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The North Korean nuclear freeze mirage

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Some unlikely Americans are sounding a defeatist note about North Korea. Outgoing spy chief James Clapper recently declared: “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause.” He added: “The best we could probably hope for is some sort of a cap, but they are not going to do that just because we ask them. There’s going to have to be some significant inducements.”

While the State Department immediately slapped Mr. Clapper down, he is far from alone in advocating a nuclear and missile cap or freeze. Scholars, think tanks, and former officials are doing so, too. But given the seriousness and urgency of the North Korean threat, it’s essential that the Trump team and the American people understand why a freeze is unrealistic and a distraction from what really needs to be done.

{mosads}A freeze is superficially attractive. At its current pace, Pyongyang may achieve the capability of hitting the United States with nuclear weapons during President Trump’s term in office, posing a risk that no American president would be comfortable accepting. But a preemptive U.S. attack on the North’s capabilities would, in turn, risk a devastating North Korean artillery counterattack on Seoul.

In theory, a freeze now would stop Kim Jong Un short of his goal. Freeze supporters thus argue, as Mr. Clapper suggested, that the United States should give Pyongyang “significant inducements” for its promise to freeze its facilities and not conduct further tests of nuclear devices and long-range missiles.

Most proponents are more careful than Mr. Clapper and refer to a “freeze” rather than a “cap.” A cap suggests U.S. acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state for the indefinite future. Doing that would destroy U.S. credibility not only with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo but throughout the world as well. It would also undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and signal to Iran that it could violate its own nuclear agreement with impunity.

Most cap proponents understand this and so talk publicly instead about a freeze, arguing that it would just be a steppingstone on the way to elimination. This is disingenuous because they themselves don’t believe Pyongyang will ever give up the nuclear weapons it already has or even fully stop its nuclear development activities under a freeze.

In truth, a freeze now would just be a cap in disguise. The entire international community would also regard it as such, unlike in earlier years when the North’s nuclear capabilities were not as advanced and their elimination was still considered possible.

A negotiated freeze is like a mirage, an illusion that recedes as quickly as one tries to approach it. That applies both to what we would need Pyongyang to do and what Pyongyang would demand of us in return for a freeze.

What, for example, would be frozen? Advocates typically suggest that a freeze would include declared North Korean facilities and nuclear and missile test moratoria. But North Korea has many undeclared facilities, including one or more secret uranium enrichment sites to make more nuclear bomb fuel, and we don’t know where they are. The United States would have to assume that significant nuclear and missile development was continuing even under a “freeze.”

And how much verification of even such a partial freeze would North Korea allow? The Six Party Talks nuclear deal reached in 2007 foundered on Pyongyang’s refusal to allow verification. All indications are that Pyongyang would feel even less compelled or inclined to allow in outside inspectors now than it did a decade ago.

On the other side of the equation, freeze advocates are very vague about what the United States should offer for a freeze, and even less communicative about what they think Pyongyang would require. If the North Koreans’ public statements are to be believed—and in this case at least, they are highly credible—they would insist on an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises and other steps to eviscerate our alliance with Seoul.

Freeze advocates seem to have forgotten that virtually the entire history of U.S. negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program focused on achieving and maintaining a freeze. These include the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Six Party Talks agreements a decade ago, and the Obama administration’s Leap Day deal in 2012. All failed, the last one spectacularly when North Korea announced a satellite launch—indistinguishable in practical terms from a missile test—mere weeks after the agreement was announced.

What reason is there to believe that another freeze effort now, with North Korea having in the meantime made clear in the strongest terms that it has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons, would fare any better? And even if North Korea agreed to a freeze, how long would we expect it to maintain it this time around? Once promised, what more would the regime demand, backed by threats and blackmail, to keep a freeze? And what would we do, and in what kind of a position would we find ourselves, after Pyongyang broke the agreement, as it would almost inevitably do, especially now that it is already only a few years away from having a credible capability to target American cities.

Freeze advocates have answered none of these questions, because trying to do so would reveal the concept’s illusory nature. President Obama finally gave up on a freeze five years ago after the Leap Day deal collapsed. Mr. Trump should not be fooled by this mirage, either. He urgently needs to put in place his North Korea team and proceed to apply far greater pressure on Pyongyang until it is prepared to negotiate genuine denuclearization. Only then might a freeze again be worth considering.

Mr. Straub is a former U.S. Senior Foreign Service Officer and participant in the Six Party Talks and New York channel dialogue with North KoreaThis piece is adapted from a longer essay published in the Korea Economic Institute of America’s Academic Paper Series. The full-length paper can be viewed here.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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