It Is Time for a Realistic Bargain With North Korea

Denuclearization Is Probably Out of Reach for Now—but It Might Be Possible to Reduce the Nuclear Threat

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North Korea’s recent missile tests serve as a reminder that U.S. President Joe Biden faces no more intractable foreign policy problem than Kim Jong Un. Biden’s predecessors have tried every approach to North Korea short of war. Over the years, a succession of U.S. presidents have gradually tightened sanctions, including through multiple UN Security Council resolutions, while keeping the door open to diplomacy. President Donald Trump amped up the threat of military action with rhetoric about “fire and fury”—then tried unsuccessfully to convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons at three high-profile summits in 2018 and 2019.   

Throughout all of this, North Korea has continued to produce nuclear weapons at a rapid rate. Estimates vary, but the country produces sufficient fissile material to make 12 new weapons per year and could now have enough for a total of 60 weapons or more. In addition to short- and medium-range missiles that can target Japan and South Korea, North Korea also produces missiles capable of reaching all of the United States. Pyongyang might not have perfected this technology, but Americans can no longer assume they are safe from a North Korean nuclear strike. And the North is working on missiles that it can launch faster, that are more difficult to detect, and that are harder for ballistic missile defenses to stop.

Launching a preventive strike on North Korea—as Trump reportedly contemplated doing in 2017—is a terrible idea. Such a strike would be unlikely to eliminate Pyongyang’s entire arsenal but would be virtually certain to spark a regional war—and potentially a nuclear one. Another round of all-or-nothing diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief would come with less downside risk but is unlikely to be any more successful than Trump’s attempts in 2018 and 2019. And as North Korea reminded the Biden administration earlier this month by reportedly failing to respond to backchannel outreach, Pyongyang gets a vote on engagement, as well. Doing nothing as sanctions continue to bite—a containment strategy—may be safer than either war or diplomacy, but it still allows North Korea to expand its nuclear and missile programs.

There is another way the Biden administration could approach North Korea, however. It could explore a more limited strategy, one that stops trying to convince Kim to disarm entirely and instead seeks to slow the growth of his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and reduce the risk of war.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.

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