Is it time to treat North Korea’s nuclear program like Israel’s?


Seoul, South Korea
CNN

As a statement of intent, it was about as direct as it gets.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and will never give them up, its leader, Kim Jong Un, told the world last month.

The move was “irreversible”, he said; the weapons represent “the absolute dignity, body and power of the state” and Pyongyang will continue to develop them “as long as nuclear weapons exist on Earth”.

Kim may be no stranger to colorful language, but it’s worth taking his vow — which he signed into law — seriously. Keep in mind that this is a dictator who cannot be removed from power and generally does what he says he will do.

Also keep in mind that North Korea has staged a record number of missile launches this year – over 20; claims it deploys tactical nukes in field units, which CNN cannot independently confirm; and is also believed to be ready for a seventh underground nuclear test.

All of this has prompted a growing number of pundits to question whether now is the time to call a spade a spade and accept that North Korea is in fact a nuclear state. It would be tantamount to giving up once and for all the optimistic – some would say delusional – hopes that Pyongyang’s program is somehow incomplete or that it could still be persuaded to give it up voluntarily.

As Ankit Panda, Stanton senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “We just have to treat North Korea as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. .

From a purely factual standpoint, North Korea has nuclear weapons, and few who follow events closely dispute that.

A recent column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Nuclear Notebook estimated that North Korea may have produced enough fissile material to build between 45 and 55 nuclear weapons. Additionally, recent missile tests suggest it has a number of methods to deliver these weapons.

Publicly acknowledging this reality, however, is perilous for countries like the United States.

One of the most compelling reasons for Washington not to do so is its fear of triggering a nuclear arms race in Asia.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are just some of the neighbors that would likely want to equal Pyongyang’s status.

But some experts say refusing to acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear prowess – in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary – does little to reassure these countries. On the contrary, the impression that the allies have their heads in the sand can make them more nervous.

“Let’s accept it, North Korea is a nuclear-weapon state, and North Korea has all the necessary means of delivery, including quite effective ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles),” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul Kookmin University and eminent academic authority. on North Korea.

A better approach, some say, might be to treat North Korea’s nuclear program the same as Israel’s — with tacit acceptance.

This is the solution favored by Jeffrey Lewis, assistant professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.

“I think the critical step that (US President Joe) Biden needs to take is to make it clear to himself and to the US government that we’re not going to get North Korea to disarm and that he basically accepts the North Korea as a nuclear power state. You don’t necessarily have to recognize that legally,” Lewis said.

Israel and India offer examples of what the United States could aspire to in dealing with North Korea, he added.

North Korea held what it called

Israel, which is widely believed to have started its nuclear program in the 1960s, has always claimed nuclear ambiguity while refusing to be a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while India has adopted the nuclear ambiguity for decades before abandoning this policy with its 1998 nuclear test.

“In both cases, the United States knew that these countries had the bomb, but the agreement was that if you don’t talk about it, if you don’t make a problem about it, if you don’t cause political problems , so we’re not going to respond. I think that’s the same place we want to reach with North Korea,” Lewis said.

However, at present, Washington shows no sign of abandoning its approach of hoping to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Indeed, US Vice President Kamala Harris pointed this out during a recent visit to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea.

“Our common goal – the United States and the Republic of Korea – is complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Harris said.

That may be a laudable goal, but many experts see it as increasingly unrealistic.

“No one disputes that denuclearization would be a very desirable outcome on the Korean Peninsula, it’s just not a treatable outcome,” Panda said.

One problem standing in the way of denuclearization is that Kim’s highest priority is probably to ensure the survival of his regime.

And if he weren’t paranoid enough already, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (in which a nuclear power attacked a non-nuclear power) served to opportunely reinforce his belief that “nuclear weapons are the only reliable guarantee of safety,” said Lankov, of Kookmin University.

A television screen at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, shows an image of a North Korean missile launch on October 10, 2022.

Trying to convince Kim otherwise seems like a failure, because Pyongyang has made it clear it won’t even consider engaging with a US administration that wants to talk denuclearization.

“If America wants to talk about denuclearization, (North Korea) won’t talk, and if Americans don’t talk, (North Korea) will launch more and better missiles,” Lankov said. “It’s a simple choice.”

There’s also the problem that if North Korea’s increasingly worried neighbors conclude that Washington’s approach is getting nowhere, that itself could spark the arms race that the United States is so keen to see. to avoid.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Korean think tank, is among a growing number of conservative voices calling on South Korea to build its own nuclear weapons program to counter Pyongyang’s.

Efforts to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons have “ended in failure”, he said, “and even now pursuing denuclearization is like chasing after a miracle”.

Yet, as distant as the dream of denuclearization may seem, there are those who say the alternative — to accept North Korea’s nuclear status, however subtly — would be a mistake.

“We (would) basically (telling) Kim Jong Un, after all this tussling and rustling, (that) you’re just going to get what you want. The bigger question (then) is of course: where does this leave the whole region? said Soo Kim, a former CIA officer who is now a researcher at the American think tank RAND Corporation.

That leaves another option open to the Biden administration and its allies, though it’s one that may seem unlikely in the current climate.

They could pursue a deal in which Pyongyang offers to freeze its weapons development in return for sanctions relief.

In other words, less than a million miles from the deal Kim offered US President Donald Trump at their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019.

This option has its supporters. “A freeze is a really solid way to start things. It’s very hard to get rid of the weapons that are out there, but what’s possible…is to prevent things from getting worse. It takes some of the pressure and opens up space for other kinds of negotiations,” said Lewis of the James Martin Center.

However, the Trump-era connotations might make it a non-starter. When asked if he thought President Biden might consider this tactic, Lewis smiled and said, “I’m a professor, so I specialize in giving advice that no one will ever follow.”

But even if the Biden administration was so inclined, that ship may have sailed; the Kim of 2019 was much more willing to commit than the Kim of 2022.

And that is perhaps the biggest problem at the heart of all the options on the table: they rely on some form of engagement with North Korea – something that is totally lacking at present.

Kim is now focused on his five-year military modernization plan announced in January 2021 and no offer of talks from the Biden administration or others has yet turned his head.

As Panda acknowledged, “there is a set of cooperation options that would require the North Koreans to agree to sit down at the table and talk about some of these things with us. I don’t think we’re even close to sitting down with the North Koreans. »

And, to be fair to Kim, the reluctance is not entirely due to Pyongyang.

“Big policy changes in the United States would require the support of the president, and I really see no evidence that Joe Biden really considers the North Korean issue to be worth huge political capital,” Panda said.

He added what many experts believe – and what even some US and South Korean lawmakers admit behind closed doors: “We will probably live with a nuclear-armed North Korea for at least another few decades.

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