(CNN) — As a statement of intent, it was as direct as possible.
North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and will never give them up, its leader Kim Jong Un told the world last month.
The move is “irreversible,” he said; the weapon represents the “dignity, body and absolute power of the state” and Pyongyang will continue to develop it “as long as there are nuclear weapons on Earth.”
Kim may like colorful language, but her pledge, which she signed into law, is worth taking seriously. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a dictator who cannot be removed from power by popular vote and who generally does what he says he will do.
Also note that North Korea has conducted a record number of missile launches this year (over 20), claims to be deploying tactical nuclear weapons (something CNN could not independently confirm), and is also believed to be ready for its seventh underground nuclear test.
All this has led a growing number of experts to question whether now is the time to call a spade a spade and accept that North Korea is in fact a nuclear state. To do so would mean giving up once and for all the optimistic hopes — some would say delusional — that Pyongyang’s program is somehow unfinished, or that Kim can still be persuaded to abandon it voluntarily.
As Ankit Panda, Stanton’s senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it: “We just have to treat North Korea as it is, not as we would like it to be.”
Say what cannot be said
From a purely factual point of view, North Korea has nuclear weapons, and few who follow events closely dispute that fact.
A recent column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Nuclear Notebook estimated that North Korea may have produced enough fissile material to build 45 to 55 nuclear weapons. Furthermore, recent tests of the missile suggest that it has different methods of launching the weapon.
However, publicly acknowledging this reality carries multiple dangers for countries like the United States.
One of the most compelling reasons for Washington not to do so is its fear of starting a nuclear arms race in Asia.
South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are just a few of the neighbors likely to want to equalize Pyongyang’s status.
But some experts say refusing to recognize North Korea’s nuclear capability, in the face of mounting evidence, has little effect on reassuring those countries. Instead, the impression that allies have their heads in the ground can make them more nervous.
“Let’s face it, North Korea is a nuclear weapons state, and North Korea has all the necessary delivery systems, including quite effective ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles),” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and an authority. scholar on North Korea.
The Israeli solution
Some suggest that a better approach might be to treat North Korea’s nuclear program similarly to Israel’s, with tacit acceptance.
That’s the solution preferred by Jeffrey Lewis, associate professor at the James Martin Center for the Study of Nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
“I think the key step that (United States President Joe) Biden needs to take is to make it clear, both to himself and to the United States government, that we are not going to force North Korea to disarm, and that is to fundamentally accept North Korea as a nuclear country. You don’t have to is legally recognized,” Lewis said.
Both Israel and India offer examples of what the United States might aspire to in its relations with North Korea, he added.
From September 25 to October 9, North Korea conducted what it called a “tactical” test of nuclear missiles, personally “led” by Kim Jong Un.
Israel, widely believed to have begun its nuclear program in the 1960s, has always defended nuclear ambiguity while refusing to be a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India, for its part, embraced nuclear ambiguity for decades before abandoning that policy with its 1998 nuclear test.
“In both cases, the United States knew they had the bomb, but the deal was if you don’t talk about it, if you don’t make an issue of it and if you don’t cause political problems, then they won’t answer me. I think that’s the point. same place on that we want to come with North Korea,” Lewis said.
Denuclearization: “Like Searching for a Miracle”
At the moment, however, Washington shows no signs of backing down from its approach to trying to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Indeed, US Vice President Kamala Harris made this point during a recent visit to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
“Our shared goal, the United States and the Republic of Korea, is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Harris said.
This may be a worthy goal, but many experts consider it increasingly unrealistic.
“Nobody agrees that denuclearization would be a very desirable outcome on the Korean Peninsula; the problem is that it’s simply not manageable,” Panda said.
One problem standing in the way of denuclearization is that Kim’s top priority is ensuring the survival of his regime.
And if he wasn’t already paranoid enough, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (in which a nuclear power attacks a non-nuclear power) will serve to reinforce his belief that “nuclear weapons are the only reliable guarantee of security.” said Lankov from Kookmin University.
Trying to convince Kim otherwise seems impossible, as Pyongyang has made it clear that it will not even consider cooperating with a US administration that wants to discuss denuclearization.
“If the United States wants to talk about denuclearization, (North Korea) won’t talk, and if the Americans don’t talk, (North Korea) will launch more and better missiles,” Lankov said. “It’s a simple choice.”
There is also the problem that if North Korea’s increasingly concerned neighbors conclude that Washington’s approach is going nowhere, it could spark an arms race that the United States wants to avoid.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Korean think tank, is one of a growing number of conservative voices calling for South Korea to build its own nuclear weapons program to counter Pyongyang’s.
Efforts to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons “have ended in failure,” he said, “and even now, the pursuit of denuclearization is like the pursuit of a miracle.”
Was Trump on the right track?
Yet as far-fetched as the dream of denuclearization may seem, there are those who say the alternative — accepting North Korea’s nuclear status, however subtly — would be a mistake.
“Basically (we’d) (tell) Kim Jong Un, after all this pushing and pulling, (that) he’s going to get what he wants. The bigger question (then, of course) is: Where does that leave it all? the region?” said Soo Kim, a former CIA agent who is now a researcher at the American think tank RAND Corporation.
That leaves another option open to the Biden administration and its allies, though that may seem unlikely in the current climate. They could seek a deal in which Pyongyang offers to freeze its nuclear weapons development in exchange for sanctions relief.
In other words, something similar to the deal Kim offered to then US President Donald Trump at their February 2019 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
This option has its supporters. “A freeze is a really powerful way to get things going. It’s very difficult to get rid of the weapons that are there, but what is possible is to prevent things from getting worse. It takes some of the pressure off and opens up space for other kinds of negotiations,” he said. Lewis of the James Martin Center.
However, due to the nuances of the Trump era, that may not be an option. Asked if he thought President Biden might consider this tactic, Lewis smiled and said, “I’m a teacher, so I specialize in giving advice that no one will follow.”
We don’t talk anymore
But even if the Biden administration had been willing, that ship might already have sailed. The Kim of 2019 was much more willing to compromise than the Kim of 2022.
And that is perhaps the biggest problem with all the options on the table: they are based on some form of engagement with North Korea, something that is completely non-existent today.
Kim is now focused on his five-year plan for military modernization, announced in January 2021, and no offer of talks from the Biden administration or anyone else has even caught his eye.
As Panda acknowledged, “There are a number of cooperation options that would require the North Koreans to be willing to come to the table and discuss some of these things with us. I don’t think we’re even close to sitting down with North Korea.”
And, to be fair to Kim, restraint is not just on Pyongyang’s side.
“Major political changes in the U.S. would require the president’s support, and I don’t really see evidence that Joe Biden really sees the North Korea issue as deserving of massive political capital,” Panda said.
He added what many experts believe, and what even some US and South Korean lawmakers are admitting behind closed doors: “We’re going to be living with a nuclear-armed North Korea for probably several decades from now.”