How to respond to North Korea’s new nuclear taunt

North Korea parade of of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on Wednesday was certainly an impressive show. Whether it was more than a show — whether the large missile canisters rolling through the capital, Pyongyang, were functional solid-fueled missiles capable of launching a nuclear attack on the US mainland — is hard to say. But even if the new ICBMs on display were not ready for use, as some experts claim they speculatedit cannot be denied that the North Korean regime has been on a disturbing trajectory lately.

Last year was by far the busiest in the isolated country on record for missile testingand in September, dictator Kim Jong Un gave his explanation for this arsenal new explicit: He views the United States’ efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula as a regime change project and, accordingly, will not give up its nuclear weapons—regardless of the severity of international pressure or his own promises to then-President Donald Trump in 2018.nor legally limit its nuclear use for defensive attacks. Kim had drawn an “irreparable line,” he said, “so there can be no guessing about our nuclear weapons.”

Even if we read this new ICBM presentation as a grumpy call for renegotiations (i.e Pyongyang says doesn’t want anything like that), the overall trend is gloomy. If North Korea does not want to consider denuclearization, and Washington—according to the policy of the Biden administration, reaffirmed like recently like last month—he doesn’t want to consider anything else, are we at a final dead end? Is this the end of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea?

It does not have to be. Although alarming, nothing here marks a major change in North Korean policy. There is a basic continuity in the goals of the Kim regime, as well as in its limitations.

Unfortunately, there is also a basic continuity in Washington’s delusion about denuclearization, which constantly undermines any chance for real progress in the negotiations. If this latest show of force from Pyongyang changes anything, it should be a shift in American policy toward recognizing that our existing deterrence capabilities can maintain an imperfect but demonstrably tolerable status quo within which we can turn toward more achievable, incremental diplomatic goals.

This shift is especially needed now, because growing tensions ia relatively hawkish administration has South Korea—usually the voice of reason in the Korean-American triad—foreshadowing a new escalation approach. Since the beginning of the new year, when Kim ordered “exponentially” expanding its nuclear stockpile, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is repeatedly signaled he is thinking about a more aggressive stance. He floated ideas including US-South Korean exercises involving US nuclear weapons, South Korea developing its own nuclear arsenal and pushing back against Seoul military agreement which emerged from the 2018 inter-Korean negotiations.

Those options would mark a significant shift from the years in which South Korea walked essentially the path Washington should follow. “The priority should be deterring the use of nuclear weapons,” South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said He said just last October, “by giving [Pyongyang] a clear sense that if North Korea tries to use nuclear weapons, it will lead to the end of the North Korean regime and it will disappear completely.”

Unlike denuclearization, it is a viable strategy, because the North Korean government is long signaled Kim’s belief, based on the past two decades of US policy in Iraq and Libya, that America’s intentions are less peace than Kim’s own overthrow.

This is not flattering, but, as Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute debated on Foreign policy, not irrational. “History proves that a strong nuclear deterrent serves as the strongest treasury to frustrate outsider aggression,” said a A 2016 North Korean state media editorial Deposed and dead despots Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi could not “avoid a fate of destruction after they were stripped of their foundations of nuclear development and abandoned undeclared programs themselves,” the article continued. Clearly, Kim intends to be too cunning to make the same mistake.

The point of Kim’s tests and comments over the past year, then, is a message to the world in general and the US in particular: North Korea’s nuclear weapons aren’t going anywhere, and North Korea isn’t interested in negotiating as if they were.

The real answer for Washington is not to abandon diplomacy, let alone confirm Kim’s fears of regime change by joining Seoul in his new hobby of gun-rattling. That’s—like our approach it should be all the time — to follow real diplomatic outcomes that will help preserve peace.

This means setting aside denuclearization as a goal in the foreseeable future. Instead, President Joe Biden should bargain for incremental steps like a nuclear freeze, a peace treaty for the Korean War, and at least an economic opening of North Korean society to improve the basic quality of life for ordinary North Koreans.

All the while, despite Kim’s usual belligerence, until the US and our allies go to war with North Korea, US conventional and nuclear deterrence should continue keep. In addition to its nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang is fundamentally weakand Kim’s will to power (not to mention his will to live) works in our favor here.

None of these incremental goals, if achieved, would directly denuclearize North Korea. But denuclearization is not possible now at any acceptable cost, and that may not change for decades to come. What is possible increased stability and normalcy, fewer parades and weapons tests, more productive talks, better and freer lives for the North Korean people, and a reduced risk of global catastrophic war.

All of this is no less true than it was before this apparent new ICBM build, and these achievements could, very slowly, lay the groundwork for Kim’s denuclearization “never” to one day become a “maybe.”

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