Demanding Denuclearization Of North Korea Is A Non-Starter

Vice-President Pence said at the conclusion of his trip to South Korea that included being present for the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics that the United States is willing to sit down to talks with North Korea, but the criteria he puts forward for such talks seem guaranteed to ensure that such talks either won’t take place or that they will be destined to fail:

Despite the mutual chilliness between U.S. and North Korean officials in South Korea last week, behind the scenes real progress was made toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang. This window of opportunity was born out of a new understanding reached between the White House and the president of South Korea.

Vice President Pence, in an interview aboard Air Force Two on the way home from the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, told me that in his two substantive conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his trip, the United States and South Korea agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea — first by the South Koreans and potentially with the United States soon thereafter.

The frame for the still-nascent diplomatic path forward is this: The United States and its allies will not stop imposing steep and escalating costs on the Kim Jong Un regime until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization. But the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing.

Pence called it “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” That’s an important change from the previous U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

Pence and Moon worked this out during their bilateral meeting Thursday at the Blue House and their joint viewing of speedskating heats in PyeongChang on Saturday evening. Pence conferred with President Trump every day he was in Asia. Before these meetings, the Trump and Moon administrations were not aligned on whether Seoul’s new engagement with Pyongyang should continue after the Olympics end.

Moon assured Pence he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic benefits for just talking — only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. Based on that assurance, Pence felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.

“I think it is different from the last 20 years,” Pence said. I asked him what exact steps Pyongyang would have to take to get real sanctions relief. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why you have to have talks.”

The initial move the United States wants is for North Korea to put denuclearization on the table and take steps toward it, though that is not a condition for preliminary talks. That may be a bridge too far for the Kim regime, which is adamant that the international community accept its nuclear status. Pyongyang is also sure to want concessions from Washington, such as a delay in U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a non-starter for the alliance.

During a stop in Tokyo, Pence also mentioned another factor that could pose problems for any future negotiations. Specifically, the Vice-President announced a new round of sanctions that he said would be the “toughest ever.” These sanctions would be aimed at further putting pressure on the DPRK to abandon its current path both in terms of the belligerent tone it has taken over much of the past year and the nuclear and ballistic missile tests that it engaged in during that time. The problem, of course, is that this could potentially complicate any diplomatic efforts that the United States and South Korea are undertaking in an effort to get the North Koreans to the table. After all, if we’re further tightening the economic noose around Kim’s regime at the same time that we’re also saying that we want to engage in diplomatic talks, it’s as likely that Kim will react by pulling back from the opening that we saw develop at the start of the year, at least with respect to South Korea, as it is that he will feel compelled to agree to talks of any kind. This would be especially true if, as Pence seems to be suggesting that any agreement to reduce sanctions would have to include the premise that denuclearization is a realistic short-term goal or even one that can be achieved at all.

As for the denuclearization idea, Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department and author of several books on American foreign policy points why it’s basically a non-starter for the foreseeable future:

The essence of North Korea is written into its national philosophy of juche, which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They’ve endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed that Kim Jong-un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do,” the official said. “He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on before negotiations can move forward. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chances were reduced in March 2003 when Saddam Hussein, who had lost his weapons of mass destruction, found his country invaded by the United States. And the possibility evaporated completely when, after Moammar Gaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, he was driven out of power by American bombs in 2011.

One Korea University professor has argued that Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Gaddafi’s fall. In North Korea’s view, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide would negotiate away his nukes after that.

