During nuclear negotiations in 2005, a North Korean diplomat let slip an unexpectedly candid comment, offering valuable insight into his government’s nuclear policy: “The reason you attacked Afghanistan is because they don’t have nukes. And look at what happened to Libya. That is why we will never give up ours.”
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Wednesday, claiming that it had detonated a hydrogen bomb. The United States government disputes that, but one thing is clear: North Korea’s leaders still believe that nuclear weapons will prevent others from attacking them no matter what they do. This is fanciful. What the world needs is reality. North Korea must recognize the limitations and risks of its nuclear program, and the United States must recognize that an American response is necessary.
Many serious dangers come with being a nuclear power, and the North Koreans seem to recognize few of them. One is the temptation to transfer weapons, fissile material or technology to other states or terrorist groups. North Korea has a history of selling its traditional weapons systems. But the government must recognize that selling its nuclear technology could compel the United States to respond in ways that would bring an end to nearly 70 years of Communist rule.
There are other ways that the nuclear program makes the government less secure. Over the past several years, North Korea has degraded its conventional military capacity in order to pursue nuclear weapons. Under normal circumstances, a weaker North Korean Army would be welcome news to the rest of the world, but with a budding nuclear state it can lead to rapid escalation in the event of a conflict. This could mean either pre-emptive action by the United States, or, if North Korea ever used nuclear weapons, a massive retaliation.
The North also mistakenly believes that its nascent nuclear abilities will deter the United States and South Korea from responding if North Korean forces carry out low-level military actions intended to extort food, fuel or other benefits. It is wrong. South Korea and the United States are unlikely to remain passive in response to future violence like the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval ship.
The Obama administration cannot punt to the next administration the problem of North Korea’s growing stockpiles of fissile material, sophisticated weapons designs and long-range delivery ability.
No one should take comfort in skepticism about whether Wednesday’s test was a success. If North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons stockpile leads it to miscalculate American resolve, there will be horrible consequences. And at that point the whole world will wonder why no nation — especially the United States — stopped North Korea before it was too late.
A new approach to persuading the North to abandon its nuclear program must focus on asymmetric pressure points. A look at recent history helps to outline such a strategy. In our experience working on North Korea policy, the government in Pyongyang has seemed truly caught off guard only twice: in September 2005 when the Treasury Department’s sanctions led to a freezing of its bank accounts in Macau; and in February 2014 when a United Nations commission called for the Security Council to refer the North’s leadership to the International Criminal Court for a long list of crimes against humanity.
The United States and the United Nations should immediately increase sanctions. A new Security Council resolution will most likely emerge soon, providing one opportunity for this. Another comes in the form of the presidential executive order created after the cyber attack on Sony Pictures last year. These should include targeted financial sanctions; travel bans and indictments against officials working on the nuclear program, human rights abusers and cyber criminals; as well as secondary sanctions on anyone doing business with North Korean companies.
But sanctions are only one part of the strategy. Many observers believe, credibly, that slave labor bankrolls the nuclear weapons program. The United Nations must also continue to hold individuals in the government directly accountable for crimes against humanity, and all countries, including China and Russia, should be pressured to stop accepting North Korean laborers.
Even if China’s government has made clear that it is unhappy with North Korea’s behavior, Beijing won’t abandon its ally anytime soon. But the United States can — and should — push for Beijing to dial back its support. China could instruct Chinese companies to curtail business with North Korea, and the government could reject any calls from North Korea for new economic projects until the government returned to negotiations. China could also agree to not obstruct any Security Council discussions on human rights abuses in the North. Washington must frame cooperation on North Korea as a cornerstone of United States-China relations.
North Korea thinks that nuclear weapons make it more secure. That’s wrong. North Korea’s only path away from isolation and insecurity will require negotiation on all issues, including security, human rights and economics. In order to help it understand this, the United States must use the nuclear test Wednesday to force the North back to the table.
Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown, was deputy head of the American delegation that negotiated the six-party talks with North Korea from 2005-7. Robert L. Gallucci, also a professor at Georgetown, led the American delegation that negotiated the “agreed framework” with North Korea in 1994.