The official position of the US government is that North Korea’s nuclear program is unacceptable and that Pyongyang has to give up all of its nuclear weapons. This was the goal of US policy under President George W. Bush, it was the goal of US policy under President Barack Obama, and it is now the goal of US policy under President Donald Trump.
But US policy has utterly failed at accomplishing that goal. North Korea has built as many as 60 nuclear weapons, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and has developed missiles that are in theory capable of hitting the East Coast of the United States. North Korea tested its most powerful bomb yet — seven times the size of the one America dropped on Hiroshima — just this Sunday.
These developments, according to experts on the Kim Jong Un regime, underscore an awkward truth: America’s long-running campaign to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program has ended in a dismal failure.
“There is very little chance that we are ever going to talk this guy out of his [nuclear] weapons, and none of us who have been watching the situation closely for years really thought we were going to,” says Mira Rapp-Hooper, a scholar at Yale Law School who studies North Korea.
It’s high time, these experts say, for the US government to admit defeat. By sticking with a policy that no longer reflects reality, America is making the risk of a war that kills millions higher than it needs to be.
There is a better way. Instead of trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, they argue that the US needs to shift to a different policy: containment.
The term “containment” itself comes from Cold War diplomat George Kennan, who helped set the course of US policy toward the Soviet Union. Kennan’s approach was not to confront the Soviet Union directly, but to limit the spread of its influence abroad through alliances and military deterrence. To contain the threat rather than attempt to eliminate it entirely.
This strategy helped win the Cold War. It could be adapted, with minimal effort, to North Korea. A policy of containment in North Korea would aim to minimize the danger of North Korea’s nuclear program, through negotiations and the deterrent power of the US military, rather than attempting to end it.
It comes with risks — but so does the status quo. And, to hear the experts tell it, containment is a heck of a lot less dangerous than what America is doing right now.
Give deterrence a chance
The most fundamentally important fact about North Korea’s nuclear program is that it is born out of fear — fear, specifically, of the United States.
The Korean War began in 1950 when North Korea invaded the South and nearly conquered all of it. The only reason it didn’t was intervention by a US led-coalition, which in turn nearly took the entire North, stopped only by a Chinese counterintervention. After the war ended in an armistice in 1953, the US pledged to defend South Korea against future attack and left thousands of US troops deployed there — a constant reminder to Pyongyang that the world’s strongest military power was its enemy.
Put another way, North Korea’s entire foreign policy and national identity has evolved around the threat of war with America. As a result, they’ve always been trying to improve their military capabilities in order to deter the US from invading.
“They’re hyper-focused on our military and what we can do,” explains Dave Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.
The nuclear program, which began in the 1950s, was designed to be the ultimate answer to this problem. The thinking among three generations of Kims was that if North Korea had nuclear weapons, they could inflict unacceptable costs on the US if it were to invade the North. Nuclear weapons, in other words, would be the ultimate deterrent against regime change.
This explains why North Korea has invested so many resources, and been willing to accept crushing international sanctions, in order to develop a nuclear bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could hit the US mainland.
“There’s pretty broad agreement that Kim Jong Un wants a nuclear arsenal, including a nuclear-armed ICBM that could put cities and targets in the United States at risk, to deter an attack and to ensure survival and prevent regime change,” says Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
What this brief history suggests is that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear missiles is fundamentally rational. North Korea is not a suicidal state; there is no evidence that it wants to blow up an American city and invite regime-ending retaliation. Its goal, according to every piece of evidence we have, is the opposite: to avoid war at all costs.
Members of the Trump administration have, somewhat strangely, denied this. Even H.R. McMaster, Trump’s highly regarded national security adviser, went on TV in August and insisted that North Korea could not be deterred in the way the Soviet Union was.
“The classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?” McMaster asked. “A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people? A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction?”
Of course, you could make the same arguments about the Soviet Union and China under Mao Tse-Tung — both of which were about as brutal toward their own people as the Kim regime is. Yet that domestic repression did not translate into suicidal wars against the United States.
What’s more, North Korea has been hyper-repressive for its entire existence — and yet it still hasn’t launched a full-scale attack against the South. The fact that the North has nuclear weapons doesn’t change the fact that it would still likely be annihilated in an outright war with the United States.
