While the military and political environments on the Korean Peninsula have evolved, American policy towards the North has not changed since 1991
The reality is North Korea has nuclear weapons – perhaps thermonuclear bombs – and they are probably miniaturized enough to fit atop its missiles, one of which will soon be, if not already, able to reach all parts of the continental United States.
Washington missed an opportunity for a preventive strike that would have stopped the North Korean nuclear effort – or at least seriously set it back – in 1994.
The decision to not take action was based on the advice of a former US president who believed that the United States would be able to successfully negotiate with Pyongyang.
And by relying upon diplomacy to deal with Pyongyang during that time, Washington has failed to get North Korea to cease developing nuclear weapons, and now to give them up.
The state of affairs can now be summarized as the three “no’s” of North Korea:
First, as Pyongyang has stated on many occasions, there will no negotiating away its nuclear weapons or missiles.
Second, there will be no collapse or internal revolution bringing down the Kim Jong Un regime.
And third, there will be no participation by North Korea in any reunification effort headed by South Korea – with or without any of Seoul’s allies.
With its nuclear and missile programs in their crowning stages, Pyongyang has absolutely no reason to negotiate with either Seoul or Washington. The goal of nuclear deterrence is finally in its grasp. As the North has often declared, its nuclear weapons and missiles are the only guarantors of its existence and they will not be given up.
Neither has Pyongyang indicated any interest in Beijing’s “freeze for freeze” proposal in which the North would stop developing its nuclear weapons and testing missiles in exchange for ceasing war games on the peninsula by Seoul and its allies. That is an unequal trade.
The North already has the ability to hold South Korea and much of Japan hostage to its conventional weapons. With the addition of nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles, the real target has been openly identified: the United States, as Pyongyang has asserted not only in the past but recently as well.
Despite the appalling conditions endured by average North Korean citizens, there are no indications that the regime itself is anything but stable. While citizens have every reason to be dissatisfied and unhappy, the conditions for a successful uprising simply do not exist.
There is no critical mass of would-be revolutionaries, but even if a sufficient number did exist, communication among citizens is restricted and monitored. And heavy surveillance by authorities further prevents any organization or coordination of a revolution.
Above all, there is such a lack of knowledge about how the regime functions that it would be an insurmountable challenge to overthrow the Kim dictatorship from the grass-roots level.
And while some citizens may be holding in their discontent, it is because they are well aware of what punishment awaits protesters: either summary execution or sentences to prison camps, which often enough are death sentences in slow motion.
There are reasons why there will be no reunification of the two Koreas any time soon. To begin, there is no significant economic or political engagement with the North. No trust has been established for such endeavors to proceed, so engaging Pyongyang in commercial activities such as reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex is thus premature.
Another condition necessary for reunification is for at least one of the two states contemplating reunification to be in crisis. If both nations are stable – and both appear to be – there is no motivation to change the status quo. Predictions that the North will collapse or experience a destabilizing insurrection has been shown to be nothing more than wishful thinking for decades.
There needs to be some power-sharing agreement, however that doesn’t exist today and there seems to be nothing like that in the works. Moreover, for such an arrangement to work, compromises that would either be unacceptable to either side or cumbersome to deal with – “one country, two systems” for example – would be required.
Finally, for any reunification attempt to succeed, there would have to be some third-party guarantor of the process to prevent outside interference and to look out for the interests of both North and South Korea. Finding such a state acceptable to all other nations in the region looks an impossible task.
Detente only option
Military options by Washington are not possible because of the intolerable collateral costs to South Korea – and quite possibly to Japan as well.
Unfortunately, as the past 25-plus years undeniably show, diplomacy has not worked. The reality is that Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, it has the means to deliver them, and it will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.
The US established successful détente first with Moscow and later with Beijing as those two countries developed their nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
The US learned how to coexist with two nuclear adversaries in the past, and now needs to do that with Pyongyang. Washington must revert to realistic diplomacy. There is no other acceptable choice.