The Libya example, of course, is only one of the lessons that the North Koreans have learned over the past eighteen years or so. They have also seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, another autocratic leader who gave up his weapons of mass destruction program only to see his country invaded, him being forced into hiding and eventual capture, after which he faced a trial and ultimately executed. By contrast, the Iranians have shown them that going forward with nuclear weapons research program yields far different results, namely an international agreement that provides significant sanctions relief and, at least to some extent, has led to the Islamic Republic being accepted back into the world community from which North Korea has largely been excluded for the better part of at least the last twenty-five years. Other lessons can be found in examples such as Pakistan and India, both of which pursued nuclear weapons development notwithstanding international pressure and now possess what is arguably a sufficient nuclear deterrent for each nation to adequately assure its own survival. From all of these examples, one can see the leaders of the DPRK, who I have long argued are far more rational actors than they have been given credit for, or which would be suggested by some of their more fiery rhetoric.

To put it simply, as Van Buran states the primary concern for Kim and those around him is survival of their regime. Given this, the fact that they have pursued both a nuclear weapons program and a program aimed at delivery of missiles capable of reaching as far as the Continental United States makes perfect sense. While the impression that Trump, Pence, and many commentators on the cable news networks seem to get out of this is that North Korea might launch a nuclear missile at the United States as soon as its able to. Such a move would, of course, ultimately be suicidal since it would inevitably result in a retaliatory strike from the United States that would mean the end of the Kim regime in a matter of milliseconds. The same is true regarding a land war on the Korean Peninsula. While it’s true that the DPRK could impose significant casualties and losses on South Korea with its conventional forces alone, the ultimate result of a land war would be the destruction of the North Korean regime since its unlikely that China would come to the aid of the Kim regime as it did during the Korean War unless the United States and South Korea would make the same mistake MacArthur did when he pushed American forces all the way to the Yalu River border with China. The Kim regime has survived for more than sixty years now, and it seems clear that Kim Jong Un is as concerned with his own survival in power as his father and grandfather were. To believe that he’d engage in unilateral, unprovoked action that would ultimately lead to his downfall simply doesn’t comport with reality and with sixty years of history.

If the United States is as interested in talking to North Korea as Pence seems to indicate, then it’s going to need to recognize this reality. This means in no small part realizing that emphasizing denuclearization as the ultimate goal of any diplomatic talks simply isn’t a viable option is at this point, and that demanding it is going to be a non-starter with the North Koreans. As Daniel Larson puts it, “[t]he Trump administration may be paying lip service to the idea of talking to North Korea, but until they stop chasing after the mirage of denuclearization there won’t be meaningful diplomatic progress between Washington and Pyongyang.”

FILED UNDER: Doug Mataconis, Mike Pence, National Security, North Korea, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    You certainly can’t demand denuclearization when you are concurrently expanding and upgrading your own nuclear arsenal.
    Just more delusions on the part of Trumplicans, who expect the world to bend to their will, like the Staten Island drywall contractors whose work Don-The-Con would never pay for.

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  2. Matt Bernius says:

    By contrast, the Iranians have shown them that going forward with nuclear weapons research program yields far different results, namely an international agreement that provides significant sanctions relief and, at least to some extent, has led to the Islamic Republic being accepted back into the world community from which North Korea has largely been excluded for the better part of at least the last twenty-five years.

    The other thing that they have recently learned from Iran is they cannot trust the US to uphold agreements over the long term. The reality is that the Trump administration’s decision to abandon that multilateral treaty is a stark reminder that our foreign policy tends to shift (if not completely reverse itself) every four to eight years.

    Of course, NK already experienced this when the GW’s administration decided to revoke the Agreed Framework that was negotiated by the Clinton campaign.

    Beyond that, bravo Doug for reminding that there are no such things as “Suicidal States” and that for all the talk of him being a “madman” the reality is that Kim is a rational actor (albeit a despicable and brutal one).

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The same is true regarding a land war on the Korean Peninsula. While it’s true that the DPRK could impose significant casualties and losses on South Korea with its conventional forces alone, the ultimate result of a land war would be the destruction of the North Korean regime since its unlikely that China would come to the aid of the Kim regime as it did during the Korean War unless the United States and South Korea would make the same mistake MacArthur did when he pushed American forces all the way to the Yalu River border with China.

