To curb North Korea’s nuclear threat, seek freeze, not rollback

The recent acceptance by Iran of stringent nuclear constraints invites attention to the unconstrained nuclear weapons development program of North Korea. The fact that Pyongyang greatly exaggerates North Korea’s nuclear capabilities does not diminish the urgent need for diplomatic engagement to prevent the situation from getting worse.

In order to achieve results, the United States should drop its precondition that North Korea return to renouncing nuclear weapons and instead seek a more modest near-term freeze on nuclear and missile testing. Such a tactical move now would confer real advantages, without abandoning the long-term goal of a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

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From Washington’s perspective, nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang have been a saga of deceit and broken commitments. More than two decades ago, North Korea and the United States signed an “agreed framework” under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear facilities in exchange for U.S. delivery of oil and help with a light-water nuclear power reactor. One decade ago, North Korea pledged in six-party talks, which also included China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, to abandon all nuclear weapons-related programs.

But in spite of North Korea’s five-year moratorium on ballistic missile testing and the de-nuclearization pledge it made in 2005, the very next year it launched seven ballistic missiles over a two-day period. Several months later, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear weapons test, declaring that its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was permanent. It subsequently conducted two more nuclear tests (in 2009 and 2013) and three more ICBM-class space rocket launches (once in 2009 and twice in 2012). 

In spite of close scrutiny from afar of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, there appears to be no consensus among outside experts on some critical questions, such as whether the country has miniaturized its nuclear warheads for placement on missiles. 

Two things are evident, however, about North Korea’s current capabilities:

-- First, they are far less than claimed by the regime in Pyongyang. Only a domestic audience deprived of alternative views and sources of information could believe that the country has thermonuclear warheads, ICBMs capable of targeting Texas, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles in operational testing.

-- Second, the large uncertainty factor concerning North Korea’s extravagant claims has caused the United States to act as if these capabilities could be real – rushing regional missile defenses to Guam; deploying 14 additional strategic missile defense interceptors to Alaska; and declaring operational the KN-08 “ICBM,” which has been paraded in Pyongyang but never flown.    

It is tempting to dismiss alarms about the North Korean threat to the United States, because a functioning ICBM has repeatedly failed to materialize. The influential Rumsfeld Commission Report on foreign ballistic missile threats predicted in 1998 that North Korea would pose a direct threat to the United States by 2003; a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate predicted that the North would flight-test an ICBM even earlier.

Tempting, but unwise. North Korea has been slowly making progress toward a credible long-range, nuclear-tipped ballistic missile system. And it surprised the watching world with three-stage rocket launches and with progress in enriching uranium. Continuing maturation of North Korean nuclear and missile forces will damage the NPT regime, unnerve U.S. allies in the region, and encourage expensive and counter-productive deployments of U.S. missile defenses and first-strike systems by South Korea. 

Realism demands the immediate pursuit of a freeze on the testing of nuclear devices and nuclear-capable missiles, instead of seeking (and failing) to achieve another unreliable pledge to denuclearize the country. Such a double freeze would be a significant achievement, preventing North Korea from undertaking the testing needed to assure a reliable and versatile nuclear weapons arsenal. A testing freeze would also be verifiable without winning North Korean acquiescence to intrusive inspections measures.

Although there would be U.S. political resistance to once again offering “bribes” to win North Korea’s agreement, the quid pro quo could be much less than imagined. After all, Pyongyang has already achieved the deterrence benefits of nuclear weapons without additional testing. Moreover, the North badly wants certain political and economic “concessions,” like a peace treaty and diplomatic relations that have more advantages than disadvantages for the United States. 

Just as U.S. demands for zero enrichment obviated early progress in finding an acceptable compromise regarding Iran’s nuclear program, insisting that North Korea commit to destroying its nascent arsenal before entering negotiations becomes an obstacle to an advantageous outcome. Rather than insisting on turning back the clock, Washington should settle in the near term for stopping the clock – thereby reassuring our allies, avoiding unnecessary military expenditures, and increasing prospects for bringing under control one of the world’s worst proliferation threats.

Thielmann, a former Foreign Service officer and Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, is now senior fellow of the Arms Control Association.

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