There can be no doubt that North Korea possesses deliverable nuclear weapons. Six nuclear weapon test explosions and the launching of numerous types of missiles to carry them have made this quite clear. It is equally clear that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has no intention to negotiate surrendering his nuclear arsenal. In September, observing the passage of a new law outlining a policy on the use of nuclear weapons, Kim stated North Korea’s status as a nuclear possessor is “irreversible,” even if Washington maintains sanctions for “a thousand years.”
Despite this reality, and amid expectations of a seventh North Korean nuclear test, a growing debate in Washington and Seoul centers on whether it is time to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. This has the appearance of semantics—because the weapons exist and we cannot remove them without triggering a nuclear war—but the stakes are much more significant. The debate centers around whether it would be worthwhile to decrease the chances of nuclear war and escalation in the near term at the risk of the United States being perceived by allies as weak, stoking fears of abandonment that increase proliferation risks in Northeast Asia, and potentially causing potential long-term damage to the global nonproliferation regime.
On one side of the debate are those who acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear possession but nonetheless reject any adjustments in policy. Former U.S. envoy to North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, for example, argues that “policy toward North Korea should not change, and indeed, it would be a mistake to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.” Another former U.S. diplomat, Evans Revere, similarly contends that “giving up that goal [of denuclearization] would play into the hands of a North Korea which seeks ‘acceptance’ of its nuclear status.” He advises policymakers “to focus on ways to make the cost to North Korea of its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons truly unbearable.” An unnamed senior Biden administration official also weighed in, stating that North Korea “should not, and must not, be a nuclear nation,” since “the consequences of changing policy, I think would be profoundly negative.”
Advocates for this position—refusing to accept North Korea as a nuclear possessor—tend to make two sweeping claims about the potential consequences.
First, accepting North Korea as a nuclear state increases the likelihood that South Koreans decide they need their own nuclear weapons for protection. Although South Korea falls under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, South Koreans are anxious that, because North Korea is able to target all of the United States with nuclear weapons, Washington would not be willing to “trade San Francisco for Seoul,” as the alliance cliché goes. Japan might similarly decide to follow suit.
Second, with Russia’s nuclear-backed invasion of Ukraine highlighting the potential coercive benefits of nuclear weapons, this would be a terrible time to encourage would-be proliferators to believe they could get away with acquiring them. Observing North Korea, Iran (or others) might assess that, after absorbing some years of economic sanctions and likely counterproliferation efforts, eventually the United States and others will relent.
The other half of the debate is taken up by analysts who argue that the United States needs to accept North Korea’s nuclear status in order to avoid a nuclear catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula. Jeffrey Lewis, for instance, argues that acceptance is necessary because it would remove “a major obstacle that prevents North Korea and the United States from meeting to work out their differences.” Although the United States has offered to talk to North Korea “without preconditions,” U.S. officials have made clear that Washington is only willing to talk about denuclearization. For the North Koreans, denuclearization amounts to a revisionist, compellent goal that seeks to change what Pyongyang regards as a settled status quo.
The most important quality of any move toward acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea would be openly acknowledging the nuclear deterrence relationship that exists between Pyongyang and Washington and subsequently pursuing risk reduction negotiations that begin from the premise that both sides hold a shared interest in averting nuclear war. Continuing to insist on denuclearization means there will be no diplomacy that could enable an off-ramp from the spiraling security crisis taking place and that could promote stability in the deterrence relationship that already exists as a matter of fact.
The North Korea problem has long been regarded as a land of “lousy options,” and advocates of a new approach contend that optimizing the U.S. policy approach to lower the risk of nuclear war would be worthwhile, whatever the plausible downsides for proliferation in the region. This likely corresponds to the implicit preferences of most policymakers in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, who would assess that a nuclear war in Northeast Asia would be worse for their national and combined interests than possible future consequences to the global nonproliferation regime and the potential that a few other states decide to seek nuclear weapons.
This debate loses sight of the fact that the United States and South Korea have already accepted North Korea’s nuclear weapons in important ways. Both states posture their military capabilities to deter North Korean nuclear use, through missile defense, plans for counterforce preemptive strikes, and threats of massive punishment. Meaningfully, the 2022 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, like the 2018 version, “recognizes the threat posed by [North Korea’s] nuclear, chemical, missile and conventional capabilities.” But it draws the line on acceptance at the issue of use, rather than possession: “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime.” Meanwhile, parts of the U.S. military and intelligence community are deliberating in unprecedented ways about the deterrence consequences of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, despite the continued policy focus on denuclearization.
Seoul and Washington acknowledge their desire to avert nuclear war on and around the Korean Peninsula, but their insistence on denuclearization precludes pursuing steps that might contribute to reducing the risks of nuclear use. Unlike denuclearization, which makes for an unbridgeable gap with North Korea in the near term, Pyongyang shares an interest in avoiding nuclear war with Washington and Seoul. This was the fundamental insight that moved the United States and the Soviet Union toward reducing nuclear risks between them in the 1960s, and it is time to acknowledge that these conditions have manifested on the Korean Peninsula today.
Another confusing matter in this debate is that some analysts see risk reduction and denuclearization policies as mutually exclusive. Yet many policy objectives that have traditionally been seen under the aegis of a denuclearization approach—such as halting weapons-usable fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex or freezing missile launches—are also practical risk reduction steps. Slowing the accrual of weapons-usable fissile material in North Korea and the pace of qualitative missile modernization would meaningfully improve U.S. and allied security in the short term, while also mitigating risks of accidents or other crisis catalysts. As the allies pursued such objectives, nothing would preclude them from arguing that denuclearization remains the long-term, aspirational objective. Incrementally, risk reduction would lower the risk of nuclear war in the near term and improve the odds of denuclearization over the longer term.
Finally, the practicalities of acceptance matter. A nuclear-armed North Korea will never be officially recognized or afforded the status of a “nuclear weapons state” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the only meaningful international, legal benchmark for “legitimate” nuclear weapons possession. Unlike India, a nuclear-armed North Korea will never be given access to civil nuclear technologies on the world market. North Korea will remain the first country to have signed, ratified, and then withdrawn from the NPT. As the recently concluded NPT Review Conference demonstrated, where North Korea once might have been the most serious challenge to the global nonproliferation regime, its possession of nuclear weapons today is just one of several stresses on that regime.
Allowing these realities to inhibit the pursuit of policies that could meaningfully lower the risks and consequences of a nuclear war in Northeast Asia would be short-sighted. The probability of North Korean nuclear use is growing uncomfortably high given the likely trajectory of future crises on the Korean Peninsula. Reducing the risk of such use would not be an altruistic giveaway to Pyongyang in acknowledgment that its now three-plus-decades of nuclear weapons pursuit succeeded, but instead, it would be the most important way in which the United States and its northeast allies can improve their own security.