When Kim Jong Un inherited rule of North Korea in 2012 and later consolidated his power, he made an all-in bet on nuclear development as his best means by which to ensure regime survival against both internal and external threats.
Early signs of Kim’s choice included his disregard of the Obama administration’s 2012 Leap Day deal to draw North Korea back to denuclearization negotiations, the addition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear state to the preamble of the North Korean constitution, and the March 2013 declaration that simultaneous nuclear and economic development would be Kim’s guiding strategic priorities.
The pace and intensity of Kim’s sprint toward a long-range nuclear strike capability have clearly caught the United States off guard, but even more startling and politically unacceptable to most Americans is the binary strategic choice Kim Jong Un seeks to impose on U.S. policymakers between acceptance of vulnerability to a nuclear North Korea and the use of military force to separate Kim from his nuclear weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE clearly underscored those risks when he stated that “The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons” and that “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
North Korea clearly sees survival risk in bowing to U.S. pressure by returning to the path of denuclearization and perceives mutual vulnerability as the only viable path to regime survival. This is the path that North Korean diplomats point to when they argue that it was possible for the United States and the Soviet Union as nuclear-armed adversaries to pursue détente and normalize their relations even at the height of the Cold War.
But it is impossible to imagine that the United States will accept vulnerability to Kim Jong Un or suddenly appreciate North Korea’s strategic value and pursue a normal relationship with North Korea’s totalitarian regime. However much North Korea may yearn for the United States to treat it with the same geostrategic weight that motivated détente with the Soviet Union or normalization with China, it will not happen. Kim Jong Un’s weak hand is ultimately a losing hand, no matter how well played.
The non-military tools available to pressure Kim Jong Un are blunt, Kim has seemingly made his very survival dependent on nuclear weapons, and each North Korean missile test underscores that time is not on the side of the United States. The costs of unilateral “fire and fury” remain exorbitant, and a combination of sanctions, information penetration, and diplomacy still provides a more palatable way of distributing costs more fairly to North Korea’s neighbors, and especially to China, which has enabled Kim to retain the political isolation essential to perpetuation of one-man rule while providing the economic lifeline necessary to sustain the regime and fuel Kim’s nukes and rockets.
North Korea under Kim Jong Un has become a parasite that increasingly threatens both the region and the world. Kim’s head start has given him hope that time is on his side, and incrementalism at the U.N. Security Council has fed that hope. The United States needs to buy more time against North Korea’s nuclearization efforts and use it effectively to halt and eventually reverse North Korea’s current course.
But Kim’s effort to export his own sense of vulnerability to the United States will not succeed and will result in his own demise. How that process plays out remains important because it will determine the distribution of costs across the region that will in turn affect the shape of a new security order in northeast Asia.
Scott Snyder is a senior fellow in Korea studies and director of the Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming book “South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.” The opinions expressed here are his own.
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