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Experts call for realistic policy to contain North Korea

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Amid few available options, some experts favor arms control deal while others remain skeptical

By Kang Seung-woo

With North Korea's recent shows of force, an increasing number of experts are calling for the pursuit of a more realistic, attainable objective than denuclearization to deal with the North.

In that respect, an arms control agreement is emerging as a likely option to deter North Korea's escalating nuclear threats, according to some diplomatic observers, while others disagree because doing so would recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

When U.S. President Joe Biden was elected in 2020, there were concerns that he would follow in the footsteps of the Barack Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea, given that Biden was Obama's vice president. The strategic patience policy, which meant no engagement with North Korea as long as its leadership persisted with nuclear development and ballistic missile testing, is now taking flak because it actually failed to address the reclusive state's ever-growing nuclear and missile programs.

According to South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities, North Korea is fully prepared to conduct its seventh nuclear test.

"Biden's North Korea policy reflects a learning curve from 30 years of failed diplomacy. Although the U.S. and allies repeat the ritual calls for denuclearization, they all realize Kim Jong-un will not give up his nuclear weapons," said Robert Manning, a distinguished senior fellow of the Stimson Center, adding that there is little expectation that Pyongyang will engage in talks.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King's College London, said the U.S. has failed in its handling of North Korea's nuclear program dating back to Bill Clinton's administration in the 1990s.

"When the Agreed Framework was not implemented after being signed (in 1994), I think that it's too late for the Biden administration to do anything about North Korea's nuclear program," Pacheco Pardo said.

The Agreed Framework was aimed at freezing and replacing North Korea's nuclear power plant program with light water reactor power plants which are more resistant to nuclear proliferation, along with the step-by-step normalization of relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

"So it makes sense to consider shifting policy to arms control, which in my view should have already happened in 2006 when North Korea tested a nuclear device. Back then, North Korea had no real incentive to give up its nuclear program. That is also the case today. So I think that the U.S. and the international community at large have wasted many years pursuing a goal that was not attainable," Pacheco Pardo said.

Bruce Bennett, a senior international defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, also presented a similar view, saying that the Biden administration has not denuclearized North Korea or even obtained a full or partial production freeze on nuclear weapons.

"The Biden administration has allowed the most serious North Korean ballistic missile testing program ever, which while not directly nuclear, is nuclear weapon-related, and done little to deter those tests. And they have not effectively responded against North Korea's increasingly harsh threats of nuclear weapon use and its new nuclear doctrine just announced," Bennett said.

Mentioning the U.S. government's current focus on China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bennett said its lack of focus on the North Korea issue may negatively affect the alliance between South Korea and the U.S.

"Unless they assume a proactive approach toward North Korea, giving them more time will not moderate the North Korean nuclear weapon threat and its growth, nor will it stop Kim's effective efforts at undermining U.S. extended deterrence or the U.S.-South Korea alliance," he said.

"The alliance is strong right now, but cracks and fissures are developing."

Pacheco Pardo said it made sense to consider shifting the policy to arms control, which should have already happened in 2006, when North Korea tested a nuclear device.

"Back then, North Korea had no real incentive to give up its nuclear program. That is also the case today. So I think that the U.S. and the international community at large have wasted many years pursuing a goal that was not attainable," he said.

An arms control deal means curbing North Korea's nuclear development and avoiding the use of its existing weapons, but there are lingering concerns that should the U.S. reach such a deal with the North, it would formally recognize the Stalinist state as a nuclear power ― a status the country has been seeking aggressively.

Manning said an arms control deal is highly unlikely, based on history.

"Kim's goal is to be accepted as a de facto nuclear state like Israel or Pakistan. I suspect at some point the North may be interested in an arms control deal, a cap and freeze of their nuclear and missile program ― now that they are close to completing it," Manning said, questioning if the relevant countries are ready to legitimize North Korea as a nuclear state despite all the implications for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the possibility of a chain of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia.

"While it is worth exploring, a credible deal is highly unlikely. Why? The trail of failed deals helps explain why. The 2005 Agreed Statement and the 1994 nuclear deal fell apart amid issues of transparency. The North has refused to give a full statement of what and where their nuclear weapons are. If we don't know how many there are, how can we be sure the program is frozen? Secondly, Pyongyang has refused to accept IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) full verification and monitoring ― including challenge inspections. If we can't be sure of verification, how can we know there is a cap and freeze?" he said.

To this end, Manning said he thinks there should be preconditions.

"Any arms control talks need a full declaration of their nuclear inventory and a commitment to allow the IAEA adequate verification and monitoring," he said.

"If Pyongyang agreed to that, then nuclear talks would have a chance of being credible."

Bennett also said that one of the worst mistakes the U.S. could make now would be to reward Kim's misbehavior by recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power.

However, he said there was a chance that progress can still be made with North Korea by taking an incremental approach to the North Korean nuclear threat, while dropping the strategic ambiguity approach in U.S. deterrence steps.

"The U.S. should threaten North Korea with specific penalties that will be imposed should North Korea continue its missile tests or restart its nuclear tests. These penalties must affect Kim Jong-un personally ― he is the decision maker, and really doesn't care, for example, about sanctions applied to the personnel he uses to support his nuclear weapon development," Bennett said.

"The U.S. needs to have a strategy of escalating penalties to respond appropriately, depending upon how serious any given North Korean provocation is. Moreover, those escalating penalties would threaten Kim with a more serious price to pay if he escalates after early U.S. penalties."

According to him, for example, if the Kim regime continues producing nuclear weapons, the U.S. could threaten North Korea with a plan to return some of its tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, which were removed from South Korea in 1991.

Bennett added that the weapons the U.S. could return would be the new B61-12 gravity bombs specifically designed to destroy deep underground facilities where Kim might hide in a conflict. He said that the only tactical nuclear weapons the U.S. has are B61 gravity bombs.

Bennet said the goal would be "providing Kim with specific carrot and stick packages to incrementally address the North Korean threats."


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