The irrational has always triumphed in the North Korean nuclear crisis, and strategic stability, not complete denuclearisation, is the rational approach to pursue heading into the Kim-Trump Summit.
The upcoming US-North Korea summit meeting has hit the proverbial snag, with competing conceptions of denuclearisation taking front and centre. There seems to be three versions floating about the aether, the North Korean version which is pretty much the same version as promoted by the nuclear weapon states, John Bolton’s version, which is complete verifiable and immediate nuclear disarmament prior to the making of meaningful concessions, and Mike Pompeo’s version which applies those characteristics but only to that portion of North Korea’s nuclear forces that target the United States.
That is enough to give an analytical philosopher heartburn. Whatever one might think of that intellectual pursuit, surely conceptual clarity is a virtue.
North Korea’s version, a point I have made repeatedly here, comes straight out of the playbook of the nuclear weapon states. The established nuclear weapon states are all formally committed to nuclear disarmament. All of them, for instance, are party to the NPT so they are pledged to pursue nuclear disarmament, in good faith, through a negotiated process. This doesn’t stop them from modernising their nuclear arsenals or altering their nuclear strategies. Take, say, Russia. This week President Vladimir Putin announced that the Topol ICBM is to be wholly replaced with the Yars ICBM this very year. News reports describe the Topol as “old” and the Yars “new” even though the Yars is essentially a MIRVed version of the Topol. Not to matter. The point is that when North Korea states that it is committed to denuclearisation it too needs to be seen as a distant aspirational goal whilst it continues to produce fissile material, fuel for fusion reactions and the missiles to deliver its nuclear weapons. Furthermore, denuclearisation is to proceed through a gradual step-by-step and like-by-like process, in good faith as it were, requiring reciprocation from the United States.
It is not hard to see how North Korea’s policy of denuclearisation is consistent with Pyongyang maintaining its nuclear weapons, just as is the case with the established nuclear weapon states. The same applies to India. The same applies to Israel which pledges not to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East whilst everybody knows Tel Aviv is in possession of nuclear weapons. There are good reasons why analytical political theory hasn’t taken off in the study of international relations, even though it clearly should.
The kerfuffle over the recent US-South Korea military exercises, which seemingly threaten the good conduct of the Kim-Trump summit, is related. It should not be seen purely as a discrete matter, or a smokescreen hiding the real source of Pyongyang’s anger namely Bolton’s conception of disarmament. The principle of like-for-like has been a recurring one of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. North Korea has scaled down its military parades, annual military exercises and annual tank firing competition. The United States and South Korea have gone ahead with their annual military exercises, and initially it appeared that they would involve B-52 bombers. North Korea expects to see the scaling down of its military displays reciprocated. Should they not then Pyongyang takes that as a demonstration of a rejection of like-for-like in favour of a Bolton style of unreciprocated unilateral disarmament.
North Korea, in other words, from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-un has consistently engaged in a strategy of tit for tat.
The annual US-South Korea exercises are a useful jumping off point because they demonstrate one reason North Korea has nuclear weapons in the first place. After the Vietnam War the United States military adopted a new concept of land warfare, known as AirLand Battle, and new ideas regarding the waging of an air campaign due to John Warden and others. US operational planning, as opposed to contingency planning, for the Korean peninsula took up those concepts and in the Gulf War of 1991 North Korea saw what AirLand Battle and modern air warfare could do, and the US-South Korea military exercises serve as annual reminders just in case the point is lost.
Should North Korea disarm, but without US reciprocation, Pyongyang fears it will be subject to coerced regime change as occurred with Libya and Iraq. Although Israel destroyed Syria’s nascent al Kibar reactor project in a 2007 airstrike, al Kibar was to be a direct replica of North Korea’s 5MWe reactor, nonetheless it can be argued that Assad, in part, has indeed been saved by nuclear weapons. Not his, but rather Russia’s. Pyongyang knows the deal.
