Pushing total disarmament hasn’t worked for 25 years — and it won’t work now

Pushing total disarmament hasn’t worked for 25 years — and it won’t work now
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What is the Trump administration trying to achieve in Korea? According to Secretaries James MattisJames Norman MattisWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Trump says Gen. Milley 'last person' he'd want to start a coup with Overnight Defense: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dies at 88 | Trump calls on Milley to resign | House subpanel advances Pentagon spending bill MORE and Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump House passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet MORE, we seek “complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament” there.

That is hard enough to swallow for a regime that sees nuclearization as essential to its survival but we have made it worse by demanding this in advance of negotiation. Therefore this looks like a demand for regime change or regime suicide to North Korea’s leadership — not just Kim Jong Un.


Beyond this consideration is the fact that we are steadily upgrading the quality and quantity of strategic assets being deployed to Korea even at the expense of other theaters where military threats are perhaps even more real. This display of increasing military might clearly looks to North Korea, Russia and China like an exercise in coercive diplomacy or an attempt to incite North Korea to start a war and furnish a pretext for an American attack that would necessarily obliterate the regime if not the country.


Finally, any objective observer must reckon with the fact that U.S. guarantees or assurances to countries that denuclearize have proven to be written on sand. Iraq did not even have a functioning program, Libya dismantled its program and Ukraine accepted Anglo-American and Russian assurances. Their fate speaks for itself and not only to Kim Jong Un.

Consequently, the question remains how do we achieve a situation whereby North Korea can renounce tis nuclear program and do so safely from its standpoint? Framing the question in this way is crucial, for if indeed there is no answer to this question than either war or a continuation of the status quo — with North Korea gaining ever more nuclear capability — are the only possible outcomes.

Clearly, neither of those outcomes works either for the U.S. or its Asian (if not other) allies. Yet the Trump administration, in its present public rhetoric and policy actions has not addressed this question or provided reassurance to anyone — not just Pyongyang, but also Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing or Moscow.

Understandably, sentiment in both South Korea and Japan is rising for their own nuclear deterrent and/or the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea.

In Beijing and Moscow, there is mounting alarm. There is a tightening of the Sino-Russian alliance that spans all East Asian security issues as well as ongoing covert, and not so covert efforts, by those governments to sustain North Korea — even as they formally oppose its nuclear program and support sanctions. None of these trends benefits the U.S. or its allies.

The fact that these trends are already discernible, even if pressure is clearly rising on North Korea, bespeaks the failure — not the success — and certainly not the coherence of U.S. policy. Indeed, “complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament” has been the goal of every president since 1993 if not earlier. Yet a generation later it is clear that we have failed to stop North Korea, and according to the administration, our efforts to deter Iran from nuclearization have been not much more successful.

To put it bluntly, the gallons of ink spilled and the sacrifice of enormous amounts of money and political efforts to arrest these two countries’ nuclear proliferation has proven to be a failure, underscoring Washington’s generation-long failure to achieve what it defined as a priority security objective and foreign policy goal.

If insanity consists of doing the same futile thing over and over again and expecting a different result then the record of our policy focusing on North Korea’s nuclear program from the proliferation standpoint qualifies as insane.

Consequently, if we are to achieve the stated goal of the Trump administration’s spokesmen we should start thinking about North Korea from the standpoint of regional security. While we still desire denuclearization, do we want to see North Korea as a Chinese satellite whose existence distracts the U.S from dealing with China’s own threats to our position? Do we want to aggravate the armed truce on the Korean peninsula that could ignite the whole region in a nuclear war or do we need to change the game that we have been losing for 25 years?

Logic says that we should stop digging the same hole that we have dug for a generation and think creatively about a denuclearized North Korea can achieve genuine security while we retain the capacity to defend South Korea against any potential threat from the North.

We should also think how we could encourage Pyongyang to deal with other countries on its own and come out from under China’s shadow. If China is the big problem this administration is focusing on then it stands to reason we should not be driving Pyongyang and Beijing together, quite the opposite. The threat of war against North Korea overrides the visible animus these two governments now share for each other.

If the end of our policy is “complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament,” the means we have chosen not only fails to get us there, they will raise the risk of permanent tension under much more lethal circumstances and harden the political stalemate which it is in our interest to overcome.

Until we can answer the question posed above as to what kind of security North Korea can have without nuclear weapons it will, as Vladimir Putin said, “eat grass rather than give them up.” Is that truly the outcome this administration, the U.S., and our allies want? And more importantly is that an outcome that advances our own and their interests?

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College