A viable U.S. policy toward North Korea starts with recognizing basic facts. North Korea is a nuclear state. It has worked hard for five decades to become a nuclear state. Wooing Pyongyang with sweet words will not lead it to denuclearize.
Since 1992, North Korea has promised four times to never build nuclear weapons, then agreed four subsequent times to give up its weapons. It has broken every agreement. There have been two-party talks, three-party talks, four-party talks and six-party talks.
Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried negotiations. All offered aid to North Korea. All concluded agreements. All those agreements collapsed.
North Korea has too often been treated in the manner of Team America: World Police. Mass starvation is not normally a joking matter. Nor has the U.S. policy community been eager to recognize that North Korea was serious about its nuclear program — perhaps because if it were serious, this posed a challenge for which we have no easy answers.
Now, North Korea’s test of a hydrogen bomb, and at least a dozen ballistic missile tests in 2017 to date, has flipped the script. Thoughtful authors like Walter Russell Mead argue that North Korea is “challenging the foundations of the American position in East Asia.”
But it’s not all about us. Admittedly — especially on an anniversary of 9/11 — we cannot completely dismiss the possibility that North Korea is willing to commit suicide to destroy us. We have had too much experience of suicide terrorism over the past 16 years to rule this out entirely.
Nor can we dismiss the possibility that Kim Jong Un believes he can attack us and get away with it. While that may seem inconceivable, recall that Saddam Hussein believed he won the first Gulf War because we left and he was still in power. Dictatorial regimes often believe very weird things.
But the most likely possibility is that atomic weapons serve two purposes for North Korea. (An old one, that they were a bargaining chip for aid, is gone.) First, these weapons, as North Korea repeatedly announces, are intended to strike U.S. bases and major ports in Japan, South Korea and Guam.
Without these ports, the United States would find it impossible to defend South Korea from a North Korean attack, or to take military action against North Korea. The argument that we have no intention of doing this, while true, is not persuasive, given the examples we have set in Libya and Iraq.
But atomic weapons also serve a second purpose: They legitimize the regime. North Korea is bad at growing food and keeping the lights on. It has justified those failures by pointing to the (purported) need to defend North Korea from all of its (supposedly) deadly external enemies.
Giving up its bombs would be tantamount to admitting that those enemies were of North Korea’s own making. It would be acknowledging that the North Korean regime is the author of its own miseries.
There is a tactical advantage in not closing the door to negotiations. If we say we are willing to talk, this makes it easier for our allies to accept the need for defensive systems, and to work with us in imposing costs on North Korea through sanctions and covert action. But these measures take time to work.
We are therefore in this for the long haul. Unfortunately, since 1992, no U.S. administration has been willing to take a long-haul approach. Every one of them has opted, more or less, for the exit road of negotiations.
The hope that the Trump administration will exemplify the patience we have lacked since 1992 is not a strong one. But if past administrations had not opted so regularly for fruitless negotiations, the problem might not have fallen to Donald Trump at all.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.