Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is a co-author of “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations With North and South Korea.”
After North Korea’s nuclear test Tuesday, the West’s reaction has been as predictable as it will be ineffective: lots of hand-wringing, calls for more sanctions, warnings of vague consequences if North Korea continues to violate U.N. resolutions. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, the North Koreans’ provocations “will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
Unfortunately, none of these actions will curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
For years, we’ve tried carrots and, more often, sticks with the Hermit Kingdom, to little avail. Even the 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang that temporarily froze Kim Jong Il’s plutonium program did not really constrain the regime — it merely shifted to a parallel uranium-enrichment program. And North Korea has conducted two previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009.
It’s time for a new approach. After all, the only thing more dangerous than a North Korea with nuclear weapons is a nuclear-armed North Korea with which the United States has no productive relationship. The nation might become a supermarket for nuclear technology, weapons components and even fully assembled nuclear weapons, available to any purchaser. Washington and its allies need to accept that it may be too dangerous to try to isolate a nuclear power instead of trying to establish a constructive relationship.
In a scenario with no good options, we may have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Rescinding sanctions would not be a huge loss. Those measures have impeded North Korea’s access to technology, interfered with whatever meager trade its pathetic economy generates and crippled the country’s participation in the international financial system. They have caused considerable pain to ordinary North Koreans — famine and cannibalism are not unheard of — but have merely inconvenienced the regime.
Washington has repeatedly warned Pyongyang that it faces growing international isolation unless it relinquishes its nuclear ambitions. But that ultimatum lacks credibility, because everyone knows that unless China imposes harsh sanctions, North Korea will never be truly isolated. The nation gets extensive economic assistance, including much of its food and energy, from Beijing. And Chinese officials are not willing to turn their backs on a long-standing ally, a buffer between China and a U.S.-led East Asia. North Korea knows it, too, and has essentially called our bluff.
Hawks will cry, “Appeasement!” But we can’t lose perspective. North Korea’s embryonic nuclear arsenal and slowly improving missile capabilities cannot directly menace the American homeland. The United States has thousands of sophisticated nuclear warheads that are generations ahead of anything the North can muster. Pyongyang’s leaders would have to be suicidal to assault the United States. Although members of North Korea’s elite are brutal and ruthless, they aren’t that crazy. What strategists call “primary deterrence,” or preventing an attack on U.S. shores, remains as effective and credible as ever.