Amid calls for increasing dialogue with Pyongyang from both Washington and Seoul, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues ratcheting up the pressure with missile tests. Diplomatic opportunities to deescalate the situation on the peninsula should be pursued. Yet regardless of whether talks produce a breakthrough or not, the situation relative to U.S. national security will remain the same: America is safe and North Korea is deterred.
On Sunday, U.S. envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, called on Pyongyang to stop “provocations and other destabilizing activities,” and “engage in dialogue.” On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae In said he would redouble his efforts to establish a “new order for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula…through dialogue and diplomacy.” Up to this point, the North Korean leadership has been cool to the overtures. It’s not hard to figure out why.
While U.S. envoy Kim called for dialogue on Sunday, he also reiterated one of Washington’s long-standing objectives that has obstructed any movement towards a diplomatic breakthrough. “Our goal,” the U.S. envoy declared, “remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” What remains to be explained, however, is how the Biden Administration interprets that statement.
The Obama Administration and eventually the Trump Administration defined the “full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as meaning North Korea had to first give up its nuclear weapons and program before the U.S. would grant any sanctions relief – a complete non-starter for Pyongyang.
The North Koreans are assessed to have at least 60 deliverable nuclear warheads. Kim Jong Un regards his nuclear arsenal as being the best guarantee against a U.S. military attack against his country and regime. It would be irrational, therefore, to expect the North Korean leader to willingly hand over his only strategic deterrent in exchange for mere promises from Washington. It’s not going to happen.
The good news is U.S. national security is assured regardless of what does or doesn’t happen diplomatically on the peninsula. The nuclear genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle, and we can never put it back: Kim has a credible nuclear option that effectively deters the U.S. from launching any wars of choice or so-called “preemptive” wars.
In an even stronger way, however, the United States – with its 4,571 to 60 advantage in nuclear weapons – can deter Kim Jong Un indefinitely from ever using his nuclear arsenal in a war of choice against us. Yet there are plenty of actions Washington can take to reduce even the chances for accidents or miscalculations that could inadvertently lead to military clashes between the U.S. and North Korea.
On Monday, South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk tried to breathe new life into the idea of declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. Such an action – which is distinct from a peace treaty – could have the effect of serving “as a gateway for talks on achieving complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula,” Noh explained, “and the establishment of a permanent peace.”
If the Biden Administration follows the failed playbook of virtually every other Administration since the early 1990s and holds out for a complete denuclearization by North Korea as a prerequisite for progress, Biden will come up short as all those before him did.
But if he instead places denuclearization as an eventual aspiration – as, pointedly, both Moon and Kim Jong Un have done – featuring instead a step-by-step approach in which we make a number of progressively small steps matched by Pyongyang making steps of their own, the chances of even accidental war will continue to diminish and the prospects for peace rise.
For example, the United States can offer limited (and reversible) sanctions-relief for major steps by North Korea, such as nuclear freezes, the dismantling of major nuclear production facilities, and other meaningful concessions. But it is important to acknowledge that in order to get a major concession from North Korea, we have to be mentally prepared to give them something of value as well; no party will ever negotiate away something important for nothing in return.
America’s overriding primary objective on the Korean peninsula is to avoid unnecessary war and preserve economic opportunity for our country. A maximalist policy that demands Pyongyang denuclearize before the U.S. offers anything in return offers little maneuvering room for meaningful diplomacy. The U.S. already has the military power to deter Pyongyang indefinitely. The Administration should therefore do whatever it takes, in a diplomatic step-by-step process, to lower the tensions and increase the chances for peace.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1