Why you should care
Because the U.S. needs to rethink its approach to the Hermit Kingdom.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Time to face it: North Korea is almost certainly going to remain a nuclear weapons state. Its nuclear capabilities are now impressive, well-documented and embraced by Kim Jong Un as regime survival tools. But in assessing adversaries, you also always have to weigh intent. And that is the question least well-explored: What exactly does North Korea plan to do with its nuclear weapons — and how should that affect our perception of the threat?
First capabilities. Just how nuclear-capable is North Korea? Estimates by public experts put the number of nuclear weapons between 20 and 60. They have missiles of various ranges that appear capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. Test results indicate that one can lift sufficient weight to carry a nuclear weapon and with a modified trajectory fly 8,000 miles and reach most parts of the United States. It is not clear that they have done all the testing to ensure the portion of the missile reentering the atmosphere could survive the heat and reach its target with accuracy. But prudence requires that we assume they are close enough to constitute a threat.
With their shorter-range missiles, they can easily target allies such as Japan and South Korea with nuclear and conventional weapons. Given the distances, warning time would be minimal.
Kim has no real incentive to surrender his core nuclear capability.
Now what of North Korean intent? On this we know less. In thinking it through, the first question to sort out is whether Kim is a rational actor — or can he be or become a crazed dictator who could strike out at the U.S. with nuclear weapons in a temper tantrum? Based on the way he has strategized his way through a series of meetings with President Donald Trump, including their recent impromptu get-together at the Demilitarized Zone, I would say this is a rational man — brutal and authoritarian, to be sure, but rational according to the logic of his circumstances.
The man knows how to get concessions without giving much and how to use that to bolster his domestic image. He also figured out that prioritizing progress on nuclear weapons and missiles — Kim accelerated this well beyond his predecessors’ efforts — would make it harder for the U.S. and others to threaten his regime and his control. It has also given him more degrees of freedom from Chinese domination, though he remains heavily dependent on Beijing for trade and aid.
If we assume a rational Kim, it seems unlikely that he would launch an unprovoked, out-of-the-blue nuclear attack on the U.S., which would presumably lead to retaliation certain to destroy him and his regime. So, what can he do with his nuclear capability? We should probably see it as a weapon of blackmail and terror — one that Kim could use with our regional allies and with the United States if he embarks on policies they or we oppose. For example, he wants to maneuver the South Korean government into some arrangement that gets U.S. troops off the peninsula and brings economic advantage to Pyongyang. Nuclear weapons will serve as leverage both in pushing his view and in resisting U.S. opposition to any of his plans. And while an out-of-the-blue attack by Kim seems highly improbable today, we would have to reassess his rationality if backed into a corner by circumstances that threatened his dynastic control of the North.
To say that Kim seems rational according to his own logic in no way diminishes other abhorrent aspects of his regime — his brutality, his suppression of dissent, the humanitarian suffering of his people. Kim’s murder of his uncle, assassination of his half-brother, the arrest and torture of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier all stand as testimony to a ruthlessness that has few equals in today’s international system. To the extent that any U.S. administration wishes to oppose such things or respond to them with some form of punishment, nuclear weapons will give Kim added margin to neutralize or ignore warnings and threats.
There are at least two other dimensions we must worry about. First, cash-strapped North Korea has a record of proliferating its missile programs. Doing this with its nuclear know-how would be far more dangerous. Second, Kim’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has a powerful demonstration effect among other countries tempted to go the nuclear route. His example shows the cushion nuclear weapons can provide against coercion by adversaries, just as the example of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nukes, illustrates the reverse.
The bottom line: There are lots of reasons to deny North Korea nuclear weapons, and the administration is right to not give up, lose patience, or rule out a phased approach with stages such as a freeze on testing or further production. This said, Kim has no real incentive to surrender his core nuclear capability that has given him, with hardly any concessions, a legitimacy he could only have dreamed about three years ago. So the denuclearization goal now looks a bridge too far for American policy, even with diplomacy more skillful and substantial than the Kim/Trump photo-op summits and friendly letter exchanges we’ve seen in the last year.
Such personal relationships are important in diplomacy, but they need to be married to a clear, flexible and persistent strategy — one that seems so far to be missing.