There’s one, crucial, point worth bearing in mind that is evident here. Throughout the nuclear crisis, from Bush I to Trump, irrationality has been associated with North Korea. Yet tit-for-tat is a rational policy, indeed evolutionary biologists and game theorists would even have it as an evolutionary stable strategy. See Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation for more. However, from a nuclear security perspective, the most irrational policy outcome has always been ultimately adopted by the United States. It was the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, to no small degree, that scuttled the Agreed Framework reached by the Clinton administration and then later on the six party talks process. North Korea went on to test its first nuclear weapon in 2006, not long after the end of the six party talks on account of false charges of North Korean money laundering.
Denuclearisation through a negotiated process was rejected.
Then the opportunity existed to try and pursue a nuclear freeze, to prevent North Korea’s missile technology from advancing beyond Scud technology, freezing fissile material production and nuclear weapons testing, but that too was undermined by Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” which Trump both inherited and continued. Oddly, given his aversion to anything associated with the previous president, it was an Obama era policy that he continued. Washington insisted first on complete and immediate denuclearisation prior to talks. North Korea went on to develop an ICBM and a second generation thermonuclear weapon.
A nuclear freeze was rejected.
Now we see John Bolton demand complete, verifiable, and immediate denuclearisation prior to the US making any security, economic and political agreements with North Korea. That can only be interpreted as an attempt to scuttle the looming Kim-Trump summit. North Korea will not agree to this, and it is not a serious nor realistic negotiating position.
The most rational outcome at this point is to recognise the obvious; North Korea is a nuclear weapons state and it won’t trade away its nuclear weapons in a hurry. The rational objective for now is pursuing strategic stability. Pompeo’s emphasis on dismantling North Korea’s potential to strike the United States is seemingly consistent with this, but one must examine matters more closely. The Pompeo position would place the burden of North Korean deterrence upon striking South Korea and Japan, whilst leaving North Korea vulnerable to US nuclear attack, which does not improve strategic stability, especially with people like Bolton about, as it provides an incentive for the Bolton types to strike against North Korea when the last Hwasong-15 has been melted down.
Strategic stability is very important, I would argue, for so long as North Korea is poor and isolated it has an incentive to brandish what it has in a way first articulated to great effect by Thomas Schelling. It has an incentive, when poor and isolated, to use its nuclear weapons through a strategy that “leaves something to chance” to strike a better economic and political bargain with the outside world. By engaging North Korea in a series of confidence and security building measures and both conventional and strategic arms control furnished by concepts of cooperative security, it’s a pity that we have forgotten ideas of cooperative security that were promoted in the 1980s, a measure of strategic stability on the Korean peninsula can be obtained. But so long as we are fixated on denuclearisation, and unrealistic conceptions thereof, then the strategic nuclear dynamic has an inbuilt structural instability to it which could always lead to advertent or inadvertent nuclear conflict.
Now strategic stability, as noted, is being rejected. Denuclearisation, a nuclear freeze, strategic stability all ultimately lost out and they were always the most rational outcome and the most feasible.
Of course, working for strategic stability now is to implicitly accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. But recognising reality is far better than risking the lives of millions. How could strategic stability best be achieved? That is something we can argue about, but we might consider several proposals. North Korea has pledged not to transfer nuclear and missile know how and technology to third parties. That pledge might be turned into a verifiable agreement to abide by the strictures of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime without Pyongyang joining either. It might consist of a fissile material cutoff agreement that caps North Korea’s stockpile of fissile materials. It might consist of limiting Ballistic Missile Defence (okay, so who’s been unrealistic now I hear you say). It might consist of a CFE like regime on the Korean peninsula designed to prevent rapid flanking manoeuvres at the operational level. And so on.
All of those, and more, might be committed to whilst North Korea remains formally pledged to denuclearisation and whilst that remains as the long ranging objective of the diplomatic process. To proceed like so is to act rationally under the current circumstances. How far North Korea is prepared to go is best known empirically, that is it is best ascertained by pushing the envelope of the possible through diplomacy. It is not to be known a priori. Those who assert a priori that North Korea will do so, and such do not know how far down the road of denuclearisation North Korea is prepared to go, and how much by way of concessions is enough to take them down that road. It is here, alas, at the most crucial part, as always, that the ways of the analytical philosopher are to be rejected. Ruminating in the armchair is irrational. Proceeding empirically through diplomacy is rational.
To not proceed rationally now risks striking out with all bases loaded.