    Yochi Dreazon reasons that it would get real complicated real fast, that China would probably invade NK immediately, not only to secure the nukes (certainly a reason) but also to insure a place at the table when what comes after NK is discussed

    Here’s what war with North Korea would look like

    I’m not saying he is correct but it is a compelling scenario that if nothing else emphasizes the complexities involved and how easily things could go sideways for everybody concerned.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    Per VOX other good reasons for not focusing on nukes are:

    The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates that Kim could hammer the South Korean capital with an astonishing 10,000 rockets per minute — and that such a barrage could kill more than 300,000 South Koreans in the opening days of the conflict. That’s all without using a single nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon.

    Kim is estimated to have between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of deadly nerve agents like sarin, which can cause paralysis and, ultimately, death.)

    If NK is following the model of Iran, maybe we should too and offer

    an international agreement that provides significant sanctions relief and, at least to some extent, has led to the Islamic Republic being accepted back into the world community from which North Korea has largely been excluded for the better part of at least the last twenty-five years. – Doug, above

    Distasteful as it may be, we may have to offer the Kim family and their cronies a soft landing.

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  5. Matt Bernius says:

    Larison’s most recent missive on NK is particularly chilling if he’s right:

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/mcmasters-messianic-fervor-on-north-korea/

    Here’s the punchline:

    If McMaster and other officials in the White House take for granted that North Korea is undeterrable and a major war is inevitable, they might actually believe that it is better to start the war sooner. This is fanatical thinking that is misinformed by a deeply flawed understanding of the North Korean regime, but we need to take seriously that this is how top officials in the Trump administration are thinking about this issue.

    Again, the fact that Cha was taken out of the running for SK ambassador because he opposed a “bloody nose” strike should cause us a lot of concern.

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  6. MBunge says:

    Let me get this straight. The people who sat around with their thumbs up their butts for a quarter-century and allowed North Korea to get nuclear weapons are still the people to whom we are supposed to listen? As Chandler Bing might say, could there BE a better example of elite failure?

    It would at least be nice to know what Peter Van Buren, since he’s being offered up as an authority, has as an actual track record for being right about things. I mean, if he has a 24 year career in the State Department and several books to his credit, surely there must be examples of Peter Van Buren’s opinion and analysis out there that shows when he was right, when he was wrong, and allows us to try and figure out why.

    Oh, and just because it is clear from recent media stories that a lot of people don’t understand this, the government of North Korea is one of the most evil and brutal in human history. The ultimate goal of any policy on North Korea should be regime change. How best to achieve that is, of course, up for debate but no one should be content with the continued existence of such a monstrous tyranny. Not even if it means standing on the same side, however briefly, with Donald Trump.

    Mike

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  7. @MBunge:

    The ultimate goal of any policy on North Korea should be regime change.

    You have just guaranteed that the Kim regime will never give up its nuclear weapons.

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  8. @Matt Bernius:

    The other thing that they have recently learned from Iran is they cannot trust the US to uphold agreements over the long term. The reality is that the Trump administration’s decision to abandon that multilateral treaty is a stark reminder that our foreign policy tends to shift (if not completely reverse itself) every four to eight years.

    Agreed 100%

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  9. rachel says:

    If the United States is as interested in talking to North Korea as Pence seems to indicate…

    “If” and “seems” are doing a lot of work there.

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  10. Kathy says:

    Changes in foreign policy along changes of government are a problem only when the parties’ objective is to undo whatever the previous government did. So that’s another highly negative consequence of the extreme partisan divide.

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  11. Kathy says:

    And as to Trump’s approach to North Korea, I’ll cite one of Niven’s Laws:

    “Never throw shit at an armed man.”

    My own extension to the Law: Even if you’re armed yourself.

    The corollary does not bode well for forging alliances or working relationships in the region:

    “Never stand next to someone who’s throwing shit at an armed man.”

