It has been 33 years since North Korea’s first test of a short-range ballistic missile and 11 years since North Korea’s first test of a nuclear weapon. In recent years, both the frequency of testing and demonstrated capabilities have increased by leaps and bounds. There should be no doubt – North Korea has a nuclear capability that, while not perfected, is growing with time.
However, some American officials and policymakers have demonstrated deep reluctance to publicly acknowledge North Korea’s missile and nuclear milestones. Most recently, Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokesperson, tweeted: “#DPRK will not obtain a nuclear capability. Whether through diplomacy or force is up to the regime.” A State Department official later claimed she was speaking about North Korea’s ability to mate nuclear warheads with ballistic missiles, but there are reports that they may have accomplished that task as well.
The continued questioning of North Korean claims reveals a set of biases that cloud political and analytical thinking. Even if the DPRK has not fully worked out the kinks of their programs, they have achieved the foundations of long-range ballistic missile technology (though with poor accuracy), domestic fuel production, a nuclear capability with the goal of achieving thermonuclear proficiency, and potentially the means of warhead miniaturization. All of these capabilities have been accomplished ahead of “schedule” and in contrast to some claims that each milestone would be difficult or impossible to achieve for such a backwards, resource-poor country.
Taking a step back, this rapid development should not come as a surprise. The first U.S. ICBM, the SM-65 Atlas, became operational in 1959, 14 years after the U.S. demonstrated its nuclear capability to the world. While North Korea has far fewer resources available for research and development, it is hardly doing groundbreaking work. All of the difficult theoretical and conceptual research was completed long ago, and the broad strokes of the practical research is readily available to a regime that knows where to look.
Additionally, while recent developments in North Korea’s capabilities suggest a shift toward a prioritization of indigenous capability, they did acquire a wealth of helpful materiel, both through state-state transfers from the Soviet Bloc and the Middle East, and potentially the black market.
What does all of this mean for U.S. policy?
First, it is time to concede that the DPRK is in possession of a nuclear deterrent that will only grow more capable with time. This recognition, of course, should not occur formally under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but rather tacitly and in our strategic and popular discourse. This includes acknowledging that we are well past the window of opportunity for viable military action without horrific consequences.
While intelligence gathering measures into DPRK capabilities should continue to inform contingency plans and defensive measures, the regime’s public claims of advancement should be taken seriously. In doing otherwise, we essentially dare Pyongyang to engage in destabilizing tests. Similar rhetoric led China to live-test a nuclear weapon atop a ballistic missile in 1966. Just last month, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri threatened a live atmospheric explosive test over the Pacific.
Second, in light of signs pointing towards growing indigenous capabilities, it is clear that sanctions, on their own, cannot stop Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear plans to a halt. In fact, overwhelming evidence shows that current sanctions have just made North Korea better at illegal procurements. Economic sanctions are not a silver bullet. U.S. policy-makers should treat sanctions as one tool in a much larger diplomatic effort.
Third, by accepting the reality of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, U.S. leaders can better make the case that it is time to engage in direct, high-level talks with North Korea – without preconditions. Pretending that sanctions and pressure alone will result in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula undermines our ability to accomplish real, measurable results. Pretending that there is a viable military option undermines our very security. At a minimum, both sides should begin with “talks about talks” in order to end the ongoing cycle of blustering escalatory rhetoric.
To make progress, it will be critical for the United States to come up with a clear list of realistic goals and the concessions we are willing to make for them. These concessions must enhance the DPRK’s perception of its security without undermining extended deterrence or relationships with allies. Even very narrow bargains could enhance regional stability.
The first step will be accepting, once and for all, that North Korea has been a nuclear power for more than a decade and that we need to adjust our strategy accordingly. If we cannot do that, Pyongyang’s progress will only continue.
James McKeon is a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Meyer Thalheimer is a research intern at the Center.