“I am absolutely convinced that North Korea is not going to attack us first,” says Kang. “We have 64 years of evidence that deterrence works.”
The fact that North Korea is believed to be both rational and deterrable means that that the United States may be able to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea — much in the same way that it has learned to live with a nuclear-armed China and Russia. But it also explains why the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula is now impossible.
North Korea saw what happened to Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Both dictators once had nuclear programs and gave them up; both were swiftly toppled by the American military when US policymakers decided they were threats.
Kim Jong Un (and his father before him) seems to have internalized those lessons and concluded that the United States cannot be trusted not to invade rogue regimes when it wants to. The ability to nuke an American city is the best way for Kim Jong Un to ensure that he doesn’t share Saddam and Qaddafi’s fates.
“North Koreans always point those examples out,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “Short of giving them South Korea and a pile of money and eliminating our nuclear weapons,” he says, “I can’t see them giving [their nuclear weapons] up.”
Trying to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program makes war more likely
Lewis describes current US policy toward the North as “unremitting yet understandable hostility”: The US refuses to accept that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons, and uses economic sanctions and the threat of force as sticks to try to get the North to give them up.
The Trump administration has innovated on this strategy by adding in a level of rhetorical bluster that didn’t exist under George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Most notably, President Trump personally said the North would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it didn’t stop threatening the US.
The thinking here, as far as we can tell from the outside, is that you need to threaten North Korea with a credible military option in order to convince them to negotiate.
“There is a military option at last resort. I don’t want to use it, but it’s got to be on the table because without that there will never be a diplomatic end to this,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a September 6 TV appearance.
But this appears to be making things worse, not better. By pursuing denuclearization in such an aggressive fashion, Trump may be making an already unstable situation worse.
Historically, American threats tend to feed the paranoia about a US invasion that underpins the nuclear program itself. They lead the North not to abandon their nuclear program, but to double down on it — as they believe it’s their best deterrent against such an attack. You can see this dynamic at work in part right now, as the North Korean response to Trump’s “fire and fury” comment was to fire a missile over Japan and to test its largest nuclear bomb ever.
“They’re responding to our threats, it’s tit-for-tat,” Kang says. “Our policies are designed precisely to provoke the outcome we’re trying to avoid.”
In the absolute scariest scenario, North Korea could misinterpret Trump’s rhetorical bluster as an actual sign that the US is about to attack — and strike first.
Because the US and South Korea militarily outmatch the North, Lewis says, its military doctrine aims to avoid a protracted conflict and instead strike a devastating early blow. The idea is that the US would abandon the war before it could redeploy its vast military assets currently scattered around the world to the Korean peninsula. This doctrine gives North Korea an incentive to strike first if it believes war is imminent.
“The only situation in which Kim Jong Un would rationally use nuclear weapons first is one in which he believes his regime’s survival is at stake,” says Rapp-Hooper. “You could have both of us be perfectly rational actors who are trying to practice deterrence very well — and miscalculation could still occur.”
Some of the problem here is the president’s personal penchant for bluster. But the real root of it is the idea that the US has to denuclearize North Korea at all.
Once you make that assumption, as virtually every US policymaker seems to, then threatening North Korea with force starts to make much more sense — as both negotiations and sanctions have failed to stop their program. That’s why you hear people like Sen. Graham making even more grandiose threats than the president.
“He’s not going to allow — President Trump — the ability of this madman [Kim Jong Un] to have a missile that could hit America,” Graham said in early August. “If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”
Instead of this kind of bluster, US officials need to admit that their influence over North Korea is limited at best — and that, as powerful as the US military and economy are, it can’t achieve whatever it wants.
“We vastly overestimate our ability to dictate outcomes” to North Korea, Kang says. “The first thing is to stop making things worse.”
Abandoning denuclearization could make deterrence work better
So what would an alternative policy actually look like?
The first thing to do, experts say, is to actually take the threat of preventive force off the table and admit that North Korea’s nukes are a reality that the US will have to live with, at least for the foreseeable future. After that, there are several concrete steps Washington could take to reduce the threat those weapons actually pose.
One idea is to take a page from the Cold War playbook.
