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Why We Need Détente With North Korea

Whatever Kim Jong-Il’s death meant for the people of North Korea, it did not change the fundamental strategic interest that the United States has in the country. The paramount issue for Washington remains assuring that Pyongyang never uses its nuclear arsenal, and that it never leaks or gifts its weapons material and technology to other nations or terrorists.

But if Washington’s basic strategic posture remains, it should consider revising its current non-proliferation policies in the wake of Pyongyang’s change of leadership. After all, the West’s efforts until now have not been borne fruit. Now is the time to try an untrodden, but potentially promising path: Washington should concede that North Korea has beaten nonproliferation roadblocks and focus instead on forestalling our worst nuclear fears by normalizing relations with Pyongyang. America’s embrace of a rising nuclear bête noire of a much earlier era, Mao’s China, provides a template.

First, some background. North Korea’s commitment to the bomb grew out of events nearly a half century ago, the Cuban missile crisis. For most, the nearly-disastrous brinksmanship marked a sobering reminder of the risks of the nuclear age. For Pyongyang, however, Moscow’s retreat from Cuba demonstrated the peril of relying on others for security. The North Korean regime determined that developing nuclear weapons of its own could help it achieve self-sufficiency in national security. Nearly five decades later, Pyongyang tested two nuclear devices. (Recent reports suggest it may be on the cusp of detonating a third in 2012 in pursuit of warhead miniaturization for missile deployment.)

Washington has tried repeatedly to stem Pyongyang’s nuclear march, but with little success: from IAEA safeguards to threats of military action, nothing made a difference. Yet, despite this history, the United States has never reconsidered its tactical approach, continuing to hope that limited, transactional negotiations can solve the fundamental problem.

Advocates for further negotiation of this sort point to the successful weaning of Muammar Qaddafi from his nuclear ambitions in 2003. But for North Korea, the Libyan experience serves as a cautionary tale: Had Qaddafi acquired the bomb, rather than trade his ambitions for limited economic gains, he would be alive and in power today.  

For that reason, Washington’s current relationship with North Korea is “treadmilling”: There is an illusion of movement, but no progress. Absent an epiphany by Kim Jong-Il’s son and the surrounding coterie—or, alternatively, regime collapse—the United States will face a nuclear North Korea for years to come unless it fundamentally changes its approach. Fortunately, Washington has a constructive template for future progress: its treatment of the Chinese nuclear program.

When John Kennedy became president in 1961, the administration was seized with anxiety about Beijing. A Chinese nuclear test “is likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s,” so commented Walt Rostow, Kennedy’s deputy national security advisor.  The State Department declared ominously that if China got the bomb it would signal that “Communism is the wave of the future.”

Kennedy ordered his administration to produce contingency papers detailing potential responses to China’s nuclear ambitions, including conventional, nuclear and covert strikes against Chinese weapons facilities. But after looking at all their options long and hard, the analysts conceded that success would be fleeting. Beijing would rebuild its weapons infrastructure within a matter of a few years.

But the Department of State assured Kenendy that this was no reason to panic. The United States didn’t need to counter China’s nuclear program, because it would always be capable of maintaining a nuclear advantage. This argument ultimately won the day: On October 16, 1964, China became the globe’s fifth nuclear-armed state. 

As it turns out, China never became the nuclear menace many feared. Rather, by assuring the country’s security, the bomb gave the country enough confidence to think of the United States as an equal rather than an adversary. This established the basis for Richard Nixon to travel to China in 1972, normalizing relations between the two countries.

There is no doubt that North Korea is an odious regime. But it is no more abhorrent than Mao’s China, which was responsible for the deaths of millions of citizens through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Yet the United States still accepted China’s nuclear status and normalized political and economic ties with it.

Of course, North Korea—which seems to embrace its pariah status—may be a more difficult nut to crack. Nonetheless both countries have an interest in achieving rapprochement. The current estrangement produces distrust, misinformation, and endless suspicion. Normalization of relations would reduce such risks, possibly breaking the isolation that has kept the Kim family in power.

None of this is to say we should be Pollyannaish about establishing relations with a nuclear North Korea. The United States would have to remain vigilant, and it would have to maintain military deterrence to protect allies and stem any North Korean export of nuclear contraband.

But consider the alternative. A new regime in Pyongyang, uncertain in its domestic footing, further isolated by continued U.S. pressure to eliminate its nuclear arsenal, guided by poor intelligence about the outside world, with paranoid hands on the trigger of the atomic bomb. This is not a situation we can afford.

Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush Administration and is the author of several books on international politics.