Is it time to accept North Korea is a nuclear power?

Seoul, South Korea

As a mission statement, it was as simple as it gets.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and will not stop, its leader, Kim Jong Un, told the world last month.

The move was “irreversible,” he said; the weapons represent “the honor, the body, and the full power of the state” and Pyongyang will continue to produce “as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world.”

Kim may be no stranger to fancy language, but it’s important that she takes her pledge — which she signed into law — seriously. Remember that this is a dictator who cannot be removed from power and often does what he says he will do.

Also remember that North Korea has launched a number of missiles this year – more than 20; it says it’s sending nuclear weapons into space, something CNN can’t independently confirm; and they are also believed to be ready to conduct a seventh underground nuclear test.

All of this has made many experts question whether this is the time to call it quits and admit that North Korea is a nuclear country. Doing so would involve giving up hope once and for all — some would say hypocrisy — that Pyongyang’s program is inadequate or that it can be forced to abandon it of its own accord.

As Ankit Panda, Stanton’s director of nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “We need to treat North Korea as it is, not as we want it to be.”

From a practical standpoint, North Korea has nuclear weapons, and few who follow events there dispute that.

The latest edition of the Nuclear Notebook from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists states that North Korea may have developed enough nuclear weapons between 45 and 55. In addition, recent weapons tests show that it has several ways to deliver those weapons.

Kim Jong Un inspects a missile test at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in a photo released by Pyongyang on October 10, 2022.

Public acceptance of this, however, has many challenges for countries such as the United States.

One of the reasons for forcing Washington not to do this is its fear of starting a nuclear arms race in Asia.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are among the neighbors that would like to match Pyongyang’s status.

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But some experts say that refusing to acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear capabilities – in the face of clear evidence to the contrary – does not help these countries convince them. On the contrary, thinking that their partners have their heads in the sand can make them very nervous.

“We will admit (this), North Korea is a nuclear weapons state, and North Korea has all the means to deliver the necessary weapons including ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles),” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and the chief executive. of education. in North Korea.

A better option, some say, might be to treat North Korea’s nuclear program the same as Israel — and tacitly agree.

That’s the answer favored by Jeffrey Lewis, an associate professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.

“I think the most important part that (US President Joe) Biden has to do is to show himself and the US government that we will not allow North Korea to denuclearize and I agree that North Korea is a nuclear state. You don’t need to legally agree,” said Lewis.

Both Israel and India provide examples of what the US would like to do with North Korea, he added.

North Korea did what it called

Israel, which is widely believed to have started its nuclear program in the 1960s, has been citing nuclear ambiguity while refusing to be a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while India embraced nuclear ambiguity for years before abandoning the policy with its 1998 nuclear test.

“In all these cases, the US knew that the countries had the bomb, but the agreement was, if you don’t talk, if you don’t make a problem, if you don’t cause political problems. , then we won’t respond. I think that’s the same place we want to get to with North Korea,” said Lewis.

For now, Washington shows no signs of abandoning its strategy of hoping to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nukes.

Indeed, US Vice President Kamala Harris confirmed this during a recent visit to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

“Our shared goal – the United States and the Republic of Korea – is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Harris said.

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That may be a worthy goal, but many experts see it as impossible.

“No one disputes that denuclearization would be very important for the Korean Peninsula, it is not difficult,” Panda said.

One problem standing in the way of denuclearization is that Kim’s top priority is ensuring the survival of his regime.

And if he wasn’t proud enough already, Russia’s attack on Ukraine (in which a nuclear power has attacked a non-nuclear power) would have reinforced in time the belief that “nuclear weapons are the only reliable guarantee of security,” said Lankov, of Kookmin University.

A television screen at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, shows a picture of a North Korean gun on October 10, 2022.

Attempts to convince Kim in one way or another appear to be a no-brainer, as Pyongyang has said it will not consider engaging with the US government’s willingness to negotiate on denuclearization.

“If America wants to talk about denuclearization, (North Korea) won’t talk and if the Americans don’t talk, (North Korea) will launch more missiles and better and better missiles,” Lankov said. “It’s an easy decision.”

There is also the problem that if North Korea’s neighbors become more concerned when they decide that Washington’s strategy is going nowhere, this could lead to the kind of war the US wants to avoid.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a Korean think tank, is among a growing number of people who want South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons program to counter Pyongyang.

Efforts to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons “have failed,” he said, “and even now, chasing nuclear weapons is like chasing a miracle.”

However, even if the dream of denuclearization seems far-fetched, there are those who say that the alternative – accepting North Korea’s nuclear responsibility, but cautiously – would be a mistake.

“We (would have) (said to) Kim Jong Un, after all this war and chaos, (that) you will get what you want. The big question (then) is: where does this leave the rest of the region? said Soo Kim, a former CIA director who he is now a researcher at the US think tank RAND Corporation.

That leaves another option open for the Biden administration and its allies, albeit one that may seem unlikely given the current climate.

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They may pursue a deal Pyongyang is offering to halt its weapons development in return for sanctions.

In other words, not far from the millions of dollars from the agreement that Kim gave to the then US President Donald Trump during their meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019.

This method has its supporters. “Cold is a strong way to start things. It’s very difficult to remove the existing equipment, but what can be done … is to prevent things from getting worse. It removes some of the stress and opens up the opportunity to discuss other kinds of things,” said Lewis of the James Martin Center.

However, the extension of the Trump era may make this a non-starter. Asked if he thought President Biden would consider that approach, Lewis smiled and said, “I’m a professor, so I make advice that no one can follow.”

But even if Biden’s leadership was more popular, the train would still be moving; The Kim of 2019 was more willing to engage than the Kim of 2022.

And, perhaps, that is the biggest problem at the heart of all the options on the table: they depend on some kind of relationship with North Korea – something that is currently lacking.

Kim is now focused on his five-year military development plan that was announced in January 2021 and there are no talks from the Biden administration or others that haven’t turned his head a little.

As Panda acknowledged, “There are a number of ways to work that would require the North Koreans to be willing to sit down at the table and discuss some of those things with us. I don’t think we’re close to sitting down with the North Koreans.”

And, in fairness to Kim, silence is not in Pyongyang.

“A major change in policy in the US would require the support of the president, and I don’t see any evidence that Joe Biden really feels that the North Korea issue deserves political capital,” Panda said.

He also said what many experts believe — and what even US and South Korean lawmakers tacitly agree on: “We’re going to have nuclear weapons in North Korea probably for decades to come.”


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