Why Does The U.S. Continue To Pursue An Impossible Goal With North Korea?
Why does the U.S. continue to pursue the seemingly impossible goal of denuclearization with regard to North Korea? In part, it's because we're still locked into thirty-year-old rhetoric.
In response to a Wall Street Journal column regarding diplomacy toward North Korea by Walter Russell Mead in which Mead puts forward the assertion that the goal of American talks with North Korea should be denuclearization, Daniel Larison asks why American policy members insist on putting forward the seemingly impossible for now goal of getting the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons:
Besides the embarrassment of failure, why is there such an aversion to accepting that denuclearization won’t happen? It is not because the U.S. has never had to cope with a hostile, nuclear-armed state before. The U.S. has been facing far larger threats from nuclear-armed, hostile dictatorships for decades, and it has managed those threats successfully all this time. I suspect that many people insist on denuclearization out of habit, others echo this line simply because it is the consensus view, and all of them prefer not to challenge that consensus for fear of being seen as “soft” on North Korea. My guess is that the fear of not appearing “tough” has a lot to do with this clinging to an impossible goal. For many policymakers and pundits, it is politically safer and easier to endorse a policy goal that can’t be achieved because it is considered “tough” even if it creates a more dangerous situation for the affected countries. Our foreign policy debates create and reinforce these perverse incentives, and our diplomacy needlessly suffers as a result.
Larison comes up with one good explanation here, but I think there’s more to than that, and much of it has to do with the history of how Presidents of both parties have approached North Korea for at least the past thirty years since the DPRK started pursuing a nuclear weapons program. On a bipartisan basis, Presidents and foreign policy experts in both parties have basically clung to the proposition that the leadership of North Korea in general, and the Kim family is, for lack of a better way of putting it, insane and suicidal. Under this theory, the main reason that North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and the reason that they must be stopped, is because they intend to use it to strike against South Korea, Japan, or the United States. This argument has been applied most especially to the current leader of North Korea but it was also applied to his father and grandfather when they were in office as well, even when the available evidence seemed to clearly indicate otherwise.
Under this theory, we must stop North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons because once they have them, they will inevitably use them, perhaps even in a first strike scenario. Such a strike, of course, would indeed be suicidal because it would inevitably be followed by retaliatory strikes that would essentially destroy North Korea as a nation and bring about the end of the Kim regime once and for all. As I noted yesterday, this assumption flies in the face of twenty years or more of evidence regarding what the leaders of North Korea might be thinking. Instead of pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology so they can engage in a one-off nuclear strike that would put a countdown clock of hours on their own lives and the life of the nation they lead, it seems clear that the leaders of North Korea are motivated primarily by a concern for survival and that they are ultimately looking for some kind of guarantee of territorial integrity for the DPRK. In no small part, they likely are pursuing this strategy in no small part thanks to the policies the United States has pursued over the past eighteen years with regard to nations such as Libya, Iraq, and Iran. It has also likely been informed in part by the reaction of the world community to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations such as Israel, India, and Pakistan notwithstanding existing international treaties regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The lesson, of course, is that nations with nuclear weapons or the capability of developing them are treated far differently than nations that have cooperated with demands that they give up their weapons of mass destruction programs. Based on those lessons, leader who fear the possibility of intervention that could threaten their rule would rationally conclude that pursuing nuclear weapons is the best way to ensure their survival. From that perspective, the actions the North Koreans are entirely rational and the idea that they would give all that up by acting in a way that would ensure their destruction is entirely inconsistent with the available evidence.
To answer Larison’s question, though, in addition to this suggested explanation, I think there’s more at play as well. For thirty years now, we’ve pursued the seemingly impossible goal of denuclearization based on what is essentially a faulty assumption. At this point, both sides of the aisle in the United States have so are so heavily in the idea that the North Korean regime is insane and suicidal that backing away from that idea would require them to admit that the entire premise of American policy toward North Korea has been wrong. In other words, we’re talking about a combination of intertia, stubbornness, and the fear of the political consequences of admitting that previous suppositions about the DPRK have been mistaken. This would seem to be especially true of the current Administration, which is headed by a man which spent a good part of his time as a candidate and his first year as President pushing the idea that the man he calls “Little Rocket Man” is out of his mind and that only Donald Trump can stop him. One does hope that, at least on some level, the President is being advised by people behind the scenes who recognize the reality of the motivations that actually seem to be driving the DPRK’s policies, but it’s unclear whether he’s actually listening to them.