Next week, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will head to Singapore for a historic summit. The meeting, coming in the wake of a yearlong nuclear showdown between the two sides, has raised hopes of progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, North Korea has a history of disingenuous diplomacy.
Global discourse on North Korea tends to dismiss the country’s nuclear rhetoric as a totalitarian dictator’s flawed justification for maintaining his grip on power. This is not wrong, but fixating only on this factor obscures a deeper problem: Several post-Cold War global developments have made the possession of nuclear weapons more important for some states, North Korea included. Kim’s regime is not convinced that giving up its capability makes sense because it might weaken the regime. This makes Trump’s task of pushing denuclearization in next week’s summit exceptionally challenging.
The Demand Side of Non-Proliferation
Traditionally, global non-proliferation efforts have relied heavily on supply side actions to control countries’ access to nuclear materials and technology. Factors that tend to increase the perceived need for nuclear weapons — the demand side problem — have not received requisite attention. During the Cold War, the superpowers used credible alliance commitments, often accompanied by explicit security guarantees, to curtail the incentives for countries to pursue independent nuclear programs. In the post-Cold War world, however, the premium on nuclear weapons possession has grown.
The upcoming Trump-Kim summit almost fell apart last month after National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested that Washington was pursuing the “Libya model” in its denuclearization discussions with North Korea. Pyongyang’s angered reaction crystallized one aspect of the demand side non-proliferation problem: While Bolton was referring to the international verification mechanisms used to confirm the dismantling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s nuclear program, for Kim, Gadhafi’s violent demise and Libya’s collapse following his decision to give up nuclear weapons are far more pertinent realities. Indeed, the North Koreans have regularly spoken of Libya (and Iraq) with trepidation, asking for guarantees that they will not meet the same fate.
The post-Cold War experience in other nuclear theaters compounds the problem for non-proliferation enthusiasts. Consider South Asia. India and Pakistan shocked the world by conducting multiple nuclear tests in May 1998 but faced only brief sanctions. Within months, Washington engaged them in talks aimed at ensuring risk management – a de facto admission that their capabilities were there to stay. Since then, the United States has courted both countries as key partners, albeit in very different ways.
U.S. allies are not immune to the salience of nuclear weapons. Last year’s scare on the Korean peninsula has intensified a domestic nuclear debate in Japan and South Korea. Questions about America’s willingness to continue playing global sheriff explain some of this nervousness. But eventually, U.S. policymakers could also face a dilemma they haven’t confronted since the Cold War: Would Washington be willing to risk an attack on the homeland for an ally? If North Korea masters an inter-continental nuclear delivery capability — a matter of time, according to some — this consideration would become real.
The U.S. role in India-Pakistan crises since their nuclearization in 1998 adds another wrinkle to Washington’s ability to maintain the credibility of alliances in nuclear environments. In each South Asian crisis, the U.S. acted as an eager mediator and prioritized de-escalation over all broader foreign policy interests, including alliance preferences. This proved crucial in crisis termination. But it also implied an American propensity to play down the middle and pressure not just Pakistan but also India, which often felt that it could expect full U.S. support. India ’s discontent has led it to search for crisis strategies less reliant on the United States. While it is far too early to assess the implications of the U.S. pullout from the Iranian nuclear deal, U.S. adversaries and allies alike may wonder what it could mean for the credibility of other U.S. nuclear agreements or assurances.
The Nuclear Challenge
North Korea’s denuclearization will be a crucial sign of Washington’s continued commitment — and more important, ability — to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Failure will not only keep the nuclear debate in Japan and South Korea alive, but also potentially re-embolden states like Iran to pursue the nuclear path. This could create a long-feared domino effect in the Middle East, building pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia to consider its nuclear capability. Such developments will greatly complicate Middle Eastern politics and vital U.S. security interests in the broader Muslim world.
Yet, convincing North Korea to give up nuclear weapons without addressing the larger demand side problem could be impossible. Western policymakers must debunk the narrative tying the Iraq War and Gadhafi’s demise in Libya to the absence of weapons of mass destruction in these countries. More broadly, the world’s leading powers must weigh the effects of their foreign policy choices on non-proliferation efforts and avoid decisions that increase demand for nuclear weapons.
A serious move toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula will require credible guarantees of regime security and economic assistance for Kim. These should be based on the verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program and binding assurances of non-aggression against South Korea and Japan. All sides must remain patient. Nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is sure to be a prolonged and tedious journey. Washington will only succeed if it guarantees its allies of its commitment to defend them while emphasizing its opposition to any independent pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Moeed Yusuf is the associate vice president of the Asia center at the United States Institute of Peace. His latest book, “Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia” (Stanford University Press, May 2018), offers an innovative theory of brokered bargaining to better understand and solve regional nuclear crises. For commentary on the book, visit his website.