North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a plenary meeting of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released on Feb. 12, 2021, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a plenary meeting of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released on Feb. 12, 2021, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Former U.S. President Donald Trump tried threats of "fire and fury,” followed by personal letters and made-for-TV summits to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons. 

As U.S. President Joe Biden now maps out his own strategy for North Korea, many former U.S. officials want the White House to base its approach on a less flashy but in some ways even more provocative idea: that North Korea has no plans to abandon the nuclear program it spent decades building.

President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One, Feb. 17, 2021, in Washington.

The United States has long demanded the complete denuclearization of North Korea, even as a wide range of Korea watchers agreed that will likely never happen. For many, the alternative is simply unfathomable; recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state could convince other nations to pursue the bomb, leading to a regional or global arms race.

But with or without recognition, North Korea has made steady progress on its nuclear and missile programs. According to recent estimates, North Korea possesses anywhere from 15-60 nuclear warheads. It also has an increasingly diverse array of ballistic missiles, including some that may be able to reach anywhere in the continental United States. 

Given the trajectory, a growing number of observers advocate what they say is a more pragmatic approach that would aim to cap or reduce the threat of North Korea’s arsenal, even if the immediate goal isn’t full denuclearization. 

More pragmatic

“A reality check is overdue,” said Markus Garlauskas, a former U.S. intelligence official, in an article this month published by the U.S. Institute for Peace. 

Garlauskas is not just any analyst; until June he was the U.S. government’s top intelligence officer for North Korea. 

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In Garlauskas' view, U.S. policy toward North Korea has been based on two ideas that have proven false: 1) that the United States has enough leverage to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and 2) that China will cooperate in achieving that goal. 

Garlauskas proposes Washington shift its focus away from “near-term denuclearization” while offering Pyongyang diplomatic and military engagement.

“Such efforts would help build buffers against the risks of escalation, misinterpretation, and miscalculation in crises, as well as help combat perceptions of implacable U.S. hostility,” he says.

Arms control

Many former U.S. officials now embrace such views, with some calling for an arms control deal that would mirror those reached by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

“The parties would seek to cap and contain the most dangerous elements of North Korea’s weapons programs in order to stop their growth and minimize chances of inadvertent use, proliferation, and leakage,” former National Security Council member Victor Cha wrote in November for Foreign Affairs magazine.

In October, former senior U.S. diplomat Joseph Yun and ex-Pentagon official Frank Aum lamented that “for 15 years, Washington has chased the white whale of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization at the expense of achieving near-term, material reductions in the nuclear threat.” 

“But doing so has made the perfect the enemy of the good. North Korea will not easily give up its ‘treasured sword,’ which represents the only noteworthy success in its history,” they said, calling for an interim deal that freezes North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities.

FILE - A man walks past a TV screen showing a local news program about North Korea's reported firing of an ICBM, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, July 5, 2017.

Though North Korea's nuclear program has made impressive technological advances in recent years, some analysts argue it’s still worth freezing at the current stage. According to nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who has visited North Korean nuclear facilities, North Korea still needs to do more nuclear and ICBM tests to be able to reach the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Not a perfect fix

But the idea of an arms control approach doesn’t sit well with some U.S. allies in the region. Many fear it would result in a de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear program. 

"I get the rationalist argument that national or regime survival will mean that Kim won't de-nuke,” a senior military official of a U.S.-allied nation told VOA. “But if the U.S. accepts this premise, the consequences across the region would be most significant.”

An even implicit U.S. recognition of North Korea could make it easier for other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, to eventually develop their own nuclear weapons. 

There would also be implications for countries like Iran, who may conclude that they can develop their own nuclear weapons and eventually even achieve some degree of relations with the United States, if they persevere through a period of sanctions. 

Another commonly expressed concern: North Korea could decide to sell its nuclear technology to other countries or even terrorist groups.

Given those concerns, some say it’s better for the United States to publicly push for denuclearization, even if it may never happen.

“In some ways it is the polite fiction that must be maintained while [U.S. officials] try and reverse the trend of an expanded nuclear capability,” said the military official. 

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Few signs from Biden

Biden, who is consumed with domestic issues like the coronavirus and the economy, has given few hints about the direction of his new policy. 

In a briefing last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the denuclearization of North Korea remains a “central premise” of the U.S. approach. 

But even Secretary of State Antony Blinken has at times in the past called for an interim agreement with North Korea. 

In a New York Times editorial in 2018, Blinken argued that Trump should use the Iran nuclear deal as a model when negotiating with Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, Blinken said the United States would consider both sanctions and diplomacy as part of the administration’s wide-ranging North Korea policy review.

But it may not be the right strategic moment to apply more sanctions. Not only are there humanitarian concerns about tightening sanctions during a global health emergency, there are questions about how effective economic pressure would be, considering North Korea has already voluntarily sealed itself from the rest of the world to contain the novel coronavirus. 

But the North’s pandemic calculation could eventually change, says Duyeon Kim, a Korea specialist at the Center for New American Security.

“The longer the pandemic persists, the more Pyongyang will desire sanctions relief when the pandemic subsides,” she says. “The more desperate North Korea becomes for sanctions removal, the more leverage the Biden administration could have.”