How to Resolve the North Korea Crisis
For more than 30 years, the world’s response to North Korea’s nuclear program has combined condemnation with procrastination. Pyongyang’s reckless conduct is deplored. Warnings are issued that its evolution toward weaponization will prove unacceptable. Yet its nuclear program has only accelerated.
The Aug. 5 sanctions resolution passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council marked a major step forward. Still, an agreed objective remains to be established. But the North Korean success in testing a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile eliminates the scope for further equivocation. If Kim Jong Un maintains a nuclear program against the opposition of China and the U.S. and a unanimous Security Council resolution, it will alter the geostrategic relationship among the principal players. If Pyongyang develops a full-scale nuclear capacity while the world dithers, it will seriously diminish the credibility of the American nuclear umbrella in Asia, especially for our allies in Tokyo and Seoul.
The long-term challenge reaches beyond the threat to American territory to the prospect of nuclear chaos. An operational North Korean ICBM arsenal is still some time away given the need to miniaturize warheads, attach them to missiles, and produce them in numbers. But Asia’s nations are already under threat from North Korea’s existing short- and intermediate-range missiles. As this threat compounds, the incentive for countries like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan to defend themselves with their own nuclear weapons will grow dramatically—an ominous turn for the region and the world. Reversing the progress Pyongyang has already made is as crucial as preventing its further advancement.
American as well as multilateral diplomacy on North Korea has been unsuccessful, owing to an inability to merge the key players’ objectives—especially those of China and the U.S.—into an operational consensus. American demands for an end to the North Korean nuclear program have proved unavailing. U.S. leaders, including in the military, have been reluctant to use force; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has described the prospect of a war over Korea as “catastrophic.” Thousands of artillery tubes entrenched within range of the South Korean capital demonstrate Pyongyang’s strategy of holding hostage greater Seoul’s population of 30 million.
Unilateral pre-emptive military action by the U.S. would involve a risk of conflict with China. Beijing, even if it temporarily acquiesced, would not long abide an American strategy of determining by itself outcomes at the very edge of China’s heartland, as its intervention in the Korean War of the 1950s demonstrated. The use of military force must be carefully analyzed, and its vocabulary must be restrained. But it cannot be precluded.
Considerations such as these have caused the administration’s attempt to enlist China in a diplomatic effort to press Korea toward denuclearization. These efforts so far have had only partial success. China shares the American concern regarding nuclear proliferation; it is in fact the country most immediately affected by it. But while America has been explicit about the goal, it has been less willing to confront its political consequences. Given North Korea’s enormous and disproportionate allocation of national resources to its nuclear-weapons program, abandoning or substantially curtailing it would produce a political upheaval, perhaps even regime change.
China surely understands this. Therefore one of the most conspicuous events of current diplomacy is Beijing’s support in principle of North Korean denuclearization. At the same time, the prospect of disintegration or chaos in North Korea evokes at least two major concerns in China. The first is the political and social effects of a North Korean internal crisis on China itself, re-enacting events familiar from millennia of Chinese history. The second involves security in Northeast Asia. China’s incentive to help implement denuclearization will be to impose comparable restraints on all of Korea. To be sure, South Korea has no visible nuclear program or announced plans for it, but an international proscription is another matter.
China would also have a stake in the political evolution of North Korea following denuclearization, whether it be a two-state solution or unification, and in restrictions on military deployment placed on North Korea. Heretofore, the administration has urged China to press North Korea as a kind of subcontractor to achieve American objectives. The better—probably only feasible—approach is to merge the two efforts and develop a common position jointly pursued with the other countries involved.
Statements defining the U.S. goal as bringing Pyongyang to the conference table reflect the assumption that negotiations are their own objective, operating according to their own momentum, separate from the pressures that brought them about and are needed to sustain them. But American diplomacy will, in the end, be judged by the outcome, not the process. Repeated assurances that the U.S. seeks no unilateral advantage are not sufficient for countries that believe the Asian security structure is at risk.
So which parties should negotiate, and over what? An understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea. By an ironic evolution, China at this point may have an even greater interest than the U.S. in forestalling the nuclearization of Asia. Beijing runs the risk of deteriorating relations with America if it gets blamed for insufficient pressure on Pyongyang. Since denuclearization requires sustained cooperation, it cannot be achieved by economic pressure. It requires a corollary U.S.-Chinese understanding on the aftermath, specifically about North Korea’s political evolution and deployment restraints on its territory. Such an understanding should not alter existing alliance relationships.
Paradoxical as it may seem in light of a half-century of history, such an understanding is probably the best way to break the Korean deadlock. A joint statement of objectives and implicit actions would bring home to Pyongyang its isolation and provide a basis for the international guarantee essential to safeguard its outcome.
Seoul and Tokyo must play a key role in this process. No country is more organically involved than South Korea. It must have, by geography and alliance relationship, a crucial voice in the political outcome. It would be the most directly affected by a diplomatic solution and the most menaced by military contingencies. It is one thing for American and other leaders to proclaim that they would not take advantage of North Korea’s denuclearization. Seoul is certain to insist on a more embracing and formal concept.
Similarly, Japan’s history has been linked with Korea’s for millennia. Tokyo’s concept of security will not tolerate indefinitely a nuclear Korea without a nuclear capability of its own. Its evaluation of the American alliance will be importantly influenced by the degree to which the U.S. management of the crisis takes Japanese concerns into account.
The alternative route of a direct U.S. negotiation with Pyongyang tempts some. But it would leave us a partner that can have only a minimum interest in implementation and a maximum interest in playing China and the U.S. off against each other. An understanding with China is needed for maximum pressure and workable guarantees. Instead, Pyongyang could best be represented at a culminating international conference.
There have been suggestions that a freeze of testing could provide an interim solution leading to eventual denuclearization. This would repeat the mistake of the Iranian agreement: seeking to solve a geostrategic problem by constraining the technical side alone. It would provide infinite pretexts for procrastination while “freeze” is defined and inspection mechanisms are developed.
Pyongyang must not be left with the impression that it can trade time for procedure and envelop purpose in tactics as a way to stall and thus fulfill its long-held aspirations. A staged process may be worth considering, but only if it substantially reduces the Korean nuclear capacity and research program in the short term.
A North Korea retaining an interim weapons capability would institutionalize permanent risks:
- that a penurious Pyongyang might sell nuclear technology;
- that American efforts may be perceived as concentrating on protecting its own territory, while leaving the rest of Asia exposed to nuclear blackmail;
- that other countries may pursue nuclear deterrent against Pyongyang, one another or, in time, the U.S.;
- that frustration with the outcome will take the form of mounting
conflict with China;
- that proliferation may accelerate in other regions;
- that the American domestic debate may become more divisive.
Substantial progress toward denuclearization—and its attainment in a brief period—is the most prudent course.
Mr. Kissinger served as secretary of state and national security adviser in the Nixon and Ford administrations.