Dealing With Nuclear North Korea

North Korea’s newly revealed uranium-enrichment program continues to advance. No amount of sticks or carrots – negotiations, incentives, sanctions, waiting for the regime to fall – has slowed the North’s determination in building its nuclear arsenal, writes author and nuclear expert Bennett Ramberg. Dealing with a state that’s otherwise undeveloped, isolated and paranoid remains a leading source of global tension. China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US must contemplate a response should North Korea trigger a nuclear strike, planned or accidental. Recent aggression from the North would seem to preclude one solution, unconditional recognition, Ramberg notes. Diplomacy would reduce the isolation of North Korea that so far has assured power for its leaders. At the same time, the international community must demonstrate no tolerance of nuclear proliferation. Diplomatic recognition of the regime, and the ability of communication and responsibilities that go along with this, is essential for monitoring a state posing a danger that’s very real. – YaleGlobal

Dealing With Nuclear North Korea

Diplomatic recognition of Pyongyang may have to be tried
Bennett Ramberg
Monday, January 10, 2011

LOS ANGELES: “The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning. Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us.”  So reported Sigfreid S. Hecker, former director of New Mexico's Los Alamos Nation Laboratory about his November 2010 visit to what had heretofore been a secret North Korean uranium-enrichment plant. 

And there may be more. In early December 2010, Glyn Davis, Washington's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, made known the US government belief that there’s a “clear likelihood” of hidden additional sites. Later that month South Korean intelligence publicly speculated that Pyongyang may operate three or four undisclosed sites.

Suspicions that North Korea had such a facility have troubled American and other policymakers for years. That the program appeared so sophisticated indeed was stunning, posing even more urgently the question: what to do with North Korea.

The new facts place the United States in a quandary all the more so since they come in the midst of the most serious violation of the 1953 Korean War armistice, the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korean artillery. It now appears that no amount of negotiation, incentives, coaxing or waiting the regime out will eliminate the North’s nuclear enterprise. And neither will sanctions that remain porous with Beijing committed to providing Pyongyang an economic lifeline, despite a WikiLeaks revelation that China considers the Kim regime a “spoiled child.”   

The natural impulse is for the US to soldier on, repeating past strategy. At this writing, the proposals advanced by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and former secretary of the Department of Energy in the Clinton administration, during his December 2010 visit to Pyongyang – renewal of the six-party talks, which South Korea has now endorsed; the return of IAEA inspectors to the Yongbyon site; the removal of spent fuel rods to the South and restoration of a North-South military hotline – have produced a tepid response from the Obama administration. The administration contends the proposals would put the United States and its allies back on a circular track that fails to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear enterprise. 

Then there remains hope that the North will collapse due to economic distress or a bumpy transition from Kim Jong Il to his son, Kim Jong Un. But the transition wait may take years – with no certainty of regime demise – and the nuclear program will continue to mature with some forecasting another North Korean nuclear test. 

Pyongyang’s nuclear enterprise poses two strategic risks:  A premeditated North Korean strike marks one; a launch due to intelligence failure, misperception, miscalculation or command-and-control deficiencies, the other. The premeditated strike remains the most unlikely as the retaliatory attack would end the North Korean regime.

The second risk poses a more daunting challenge. How does one deal with a nuclear armed paranoid nation with few intelligence assets, fearful of preemption from miscalculating to the point it would use its arsenal? Would confidence building be preferable and, if so, what kind of confidence-building?

Confidence building with Pyongyang has earned a bad name. From Inter-Korean summits, to setting up South Korea’s industrial zone in the North, food and energy assistance, and reunion of families divided by the Korean war, – all repeatedly have failed to promote nuclear elimination or a durable relaxation of tensions.

However difficult and counterintuitive it may appear in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s recent attack on the South and the sinking of the warship Cheonan in March 2010, confidence-building may yet play a critical role – not the confidence-building attempted to date, but one that builds on the status quo rather than nuclear rollback.

Let’s call it confidence-building with a realistic face. Realism would accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and seek to manage risks rather than continue the quixotic effort to eliminate them. After a reasonable cooling-off period from recent tensions, the United States should offer the Stalinist regime unconditional recognition, much as the United States recognized Mao's nuclear-armed China, the bête noire of an earlier era. 

This would respond to North Korea’s longstanding objective for legitimization. For the US, the link could serve to reduce misunderstanding during periods of tension, filling in Pyongyang’s intelligence, miscalculation and communications void. It would give Washington a window into the hermit country. As a steppingstone, it promises much more – a mechanism to sap the isolation that keeps the Kim dynasty in power.

But would the tack do more harm than good?  Arguably, some would see it as rewarding bad behavior buttressing a regime that may be near collapse.  Pyongyang could use Washington’s malleability to demand economic benefits and press for US military concessions. The policy also could encourage other nuclear ambitious nations to draw lessons in hoodwinking the international community and getting the Bomb.

Persuasive rebuttals test each point. Recognition is not a reward but a reflection of reality: The Kim dynasty has demonstrated remarkable resilience despite national deprivation. Forecasts about regime collapse go back at least to the Clinton administration. All misdiagnosed North Korea’s durability. The presumption that diplomatic relations would help the regime stay in power butts against history.  Relations do not prevent collapse – witness the fall of the Soviet Union and its East European empire. In fact, relations at time of collapse allowed the United States to work with the dominos to prevent chaos. In China, contacts with the United States promoted regime moderation, and positive results are seen today. By contrast, isolation of Cuba and Iran – like North Korea – failed to bring down the governments as Washington had hoped. Isolation only contributed to hostility.

The argument that recognition would encourage Pyongyang to demand economic favors or modification of defense policy has merit given past behavior. But the United States has no obligation to acquiesce. And where it does, it can pursue measures that expose the society to the fruits of opening to the world while pressing for durable confidence-building.

It is possible that North Korea’s success may encourage other nuclear ambitious nations to use guile and stealth. But that does not assure more proliferation. Rather it should prompt serious international efforts to build a nonproliferation template with teeth rather than the wobbly regime in place today. 

North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal demands a new stab to combat risks.  Diplomatic recognition provides an untried path to better assure that Kim Jong Il’s insecurities do not become a problem for the rest of the globe. It’s not a magical cure. There are none.

Certainly the alternative is far less attractive: a reclusive nation further isolated, increasingly paranoid, with poor intelligence, placing nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert. The stakes dictate that we strive to avoid this outcome. Diplomatic relations would help.


Bennett Ramberg, PhD, JD, served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the US Department of State during the George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy,” University of California Press, and can be reached at
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