March 26, 2015

Is North Korea a Nuclear State?

If the global norm against nuclear proliferation is to retain meaning, North Korea must remain isolated from the international community in certain respects.  But that doesn’t mean the United States or South Korea should be allowed to conduct naïve policy and planning toward North Korea.  Recognizing the threat we are dealing with on the Korean Peninsula—a nuclear-armed North Korea—is a distinct proposition from allowing North Korea to rejoin the international community.

In recent congressional testimony and in other forums, I variously described North Korea as a “virtual” and “de facto” nuclear state, as part of a larger argument about military planning.  Subsequently the chairman of South Korea’s Saenuri Party—whose members control the National Assembly and the Presidency—suggested it was time for South Korea to “recognize” (“in-jeong”) North Korea as a nuclear state.  This has set off a firestorm.  Unfortunately, public commentary and government rhetoric has confused the difference between the multiple meanings—and implications—of “recognition.”

So why describe North Korea as a “virtual nuclear state” at all?  Doesn’t that risk making North Korea’s nuclear weapons a kind of “new normal” or signal acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear program?  On the contrary.  The standard phrasing about North Korea’s nuclear program—that the United States will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state—removes all sense of urgency from public discourse about North Korea policy.  The result is that North Korea is left to build and expand its nuclear and missile programs, moving ever closer to an assured retaliation capability.  The long-term trajectory of North Korea’s nuclear program demands a sense of urgency because there’s no obvious plan in place to prevent it from achieving its aims.  Refusing to acknowledge that North Korea is moving toward capabilities commensurate with a de jure nuclear state downplays the seriousness of the threat.

Read the dull op-ed at The Diplomat.

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