea.

Support for nuclear weapons acquisition in South Korea is very high. Politicians and pundits regularly discuss it, and a recent survey shows that 71% of the public supports the development of nuclear arms. Precise levels have fluctuated and there have been occasional declines, but in general, support has trended upward over the past 12 years — with one big exception. In 2018, public support for nuclear weapons development dipped by nearly 10 points.

What explains this sudden drop? The decline in security conditions has obscured the promise of 2018’s détente, but the diplomatic opening was very real. It saw no less than three inter-Korean summits, working-level talks between the South and North Korean militaries, the signing of an inter-Korean military agreement, collective mine removal in the Joint Security Area and the demolition of guard posts at the Demilitarized Zone. The United States and North Korea were talking too — and while the Singapore summit fizzled, the threat level was clearly lower than the nuclear war scare of 2017.

These events impacted the South Korean public. Some South Koreans likely questioned the need for nuclear weapons if there were going to be limitations on North Korea’s arsenal and better relations on the peninsula. It is unfortunate that 2019 went so poorly because if diplomacy had advanced, support for nuclear weapons might have continued to trend downward, easing public pressure for South Korean proliferation.

Skeptics argue that 2018 was a North Korean “charm offensive,” a false opening destined to fail because of the Kim regime’s duplicity. But it is important to remember that the diplomatic window closed in part because the Trump administration clung to disarmament as the goal for talks. When the Hanoi summit fell apart in February 2019, it spurred a quick regression in relations and a then-record year for North Korean missile tests. Is it any wonder support for a South Korean nuclear weapons program quickly recovered? Handed an opportunity to restrain the North (and decrease regional proliferation risks), the United States instead stuck with the status quo — a strategic failure whose results we are living with today.

A New Policy

Changing tack from past failures will involve discomfort, but the benefit will be a policy grounded in the reality of the threat and the urgent need to lower nuclear risks. The U.S. military already recognizes the extent of the North Korean challenge; the civilian government should too. U.S. policy can prioritize lowering risks and achieving practical limitations while remaining committed — in the long run — to disarmament. Here’s how:

First, the United States should deemphasize denuclearization.

That does not mean jettisoning it entirely, but it does mean talking about it less and structuring diplomacy around the fact that North Korea’s arsenal is here for the foreseeable future. Engagement should emphasize smaller-scale objectives that could realistically form part of a diplomatic agreement with North Korea. Skeptics will argue that this approach plays into the hands of the Kim government, which has declared that it will never give up its weapons. But if deemphasizing disarmament gets the North Koreans to the table and fosters even a modest arms control agreement, that would be more than “maximum pressure” and CVID ever achieved.

Secondly, U.S. policy should acknowledge — but not accept — North Korea’s arsenal.

For sure, deemphasizing denuclearization means engaging with North Korea as a relative peer. This perception of equal status is important: it allows North Korea to inhabit its desired role as a “responsible nuclear state” and in the process will open up discussions on arms control or risk reduction. By design, disarmament will not be on the menu. Instead of ignoring or downplaying this absence, though, Washington should explain that it is not accepting North Korea’s weapons but acknowledging them in order to pursue diplomacy that will lower the risk of nuclear war and produce a safer world. It should then reiterate its opposition to proliferation as well as its own commitment to disarm under Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, making the point that it still seeks a world without nuclear weapons – regardless of who has them – and that realistic engagement with North Korea is a step in producing that world. As Toby Dalton and Ankit Panda put it recently, “risk reduction would lower the risk of nuclear war in the near term and improve the odds of denuclearization over the longer term.”

Lastly, the United States should explore risk reduction and achievable constraints in its discussions with North Korea.

These objectives are limited, but their positive impact would be real and, unlike a laser-focus on disarmament, they stand a chance of success. Given the Pentagon’s emphasis on deterrence, the United States should suggest military-to-military talks with North Korea. Potential topics could include North Korea’s new declaratory policy and practical mechanisms to reduce the risk of nuclear war, such as a deconfliction hotline. Diplomacy through the usual channels is dead, but offering peer-to-peer military meetings might be a way to entice North Korea back to negotiations. Policymakers will dislike the implication of equal status, but since the United States is not willing to provide up-front sanctions relief, it needs to consider other ways to get North Korea to the table. Providing Kim Jong Un with a minor propaganda win would be a small price to pay for jumpstarting negotiations.

The United States should approach all talks with flexibility and lowered expectations. Indeed, the first step in pursuing achievable gains is identifying the possibilities that are off-the-table. Red lines likely include (from the American side) the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula and (from the North Korean side) unilateral steps toward disarmament. If North Korea insists on relitigating its own maximalist demands, the United States should stress that it is willing to discuss proportionate sanctions relief, which Kim wants, but only for smaller-scale measures. Neither side will benefit from wasting time on the near-impossible. Instead, talks should address the most urgent risks and seek to make substantive improvements in mutual security. Adam Mount and Jungsup Kim recently made a strong case for prioritizing constraints on tactical nuclear weapons, given their role in North Korea’s posture, the renewed risk of preemptive war and the fact that warhead miniaturization is still incomplete. An agreement limiting tactical weapons would also align with the security interests of South Korea and could lower proliferation risks.

That said, we do not know what the North will be open to discussing. If the objectives mentioned above seem a little vague, that is kind of the point. The United States will need to follow the discussions where they lead, focusing on the possible and bracketing the unlikely. The good news, if there is any, is that the current situation is so dire that almost any change would be an improvement. Small gains can build, however, and in the long run they may even become transformational. There certainly is a tension between arms control and disarmament, but with the right strategy and a great degree of patience, it does not have to be a contradiction.

John Carl Baker is the nuclear field coordinator and senior program officer at Ploughshares Fund.

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