North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a fait accompli. Kim Jong Un is determined to hold on to them to guarantee his survival. Neither unilateral disarmament nor military confrontation is a viable U.S. policy approach, and maximum economic pressure will not change Kim’s calculus. The United States and its allies must learn how to live safely with a nuclear North Korea.

The United States and its allies must learn how to live safely with a nuclear North Korea.

Three practical goals should inform a new U.S. policy toward North Korea:

  1. Prevent crises that could lead to war
  2. Cap North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear and long-range missiles and prevent their export
  3. Buffer the alliances with Japan and South Korea against likely North Korean provocations

Additional objectives—for instance, preventing illicit trafficking and improving human rights—are important but ultimately secondary. Though desirable, regime change is too risky and uncertain to pursue, as recent experiences in Iraq and Libya suggest.

Accomplishing these three goals will require new negotiations just to establish rules of the road. North Korean demands are bound to be distasteful, but the costs of a negotiated agreement would be far less than those incurred through war or through increased military deployments in East Asia and the construction of a more extensive missile defense shield.

The costs of a negotiated agreement would be far less than those incurred through war.

Reaching a deal will involve helping North Korea overcome its suspicious, hard-nosed attitude. But an even greater challenge will be changing how Washington thinks about detecting and addressing the Kim regime’s possible cheating on a deal.

The standard approach to verifying nuclear agreements is to demand full confidence that all violations would be detected with absolute confidence. This approach practically means limiting the scope of the agreement to only activities that can be 100 percent monitored. For instance, past U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaties limited ballistic missiles, which are more easily inspected and monitored than the harder-to-observe nuclear warheads associated with them.

A more viable approach with North Korea would entail setting broader limitations on capabilities and activities—including testing, production, and stockpiling of missiles, warheads, and nuclear materials. Such an approach would enable a comprehensive restraint agreement instead of limiting just a few activities. It would permit U.S. monitors to maintain high confidence they could detect significant cheating, even if there would be lower confidence that every single potential violation could be detected. And it would help deter cheating, since North Korea could not know its chances of being caught.

A similarly practical approach would also have to govern the linkage of U.S. rewards to North Korea for its restraint. For Washington, that means understanding North Korea’s demands for verification that the United States is honoring its part of the deal, such as sanctions relief or changes in U.S. military posture on the Korean Peninsula. Even after United Nations sanctions are lifted, for instance, the Kim regime will need evidence that U.S. sanctions are not impeding trade and commerce or its access to international banks.

  • Toby Dalton