After witnessing the depravity of the North Korean regime in the death of the American student Otto Warmbier and Pyongyang’s successful long-range missile test on Tuesday, Washington must nonetheless evaluate any possible opportunity for capping and ultimately dismantling the country’s nuclear and long-range missile forces with an open mind.
A North Korea with 30, 50 or 100 nuclear bombs and the ability to deliver them to the United States (and perhaps a desire to sell them, too) would be much more dangerous than the current situation, in which Pyongyang possesses perhaps one to two dozen bombs and an unreliable means of delivering them.
Toughening sanctions against Pyongyang still makes sense — including more penalties on international banks and companies that do illicit business with the North Koreans. But tougher sanctions alone are unlikely to suffice. Washington needs a more promising negotiating strategy, too.
Some North Korean officials, including the country’s ambassador to India, have suggested an openness to a freeze, temporary or permanent, on North Korea’s testing of nuclear and long-range missile forces in exchange for a parallel freeze on United States-South Korean military exercises on the peninsula — in particular, the large-scale exercises called Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Foal Eagle, which involve upward of 20,000 troops. If the North Koreans would extend the freeze to the production of nuclear materials and it can be made verifiable — with China and Russia providing inspectors, along with Swiss or other neutral parties — Washington should take the deal.
Such an agreement would have to extend not just to North Korea’s known plutonium-production facilities but also to uranium-enrichment capabilities. Washington would need confidence that most or all of North Korea’s hidden capabilities had been declared to inspectors and frozen. Verifying that most of its high-tech imports of key centrifuge technologies were accounted for and monitored should be a key part of this effort.
Washington and Seoul should not weaken their military preparations for the defense of South Korea. Nor should they loosen most sanctions on North Korea appreciably in return for a freeze; a true détente requires actual North Korean denuclearization and some internal reforms as well. And, again, verification of any agreement is crucial. North Korea has cheated on previous deals.
But the military consequences of an end, temporary or even permanent, to the annual large-scale exercises that the United States and South Korea conduct on the peninsula could be considerably mitigated. Washington could continue smaller, unit-by-unit training with South Korean forces without any scaling back of their frequency or intensity. The two allies could continue to simulate responses to a North Korean attack and rehearse the initial stages of deploying reinforcements from the United States and other locations to South Korea. South Korean forces could also visit the United States for larger-scale integrated exercises.
If intensified in some ways, these smaller-scale drills and state-of-the-art simulations could be adequate substitutes for the annual United States-South Korea exercises that Pyongyang says it finds to be threatening.
North Korea may violate any such accord. If it does, Seoul and Washington should promptly resume big exercises. At that point, China and South Korea should further tighten the sanctions that Beijing in particular currently prefers to minimize.
Some Americans would see this deal as buying the same horse for a third or fourth time, given past nuclear accords that Pyongyang has violated. That is why a new bargain needs to go further, on verification and missiles, than past ones.
So Washington should drive a tough bargain. But American leaders should not fear to negotiate or to accept an interim deal on the path to what we still hope will be eventual North Korean nuclear disarmament. It is a pragmatic step that would leave us better off than the path we are on now.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author most recently of Beyond NATO.