SEOUL - Bomb. Acquiesce. Or negotiate. These are probably the only options available to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM.) And the only option that has any reasonable chance of success is to pursue a deal similar to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord that was called “the worst deal ever” by U.S. President Donald Trump.
These are some of the insights and recommendations made by non-proliferation expert Robert Litwak during a recent talk he gave at an East Asia Foundation Seminar in Seoul about his book entitled Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout. Litwak is director of international security studies with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and served as director for non-proliferation under former President Bill Clinton.
The U.S. can no longer wait for the repressive North Korean state to collapse under the weight of international sanctions, Litwak argued, but instead must make a realistic deal that would allow Pyongyang to maintain its current nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal in exchange for suspending further tests and development.
“The narrative would be that the United States is not accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state but rather this was an interim step, freezing capabilities towards the long-term objective of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
Latest missile test
The current status quo of international sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military deterrence has failed to halt or even slow North Korea’s nuclear advance, Litwak said.
Pyongyang’s latest intermediate-range missile test Sunday would seem to back up this argument. The North's state news agency KCNA said Monday the solid fuel rocket flew about 500 kilometers and reached an altitude of 560 km, and confirmed the reliability of a late-stage guidance system to be used with a nuclear warhead.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Sunday’s missile test “disappointing” and “disturbing” in an interview with Fox News, but also said increased economic and diplomatic pressure will be imposed to pressure the Kim Jong Un government to change its behavior.
Litwak argues that China, the North’s key trading partner, has “conflicting strategic interests on the Korean peninsula.” Beijing wants a denuclearized North Korea, but continues to temper its support for sanctions with maintaining regional stability and backing the Kim regime as a check against U.S. and South Korean power in the region.
Also, last week Russian President Vladimir Putin said while he opposes the North’s nuclear program, “intimidating (North Korea) is unacceptable." Moscow recently launched a new ferry service with North Korea despite objections from Washington.
The Trump administration has seemed to back off its earlier emphasis on the possible use of force to end the North Korean nuclear threat, including moving military assets like the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group into the region.
Analysts say limited surgical U.S. missile strikes would not be able to destroy North Korea’s extensive nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals that are reportedly in numerous fortified underground sites across the country. Instead such an attack would almost certainly trigger retaliatory strikes against South Korea and Japan that could plunge the region into a catastrophic nuclear war.
Also, Litwak said many in the international community would likely denounce the U.S. as an aggressor nation if it launched a preventive attack against the North.
“It would not be an imminent threat, it would be the preventive use of force against a growing threat, and that is highly controversial in international law,” he said.
The Iran accord has delayed that country’s nuclear development for 10 to 15 years by imposing restrictions on nuclear activities, reducing uranium enrichment, plutonium production plans, and allowing inspectors access to facilities in exchange for easing international sanctions. Critics say it just delayed the nuclear crisis while allowing Tehran access to more than $1 billion in seized funds and approval to sell oil to pay for future arms transactions and terrorism in the region.
The 2015 agreement was negotiated by the administration of President Barack Obama. While Trump in the past said he would “dismantle the disastrous deal," his administration continues to adhere to it.
To prevent the looming ICBM threat, the Trump administration would have to commit to a similar transactional compromise deal that leaves the North with limited nuclear capabilities and would likely help keep the repressive Kim leadership in power.
Beijing had proposed a compromise in which Pyongyang would stop further nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. So far neither side has endorsed such a deal.
Getting Kim Jong Un to accept any limits on his nuclear program will be difficult as he considers a strong nuclear deterrence essential to his survival. North Korea has also reneged on past deals to suspend nuclear activities for economic aid.
Critics argue that strong military deterrence, effective missile defense systems and the U.S. nuclear arsenal will restrain North Korea from launching what would be a suicidal ICBM attack, and that continued containment will eventually produce transformational change in North Korea and lead to the collapse of the Kim government.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.