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Robert A. Manning -- The next troubling North Korea debate

Are there some problems that simply defy any real solutions? North Korea could be one.

The country conducted its fifth nuclear test on Friday and moved a step closer to possessing an operational miniaturized warhead that could fit on a medium-range ballistic missile.

North Korea is the only state in the world that has tested nuclear weapons in the 21st century. Friday's test came eight months after its previous underground explosion and had a much larger yield, approximately 10 kilotons. It also follows nearly two dozen ballistic missiles tests so far this year, including submarine-launched missiles that could give Pyongyang second-strike capability. In the past month alone, two North Korean missiles have fallen in waters within Japan's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

History of Failure

What to do about it? The history of the past quarter-century is littered with failed diplomatic deals that North Korea has sabotaged and walked away from. For starters, there is the reconciliation accord the two Koreas signed in 1991 -- which still provides a good basis for resolving tensions on the peninsula.

Four U.S. Presidents -- from George H.W. Bush in 1992 to Barack Obama today -- have tried and failed to denuclearize North Korea. After Bush began engaging North Korea at high levels, the Clinton administration followed, reaching the 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze and then dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program. That collapsed in 2002 when it was discovered Pyongyang had started a secret uranium enrichment program.

Then in September 2005, the George W. Bush administration, working through the China-led six-party talks (Russia, South Korea and Japan are also involved) reached an agreement to denuclearize North Korea. After a promising start with five working groups addressing every issue of interest to Pyongyang, from energy and economic aid to a peace treaty, the North decided to walk away.

Then it was Obama's turn. Despite the fact Pyongyang answered his call for an open hand to dialogue by conducting a nuclear test in 2009, three years later the U.S. reached what is known as the leap day deal, in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear missile programs in exchange for aid.

The accord fell apart only days later when Pyongyang disagreed with the U.S. interpretation of it.

So where does that leave efforts to address the nuclear problem? Not in a good place. North Korea is accelerating efforts to operationalize a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit on medium and long-range ballistic missiles.

It has the Musudan medium-range missile, which has a range of 3,000km and is developing the KN-08 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could have a range of 6,000km. Pyongyang also has about 200 operational Rodong nuclear-capable missiles with a 1,300km range -- long enough to hit U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan.

Clearly, the threat is real and growing.

The good news: North Korea is, in my estimate, probably three to five years and numerous tests away from becoming confident in the reliability of its ICBMs. Development of these missiles is difficult work.

That said, U.S. extended deterrence still works. Pyongyang is not suicidal. Indeed, it sees one key purpose of its nuclear program: insuring the survival of its regime. North Korea wants to deter any possible U.S. and/or South Korean attack. This may remain true regardless of what capabilities it attains.

Looming Questions

But a big question looms just over the horizon, triggered by a qualitatively greater threat. Once Pyongyang has an operational warhead and functional ICBM that could reach Guam, Alaska and Hawaii -- maybe even San Francisco -- does the deterrence equation change? Would Seoul and Tokyo still have confidence in U.S. deterrence? Would the U.S. have enough confidence in its deterrent to live with a de facto nuclear capable North Koreas as it does with China and Russia?

That is the next debate: If the threat rises to a new level, should denuclearization be put on the back burner, and instead, should the world be willing to abandon sanctions and accept a nuclear North Korea in exchange for halting the advance of its nuclear and missile programs?

At present, the Obama administration policy of "strategic patience" makes sense. The U.S. is willing to engage with North Korea as soon as Pyongyang lives up to its commitment to the September 2005 Joint Statement. But North Korean officials recently said that deal is "dead" and the country is now a nuclear weapons state.

Thus, denuclearization is not negotiable. So even putting aside North Korea's track record of ripping up agreements, which raises questions about whether Pyongyang is a serious interlocutor, there is no basis for dialogue.

Why? For starters, the very identity of the Kim Jong Un regime is so bound up with nuclear weapons that he changed the country's constitution to declare North Korea a nuclear state. Four decades of investment in the development of nuclear weapons as well as deep and mutual U.S.-North Korea distrust are a powerful combination precluding denuclearization.

But the steadily growing North Korean threat is the beginning of a new debate. If Pyongyang achieves new capabilities and builds an arsenal from what is now an estimated 10-15 weapons into something much larger, do the U.S., South Korea and Japan -- as well as Russia and China -- need to rethink the goal of denuclearization?

North Korean, and on occasion Chinese, officials, call for diplomatic talks toward a peace treaty, with the idea that then Pyongyang would be willing to discuss its nuclear weapons. First, there is no chance that the U.S. and its allies would sign a peace treaty with a nuclear North Korea. What Pyongyang has in mind is not denuclearization, but rather arms control talks to freeze their current nuclear and missile programs.

Appeasement a bad idea

The case against taking such a path is powerful: Legitimizing a nuclear North Korea would reward aggression and destroy the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After the fourth nuclear test, public opinion was strongly in favor of South Korea obtaining its own nuclear weapons. That popular opinion is likely to be much stronger after this fifth test. Accepting a nuclear North Korea would make it more difficult for Seoul to resist the nuclear temptation. And if South Korea were to go nuclear, how would Japan respond to this chain of proliferation?

The whole point of U.S. policy (and that of South Korea, Japan and the U.N. Security Council) is to refuse to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Along with increasing pressure on Pyongyang, part of the underlying logic of Security Council sanctions is to make clear that the world will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

Expect to hear arguments in the coming months and years that the ominous, growing North Korean threat makes freezing its nuclear and missile arsenal worth the price of legitimizing it.

A good answer is to point out that compared to the international sanctions against Iran, U.N. sanctions on North Korea remain relatively modest. In its response to Pyongyang's defiant actions, the Security Council has an opportunity to close the loopholes in the sanctions applied after the fourth test. It is time to remove North Korea's access to the international financial system, to take away Kim's credit cards.

There is time before Pyongyang acquires the capabilities that may change the current equation. Going down such a path is preferable to appeasing a nuclear North Korea.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council, Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. 

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