Why does North Korea seem so quiet? Russia has sent troops into Kazakhstan and threatens Ukraine. China menaces Taiwan and the South China Sea. Iran has Joe Biden’s negotiators doing contortions to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal, and is threatening American officials. The Taliban has induced America’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, freeing ISIS-K and al Qaeda to plot terrorist attacks worldwide. President Joe Biden’s credibility is in shreds.
Is North Korea missing an opportunity? Or is Washington misreading the Pyongyang’s apparent passivity?
We should never judge the surface appearance of passivity in North Korea to mean its nuclear and ballistic-missile threats are sleeping. Agitprop experts have played cat-and-mouse for decades with Korea watchers, who try to discern the significance and timing of nuclear and missile tests, military maneuvers, parade displays, leadership speeches and more. Such scrutiny is warranted because authoritarian societies manipulate public symbols for domestic and international effect, oftentimes better than representative governments.
However, missile and nuclear-weapons programs have their own logics and timetables. Some tests are indeed scheduled as propaganda, but others occur simply because of programmatic imperatives. Long periods without detectable testing do not inevitably mean Pyongyang’s weapons’ programs are on hold, as President Donald Trump used to boast. North Korea can make considerable progress in hidden or underground facilities, and schedule detectable testing only when necessary. Trump never appreciated Donald Rumsfeld’s maxim that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Quite the contrary. Pyongyang works clandestinely (or in Iranian facilities) until more observable operations are required to resolve bottleneck issues, followed by more apparent quietude. For example, while there have been no long-range ICBM tests since 2017, other, shorter-range launches have tested technology readily transferrable to ICBMs, but without the attendant publicity. Recent missile shots, for example, have no apparent symbolism. Sometimes a test is just a test.
North Korea’s remaining hurdles in developing deliverable nuclear weapons (now potentially via hypersonic cruise missiles) include perfecting the technology necessary for accurate targeting, and ensuring that nuclear payloads remain viable after atmospheric re-entry or punishing flight trajectories. This really is rocket science. Needless to say, moreover, testing highly sophisticated weapons systems is not cheap. In North Korea, more than just one’s scientific career depends on getting development and testing schedules (and results) right.
Today, Pyongyang is waiting for South Korea’s March 9 presidential election. Incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s declining approval ratings have made him a lame duck for months, and Kim Jung-un has had no incentive to aid Moon’s increasingly frenetic legacy-building efforts. Although Kim prefers victory by whomever supports the most abject policy toward his regime, he may grasp the uncertainty and risk inherent in trying to help one candidate over another: better not to gamble and unwittingly boost a harder-line nominee. Kim’s diplomatic profile is so low the North has announced its team will not attend the Winter Olympics in China, its closest ally. What Kim decides to do after March 9, particularly whether he makes the first post-election move, is impossible to predict now.
America’s problem, however, is not only what Pyongyang is up to. We are also at risk from Biden’s reversion to Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” a euphemism for doing nothing on North Korea, hoping it does nothing dangerous in return. Unfortunately, Biden’s inaction and inattention simply means the North has lulled three successive Presidents into ignoring the unpleasant truth that it is coming ever closer to having deliverable nuclear weapons.
Patience is not the answer. Washington’s first priority must be ramping up intelligence collection against Pyongyang’s hypersonic program. How advanced is it, and do we face a contemporary equivalent of the A.Q. Khan nuclear-proliferation network? What assistance did the North receive from Russia or China? Moscow and Beijing have long denied ongoing aid to North Korea’s (or Iran’s) nuclear and missile efforts, but hypersonic cruise-missile capabilities don’t appear by magic. America’s major strategic adversaries gain significant advantages by transferring advanced technology to rogue states. thereby threatening the U.S. and its allies. Finally, the continuing risks of Pyongyang-Tehran cooperation on both nuclear and delivery systems must receive higher priority, along with any evidence of North Korea itself proliferating nuclear and missile capabilities to other rogue states or terrorist groups.
With time growing very short, America must increase pressure on China. For decades, China claimed it feared a nuclear North Korea would threaten peace and security in northeast Asia. Translated from diplo-speak, that means China worries that Japan, perceiving a less-credible U.S. nuclear umbrella, would obtain its own nuclear weapons. If Beijing’s line is anything but propaganda, it must now apply its enormous leverage, especially economic, to compel North Korea to discontinue its nuclear efforts. If Xi Jinping balks, that should wake up even the Biden Administration to Beijing’s duplicity, and the far-larger ramifications for the U.S. and its allies from China’s growing global threat.
We are long past the point of believing North Korea will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear program. It has routinely pledged to do so before, and then violated its commitments. There is, and never has been, a shred of evidence the Kim family dictatorship is prepared to make an explicit strategic decision to renounce nuclear weapons. This reality should compel those who have said a North Korean nuclear capability is “unacceptable” (meaning essentially all high-ranking American politicians) to say what they really mean. If they truly believe nuclear weapons for Pyongyang are “unacceptable,” then they should not accept it. They should be prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure it does not happen. Either China must do what it alone can do, and force North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations, or we must consider regime change, subversion, clandestine operations or outright military action. No one can argue today these options are premature or would “impede diplomatic efforts,” which have in any case been unsuccessful for thirty years.
Unfortunately, and despite their public anti-nuclear rhetoric about North Korea, many U.S. politicians, privately, are almost certainly ready to give up trying to stop Pyongyang. They would prefer to “manage” a nuclear Pyongyang, and hope for the best. We are creeping toward that result daily. Perhaps those palpably unwilling to confront the implications of the North’s current pathway should just admit they are prepared to accept a nuclear North Korea. Then, at least we could have an open debate on the full ramifications of a nuclear Pyongyang, including the threat to innocent civilians in Japan, the United States and others, and the massive risks and dangers of onward proliferation to terrorists or rogue states by the Kim regime.
Decades of failed diplomacy have brought us to this point. It would be a grave mistake to continue under the illusion that somehow we will see better results, and an even graver mistake simply to allow North Korea to achieve its nuclear objectives. But if a democratic debate produces no support for more robust alternatives to prevent Pyongyang’s triumph, then those in America who brought us to this point should at least be held accountable for the consequences of their grievously erroneous policies.
Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.