But history indicates that there might be a better option than tightened sanctions — export controls. Export controls are regulations that limit trade in certain kinds of technologies and materials that pose proliferation risks. When states that supply nuclear materials have widely disparate forms of export controls, it becomes far more difficult to contain the technology and materials that allow nuclear weapons to proliferate.
What is needed now is a U.S.-led diplomatic effort to bring these states into line with one another to cut off the supply of key materials and technologies to aspiring nuclear states. It is a strategy that worked well for the United States in the 1970s, when negotiations with France created an understanding that global security was a priority over national economic interests. The result: preventing South Korea from developing nuclear weapons. And while it might not destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability, this strategy promises to mitigate further risks of proliferation from Pyongyang.
Sensing an opportunity after the energy crisis prompted by the 1973 oil price shock, the French nuclear industry started searching for markets abroad. In this context, the French atomic energy commission pledged to build plutonium reprocessing plants in South Korea and Pakistan. This caused consternation for the Gerald Ford and then the Jimmy Carter administrations, as plutonium reprocessing plants served as a key pathway to the development of nuclear weapons by recipient states, in this case, South Korea and Pakistan.
Fortunately for U.S. policymakers, the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as president of France provided an opportunity. Giscard d’Estaing wanted to cooperate with Washington on nuclear export policy — breaking with President Charles de Gaulle’s policy of anti-Americanism, under which he had turned France into a recalcitrant U.S. ally.
Still, the process was not straightforward. Before they could implement a new export-control regime, French policymakers had to form institutions for enforcing the new regulations and win internal political battles.
To make this new coordination work, American diplomats including Gerard C. Smith and Joseph Nye worked to convince France and other supplier states that they ought to enhance their export controls for international security. Multilateral coordination of export controls was the only way to control the global atomic marketplace, the diplomats argued. The arguments worked. Washington successfully forged a cooperative relationship with France, resulting in the formation of an export-controls group (Nuclear Suppliers Group) and a technological study that helped thwart proliferation risks from reactor fuel (International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation).
While adopting multilateral and bilateral diplomacy to strengthen export controls of supplier states, the United States also adopted coercive policies such as the threat of sanctions against nuclear aspirants Pakistan and South Korea. Because South Korea heavily depended on the United States for military assistance, the combination of coercion and increased export controls dissuaded the country from continuing to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
This method failed with Pakistan, however, because Pakistan was determined to develop nuclear weapons and did not sufficiently depend on the United States for military support to be susceptible to American pressure. Pakistan remained adamant about not canceling its reprocessing contract with France, and eventually it was France that had to pull out of the deal. Subsequently, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons without help from France.
These countries’ divergent paths offer lessons for handling North Korea.
First, like Pakistan in the 1970s, North Korea is not dependent on the United States for its defense. Nor does it have any inclinations to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In fact, Kim Jong Un is determined to preserve his nuclear weapons, because he believes the survival of his regime depends upon Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
He has good reason to believe so. The specter of Libya — where Moammar Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear weapons and was invaded by the West within a few years — looms large for leaders such as Kim. It indicates that nukes are essential to keeping the United States and its allies at bay. The determination spawned by this logic makes it impossible to prevent leaders such as Kim from ever developing their nuclear weapons, which means that sanctions, threats and other coercive policies will continue to have minimal effect on North Korea.
Second, North Korea has gone beyond developing its own nuclear weapons. It is a rogue supplier state with a record of providing reactor technologies and chemical weapons to Syria, a sign that the “hermit kingdom” cannot be reined in by sanctions. North Korea is also forming closer ties with Iran. The Trump administration’s vocal doubts about the effectiveness of the Iran deal aids this rapprochement between the two nations, creating real incentives for Tehran and Pyongyang to share sensitive nuclear and missile technologies with each other.
Pyongyang is also believed to be producing its own potent rocket fuel, which it is using in long-range ballistic missiles. It could eventually supply this fuel to any paying customer, including terrorists and criminals, thereby gaining leverage at the negotiating table (should diplomatic negotiations ever occur).
Given all this, the key is to cut off North Korea’s access to materials and technologies integral to its nuclear weapons program. Although not integrated into the international economy, North Korea retains access to the global atomic marketplace, thanks to Chinese and Russian firms. To stem this flow of materials and technologies, the United States must convince the Chinese and Russian governments of the need for tightened export controls.
Instead, the Trump administration has responded to North Korea’s saber-rattling with military overtures. President Trump himself threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly this week. But to effectively tackle North Korea and the proliferation dangers that it poses, Trump must focus not on military might but on diplomatic finesse. Rather than gutting the State Department, the administration should pour resources into a massive diplomatic effort to strengthen export controls in countries such as China and Russia.
While eliminating the North Korean nuclear weapons is probably impossible, the United States can reduce the dangers posed by the program and by North Korea’s desire to share its technology with other states and non-state actors. Military threats will only exacerbate the crisis, offering little in terms of a real long-term solution. Export controls are not easy to implement — as is also the case with sanctions — but they are the best step forward to temper the current and future risks of nuclear proliferation.