It’s been a banner year for North Korea. The government in Pyongyang has already conducted 17 missile tests and two nuclear tests, including the most recent nuclear explosion on Friday. And there are still three and a half months left in 2016.
Satellite photos of North Korea’s nuclear test site indicate that at least three more tests are possible at a moment’s notice. Since North Koreans often celebrate important dates with spectacular shows, the approaching 10th anniversary of its first nuclear detonation on Oct. 9 might be the perfect occasion.
Even more alarming is that at this rate, Pyongyang may be able to deploy more powerful nuclear weapons and more dangerous delivery systems more quickly than previously expected. Last year, researchers at the institute where I work concluded that by 2020 North Korea could field an intercontinental ballistic missile able to reach the United States. But if Pyongyang tests the missile that has appeared in recent military parades, it could be sooner. The simple hydrogen bomb the North Koreans were expected to have by 2020 now may be ready and mounted on a missile earlier.
All of this bad news should, just in time for a new presidential administration, put to rest the misconceptions that have driven the United States’ failed North Korea policy, especially the idea that China, Pyongyang’s closest ally, will solve the problem.
Beijing would certainly prefer that Kim Jong-un give up his nuclear weapons. And the Chinese do occasionally use their economic ties with North Korea to pressure Pyongyang. But China’s overriding priority will continue to be keeping North Korea as a stable buffer against American influence in South Korea. No amount of cajoling from Washington will cause China to squeeze North Korea with enough sanctions that it will give up its weapons or risk the government’s collapse.
The next administration must recognize that the United States, not China, is the indispensable nation when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Our allies, who look to us to provide leadership, already know this. So do the Chinese, who insist that only Washington can persuade the North Koreans to stop their bad behavior. North Korean officials have even told me in private that it is true for them, too.
If a new administration understands that the United States must take the lead, it can use the substantial diplomatic, military and economic power at its disposal to manage and potentially resolve this challenge. At the core will be a willingness to take all necessary steps to protect our allies, even measures that can anger China, like the recent decision to deploy advanced missile defenses in South Korea. A new administration should also seek to tighten sanctions, just as the Obama administration is doing, recognizing that, because of China’s enduring support for the government in Pyongyang, sanctions will always fall far short of pressuring North Korea the same way they did Iran.
A successful strategy will have to include a new diplomatic initiative aimed at persuading the North to first stop expanding its arsenal and then to eventually reduce and dismantle its weapons. To persuade the North Koreans to do this, Washington will have to address their security concerns. In the short term, that may mean temporarily suspending or modifying some American-South Korean military exercises. In the longer term, it may mean replacing the armistice in place since the end of the Korean War with a permanent peace agreement.
These initiatives will be met with skepticism not only in the United States — where many people believe that negotiating with North Korea is a waste of time — but also in Pyongyang. As a North Korean official, who believes a new administration will just tear up previous agreements, said to me earlier this year, “It’s easier for us to build nuclear weapons than to be involved with you for decades only to have agreements turn into useless scraps of paper.”
Nevertheless, there are signs that North Korea is interested in dialogue. On July 6, the government issued a pronouncement ostensibly seeking denuclearization talks with the United States, specifically mentioning Kim Jong-un’s name in support of this initiative.
One reason North Korea may be motivated to consider denuclearization is economic. Since taking office in 2011, Mr. Kim has been committed to improving his country’s economy. He seems to believe that nuclear weapons would allow even more focus on that objective. Nevertheless, he has deliberately left room to ease off the nuclear track and explore a dialogue, perhaps reflecting an understanding that there are limits to what his country’s economy can achieve while it is isolated from the international community. Of course, no one is naïve enough to take these statements at face value. Talks between governments are the only way to know for sure.
As the Obama administration winds down, little can be done to change policy at this point. Moreover, the North Koreans are unlikely to be responsive to new initiatives since they know that the next American administration will have its own approach. The first hundred days in office will be critical for the next American president. If a window is open to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it may not stay open for long.
Joel S. Wit is a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its North Korea website, 38North.