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  12. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    If the United States is as interested in talking to North Korea as Pence seems to indicate

    It’s really too late; NK has already neutered the US in their warming relations with SK. Trump got played like a fiddle, and now appears to be the irrational actor in all this.

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  13. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Our goal is to destroy you, your family and your regime. Now throw down your weapons and negotiate the terms of your inevitable destruction.

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  14. michael reynolds says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    Agree. Kim outplayed Trump, now Trump has Pence issue a mealy-mouthed offer to negotiate. Brilliant. Wait until your position has been weakened then offer to do precisely what you refused to do before you showed yourself to be weak and incompetent. Art of the Deal!

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  15. Matt Bernius says:

    @MBunge:
    It’s striking to me that you wrote the following:

    The ultimate goal of any policy on North Korea should be regime change.

    Just two paragraphs after writing:

    As Chandler Bing might say, could there BE a better example of elite failure?

    Do you think that the many examples of US sponsored regime change in the last few decades (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… heck all the way back to Iran) have been successes?

    Elites on both sides have constantly been advocating for us to pursue policies of regime change… when was the last time that ever went well for anyone involved?

    You also seem to conveniently always ignore the fact that it was a rejection of direct diplomacy with NK (the abandoning of the Agreed Framework) and the listing of them in the Axis of Evil that accelerated their nuclear program. And, btw, “the elites” (like Bolton) who advised GW on both moves all seem to be finding their way into the Trump Administration.

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  16. Matt Bernius says:

    @MBunge:

    The government of North Korea is one of the most evil and brutal in human history.

    BTW, hyperbole much?

    I think, as I think, Steven Taylor and others can attest to, if we, look at states that the US has helped prop up and support (especially during the war on Communism), I think you’ll find a number of governments that sad give the Kim’s a run for their money.

    This isn’t to say that we should normalize North Korea. But a state simply “being evil” isn’t a reason to go to war. We have co-existed with evil and brutal states from the beginning of our history. Hell, we typically have done a LOT of business with them.

    Honestly, I think one of the worst long term effects of WW2 is the notion of the necessity to fight the great evil (i.e. Hitler). Once that became part of our national mythology, it’s hard to not keep looking for the next Hitler to fight. That’s in part what led us into Iraq (Saddam was among the most “evil and brutal in human history” after all). And that worked out great for us, right?

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  17. Mister Bluster says:

    @MBunge:..Not even if it means standing on the same side, however briefly, with Donald Trump.

    Sexual Pervert and Comrade of Wife Beaters REPUBLICAN President Donald Trump can’t find his own limo.
    You stand next to him if you want to.
    Just don’t squeal too loud when he grabs your “hand”.

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  18. @michael reynolds:

    Our goal is to destroy you, your family and your regime. Now throw down your weapons and negotiate the terms of your inevitable destruction.

    What could possibly go wrong?

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  19. rachel says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Kim outplayed Trump, now Trump has Pence issue a mealy-mouthed offer to negotiate.

    After the way Pence behaved to Kim’s sister at the Olympics, I can’t imagine Kim Jong Un’s reaction to that. Was it anger? Laughter? Boggling at how maladroit the Trump people are? Rubbing his hands with glee at how he can play that for propaganda? All at once? Or did he just shrug, knowing that everything that was done and said was merely empty posturing? There are so many possibilities.

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  20. Just 'nutha ign'int cracker says:

    @Matt Bernius: So the problem is not that NK lacks rational leadership but rather that DC does. THAT’S certainly good news, isn’t it?

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  21. Just 'nutha ign'int cracker says:

    @MBunge: And almost as if on cue, Bunge enters the fray to confirm the theory. Lord love a duck!

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  22. Kathy says:

    What can be done?

    Denuclearization is not an option. Ok. a war in the Korean peninsula would be the most awful blunder since WWI.

    What’s left is containment. But what kind of containment? The USSR was kept contained during the Cuban Missile Crisis, yes, but the brinkmanship had all kinds of consequences.

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