By now, it has become abundantly clear that, no matter how fervently Washington might wish it, the regime of Kim Jong Un in North Korea has no plans to give up its nuclear arsenal. As a practical matter, this means that the U.S. has two options. The first is to accept the North as a nuclear weapons state and work backwards to achieve its denuclearization. The second is to find new ways to increase economic pain and pressure in hopes of sparking a strategic rethink in Pyongyang.
It bears noting that being accepted as a nuclear power has long been a prominent objective for North Korea. It is also, on its face, a non-starter for the United States, which has insisted through successive administrations that denuclearization of the DPRK is a prerequisite for any meaningful lifting of sanctions. Yet if the Trump administration decided to alter those parameters, it could accept the North as a nuclear power without giving up on the larger idea of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Doing so could have a number of concrete benefits. Publicly accepting that North Korea is a nuclear power is an acceptance of reality, and one that gives Kim Jong Un the recognition he so desperately seeks – potentially making him more open to meaningful negotiation. Moreover, if such an acceptance by the United States is done in exchange for concrete North Korean confidence-building measures (like rejoining the appropriate international nuclear organizations and agreements), as well as a commitment by Kim to stop exporting sensitive weapons technologies, it could go a long way toward tamping down the tensions associated with the North’s current, rogue status.
Alternatively, the Trump administration could double down on America’s historic punitive policy, intensifying economic and political pressure on Pyongyang. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that, at least thus far, sanctions have done little to change North Korea’s behavior, and a renewed focus on sanctions alone would most likely do little more than raise the ire of the Kim regime, causing an uptick in the usual saber rattling and bombastic rhetoric.
None of that means that the U.S. lacks options for pressure, however. Instead of applying more sanctions on the North Korean state, the Trump administration could instead focus on the individuals and countries that facilitate Pyongyang’s bad habits. Engaging in commerce with North Korea should be rendered a costly enterprise. So too should providing the DPRK with services that allow it to obtain sanctioned goods and game the international market.
Some may argue that the current diplomatic path being pursued by the president represents a third option. After all, if it were to work, a phased approach that provides sanctions relief in exchange for a rollback of the broader North Korean nuclear effort would address the long-term concerns of both countries. However, that diplomatic experiment rests on a false premise: that North Korea would actually be willing to give up on the nuclear weapons it has been developing for over half a century. Denuclearization, even if it does happen, cannot happen overnight. It will take years and require a realistic roadmap to even stand a chance of success.
In the meantime, the North Korean threat is growing. While Washington and Pyongyang have been talking, North Korea’s weapons arsenal has grown in size and sophistication. It’s not just nuclear weapons; North Korean long-range missiles, which are capable of carrying a nuclear payload, are now estimated to be able to reach the east coast of the United States. North Korea also possesses as much as 5,000 tonsof chemical weapons, and an unknown amount of biological weapons, and both can be delivered via missile as well. Notably, the North has yet to make a serious offer in its talks with the U.S. to draw down these capabilities in a meaningful way.
That, in a nutshell, means the current U.S. approach, for all of the President’s enthusiasm for engagement with Kim, has failed fundamentally in its objective: to make North Korea less of a threat. That, in turn, means that it’s long past time to rethink our approach to North Korea.
Kelli Kennedy is a Junior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.