Paul Pillar

Getting to Yes With North Korea

The historical record is not encouraging regarding any possibility of states that already have their own nuclear weapons ever giving them up.  A possible precedent involved the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union that had nuclear weapons on their territory at the time of the union’s dissolution (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine).  But that was a special case involving the break-up of the USSR, and the three republics in question did not have operational control of the weapons.  Moreover, the experience of Ukraine, where Russia does not appear to have complied with the security guarantees that were part of the agreement under which Ukraine surrendered the weapons, is hardly an encouraging precedent for other nuclear weapon-possessing states, including North Korea.  Another possible precedent was South Africa’s dismantling of a small inventory of nuclear devices in 1989, but that was in anticipation of a peaceful change of regime of a sort that the Kim regime in North Korea would never countenance or contemplate.

Many observers have concluded, with good reason, that North Korean nuclear weapons are a fait accompli and that U.S. policy must be based on deterring their use rather than seeking in vain their complete elimination.  That leaves open the question of what all those sanctions should be used to try to achieve.  There are several conceivable answers to that question, involving such things as limits on testing or the range of delivery vehicles.

But the final answer to that question is uncertain, and the Trump administration has done little or nothing to bring us closer to such an answer.  What is certain is that any worthy policy or strategy needs to begin with a clear concept of what we are trying to achieve, with adequate attention given to what is realistic in terms of North Korean motivations and the cooperation of other states.

Also certain is that no matter how much pressure is applied, the pressure will accomplish nothing if neither we nor the North Koreans know what it is supposed to accomplish.  Or as Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”