The US and Soviet Union faced a number of situations — most notably the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — where one side had reason to believe the other was preparing for a nuclear first strike. The most important reason these crises didn’t escalate is that the US and Soviet Union had a lot of different ways to communicate and reassure each other that they weren’t about to attack.
The most famous example is the Moscow-Washington hotline, often (inaccurately) called the red phone: A messaging system that allowed the American president and Soviet premier to communicate with each other directly.
The US doesn’t have anything like that with North Korea right now. There is currently only one publicly known channel of communication between the US and the North: through North Korea’s UN office in New York. That’s it. Which means that in the event of a crisis, it would be hard for the two sides to communicate to each other that they aren’t about to launch a nuclear strike.
The US should “focus on miscalculation and unintended escalation — almost like a hotline approach,” says Reif. “This was part of the approach during the Cold War, and absolutely needs to be part of the approach now.”
Another complimentary idea is to keep talking with North Korea about its nuclear program — but with the aim of freezing it rather than eliminating it entirely.
Reif and others think North Korea might be willing to agree to stop building more missiles and bombs, as well as testing what it already has, in exchange for some kind of trade (like limited sanctions relief). This would limit the damage North Korea’s nuclear arsenal could theoretically do, particularly by constraining its ability to strike the US mainland.
These kinds of negotiations and communication are technically and politically feasible. North Korea has, in the past, shown real interest in direct negotiations with the United States. The biggest barrier is the US’s reluctance to focus talks on anything other than denuclearization.
“This is one of those areas where we should be able to have negotiation because 1) we don’t want a nuclear war, and 2) North Korea shares that interest,” Lewis says. “Abandonment of denuclearization as a near-term goal [would allow the US] to talk to them about stability, about crisis coordination.”
Third and finally, the US needs to make it crystal clear to the North Koreans that any attack on South Korea or Japan would be met with force. The best way to do this isn’t loud bluster, but rather by concrete steps to coordinate with allies.
When the North stages provocations like missile tests, the US needs to respond with unmistakable shows of support — US warplanes overflying South Korea, for example, or promises to send over advanced military technology. In between incidents, the US should continue staging joint military exercises — and, more importantly, send constant reassurances through diplomatic channels that the alliance commitment is still there.
Such steps would help convince the North to avoid anything to provocative, while simultaneously convincing allies not to respond on their own in a way that could escalate the situation.
“This problem requires a serious summoning of political will and commitment of diplomatic resources,” Rapp-Hooper says. “More than it even matters to fly a B-1 over the Korean peninsula at any given time, it matters to have an ambassador in Seoul and assistant secretaries of State and Defense who are constantly meeting with their counterparts and explaining to them what the United States will do to provide for their security in all manner of contingencies and how that’s going to work.”
Yet the Trump administration doesn’t even have anyone appointed to those positions — something it could fix quickly if it so chose. (Reports suggest it plans to nominate Victor Cha, a widely respected Georgetown professor, to be ambassador to South Korea.) Another easy step to improve things here would be to stop doing things that alienate allies, like threatening to withdraw from the South Korea-US free trade agreement or calling the South Korean president an appeaser on Twitter.
What unites all of those different policy measures is a single strategic objective: preventing war on the Korean peninsula by managing the inherent tensions created by a nuclear North Korea.
That means convincing everyone in the region — North and South Korea, China, and Japan — that US intentions are purely defensive: that it has no interest whatsoever in bombing North Korea to stop its nuclear program, but would respond with overwhelming force if the North shot first. Diplomacy and deterrence, rather than economic sanctions and threats of war, would be the principal tools by which the US would handle the Kim regime from here on out.
This will require some ugly compromises — most notably, negotiations and high-level contacts with what’s arguably the most evil government on earth. And there’s always a risk that it goes wrong: that deterrence fails and the US gets embroiled in a horrifying war.
But that will be true as long as North Korea exists. Better to acknowledge the reality of a nuclear North Korea and plan around it openly than to stick our head in the sand. Managing North Korea’s nuclear program may be a bad option, but much of the expert community is convinced that the alternatives are worse.
“There is no combination of sticks and carrots, sanctions and blah blah blah that mean North Korea is just going to cave and do exactly what we want them to do,” Kang says. “We treat North Korea like it’s a problem to be solved, [but] it’s a country we have to live with.”