Living with a nuclear North Korea: how to move beyond the impasse




By Markus Bell and Geoffrey Fattig
First published in NKnews

Demanding complete denuclearization has long been a diplomatic dead-end

Three months after the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tested the waters of acquiescence by conducting two rounds of missile tests. In the past, a new round of United Nations sanctions would have followed such launches, escalating rhetoric and mutual condemnation.

This had been the pattern, at least until President Trump veered off script by contradicting his National Security Advisor, John Bolton on the issue of whether the missile launches violated existing UN sanctions. During a recent visit to Japan, a presidential tweet dismissed the launches as small weapons that “disturbed some of my people…but not me.”

Apart from the rather surreal aspect of witnessing an American President side with the leader of North Korea over his own advisors, it could be argued that Trump is actually the realist in the room, while the hawkish Bolton and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo are the ones living in a fantasyland.

By clinging to the notion that North Korea can be made to denuclearize through either increased pressure or sanctions relief, they are ensuring the continuation of a long-running policy failure that has allowed the North Korean regime to further the country’s nuclear program while precluding openings for addressing the egregious human rights situation inside the country.

The prevailing belief among Korea watchers, that Kim cannot be induced or coerced into denuclearizing, means that a nuclear North Korea is essentially a fait accompli— a reality to which all the sanctions, summits and handshakes in the world will not change.


And it is this point that we recently argued: that the international community’s focus needs to shift from traditional security concerns (the nuclear program) to non-traditional (humanitarian concerns) as an avenue to engage in dialogue on improving living conditions for North Koreans.

Since we published our thoughts others have followed suit in agreeing that it is time to shift strategy toward managing North Korea’s ascent into the nuclear club rather than fruitlessly trying to prevent it.

Insisting on complete denuclearization is a recipe for a continued stalemate in future negotiations. And given Kim’s implied threat to restart nuclear tests next year if a deal with the U.S. cannot be struck, tensions could again rise.

A return to the saber rattling of 2017 would wipe away the trust built through the inter-Korean reconciliation efforts of South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration that began during the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

This would be especially unfortunate, considering that the current security situation on the Korean peninsula represents the best of a bad set of options.

Negotiations that demand the country dismantle its nuclear program are unlikely to succeed

The past 18 months of relative silence from Pyongyang serves as a blueprint for how to manage socializing North Korea into the international community. In refraining from nuclear tests, North Korea has satisfied one of the conditions of the “Three Nos” proposal outlined by Siegfried Hecker, which remains the most realistic path forward for breaking the impasse.

In the interim, this route leads to an agreement – tacit or otherwise – allowing North Korea to maintain its current arsenal in return for a commitment to freeze its nuclear program and not proliferate weapons technology.

While such an outcome is hardly ideal, it is in keeping with the cold reality of the situation. A nuclear North Korea, socialized to international norms, also raises the possibility that the country will begin to act like a ‘normal state,’ bound to its various international obligations.

Such thinking is in line with Alexander Wendt’s “norm adoption,” whereby states accept established international standards of behavior as they experience the benefits of being integrated into the global community.


What kind of benefits might we see from a ‘normal’ North Korean state? Improvements in human rights are top of the wish list, including, for example, adherence to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which compels member states to prevent crimes against humanity in their territory.

In essence, a resolution of the nuclear issue would provide a fresh opening to engage the regime on human rights, and the subsequent opportunity to improve the lives of average North Koreans.

Given that the regime has repeatedly flouted international agreements in the development of its nuclear program, the idea of acknowledging and then negotiating with a nuclear DPRK might seem a problematic proposition at first glance.

Yet it is important to consider that Pyongyang has long viewed international condemnation of its human rights record as a vehicle for regime change.

If the DPRK’s nuclear program were relegated to the background of international negotiations – essentially, guaranteeing the regime’s security by acquiescing to its possession of nuclear weapons — there is a greater chance of Kim taking the issue of human security seriously, particularly if doing so presented him with credibility on the international stage.

Insisting on complete denuclearization is a recipe for a continued stalemate in future negotiations

Tabling the nuclear issue would also serve to support South Korea’s outreach toward North Korea, which has accelerated under the Moon Jae-in administration. Existing sanctions against the country have made inter-Korean economic cooperation difficult, and even humanitarian assistance has become a source of controversy.

Without the nuclear question looming at the center of negotiations, Moon’s efforts may prove more effective, both for relations on the Korean peninsula and for regional stability.


There are several arguments used to support the position that the North Korean regime should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.

The first is that, as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), North Korea is obligated to uphold its commitments to refrain from developing nuclear weapons.

But this overlooks the fact that, as a sovereign nation, North Korea also has the right to enter and exit international treaties—a right which was exercised in 2003, when the country announced its withdrawal from the NPT.

In doing so, North Korea placed itself in the company of India, Israel, and Pakistan; sovereign nations that also possess a nuclear arsenal outside the legal realm of the NPT.

A second common argument concerns the risk of nuclear proliferation. This is a valid concern, given North Korea’s record of drug smuggling and sales of weapons technology.

However, the risk of proliferation highlights the importance of a strategy designed to integrate North Korea into the international community, rather than further isolating the country.

A final argument against North Korean possession of nuclear weapons is that they may be used in a preemptive attack against the U.S or its allies.

But for a country that has shown itself to be a master of survival, taking the one action that would guarantee its destruction is highly unlikely, particularly while it is led by a man who has been termed by the CIA as a “very rational actor … who wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”


A nuclear North Korea is now a reality, and negotiations that demand the country dismantle its nuclear program are unlikely to succeed.

Although the addition of one more state into the nuclear club is problematic, many of the arguments for denying North Korean ascendance into this group are insufficient, and a rigid adherence to this position by the international community could conceivably result in a second Korean War.

Acknowledging this reality and engaging with the country’s leadership offers an alternate path forward, and one that has the potential for bettering the lives of the people of North Korea.