Some Experts See North Korean Nuclear Arms as Here to Stay

Rachel Oswald

A number of independent U.S. analysts are saying the Obama administration appears to be reluctantly accepting that the North Korean military might never be fully denuclearized.

Since the last round of regional nuclear talks in 2008, the North has substantively advanced its nuclear weapons program -- carrying out two underground atomic tests; launching several long-range rockets, one of which made it into space; showing off a prototype for a road-mobile ICBM; declaring a uranium enrichment program; and initiating efforts to reopen a disabled plutonium production reactor.

All of this illustrates, according to some issue experts, just how much ground has been lost in nearly five years of unsuccessful international efforts to resume negotiations on an end to Pyongyang's nuclear program.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week in an appearance with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Brunei told journalists, "We join you in making it absolutely clear that the policy of the United States, together with the Republic of Korea and Japan, is the denuclearization of … North Korea."

The Obama administration has shown little interest in responding to recent overtures by Pyongyang asking for unconditional bilateral security talks. Washington has said it is willing to return to the six-party aid-for-denuclearization talks, but it has qualified that on the requirement that North Korea first demonstrate a willingness to halt its prohibited weapons work. The six-nation talks also involve China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

While the U.S. demand would seem to represent proof that the Obama team would not accept continued North Korean nuclear arms work, some analysts say maintenance of the status quo, without talks, suggests Pyongyang's military efforts simply will proceed forward.

Victor Cha, the Bush administration's former special envoy for North Korea policy, in an e-mail said he does not see an explicit policy shift on the part of Washington. However, "having said that, a policy of non-action on the diplomatic front, with everyone sitting on their hands, is tantamount" to acquiescence of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, he said.

"Objectively, the North Koreans are just making progress and as the North Korean program advances, I suspect that -- particularly in the U.S. and South Korea and Japan -- there is a declining confidence that we will be able to get them to bargain it away," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

"I wouldn't represent it as a kind of [policy] discontinuity. It isn't that something changed overnight. It is that there has been this gradual accumulation of North Korean capabilities," said Lewis, who writes for the Arms Control Wonk blog and Foreign Policy magazine. "I think when they came into office, [Obama administration officials] were in this whole benign neglect mode. They didn't press very hard and the North Koreans went kind of crazy with the tests."

Pyongyang has signaled that its plan in any new diplomatic talks will be to attain some form of recognition of its status as a nuclear-armed nation, according to observers.

"Part of North Korea's diplomatic strategy is working -- carving out a space where it's tacitly accepted as a nuclear weapon state," said Joel Wit, editor of the website 38 North, at an event at the American Security Project in late June.

"To me, all of this is leading to a reality, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, that we are acquiescing to North Korea as a nuclear power," argued Wit, a onetime State Department official who, in the 1990s, supervised an ultimately failed U.S.-North Korea denuclearization accord.

Not all analysts agree with the view that the Obama administration, by not aggressively pushing for new negotiations, is implicitly accepting the North's nuclear weapons status.

Anthony Cordesman, a former director of Defense intelligence assessments at the Pentagon, in an interview last week emphasized the idea that language remains important.

While Washington "recognizes the very nature of North Korea's nuclear efforts," the Obama administration has not "undertaken any diplomatic efforts that would signal, even tacitly, that the United States accepts" the isolated state as a nuclear weapon country, he said.

Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, in an e-mail said he sees it both ways: "We keep on saying [North Korea's nuclear work is] not acceptable."

On the other hand, there is an implicit recognition of Pyongyang's strategic status "in terms of how we respond to their nuclear threat … which, de facto, recognizes that they are a nuclear-armed state, if not a nuclear weapons state, under international law," he wrote.

The U.S. State Department did not respond by press time to a question about whether it is moving toward tacit recognition that North Korea's nuclear weapons program is here to stay.

Lewis in a Tuesday phone interview said the problem the Obama administration is confronting, as it ponders whether to re-engage with Pyongyang, is how politically unpalatable it has become to negotiate freezes to the East Asian country's nuclear and missile programs, which were signature characteristics of previous aid-for-denuclearization efforts.

"In the past, we were negotiating with the North Koreans to freeze their program and give up things they hadn't yet built," such as a uranium enrichment capability and longer-range ballistic missiles, Lewis said. The negotiations inevitably always stumbled when the United States and its allies pushed Pyongyang to dismantle or surrender nuclear weapon technology it already possessed, he said.

Now that North Korea has advanced its weapons of mass destruction efforts so much, the prospect of getting it to agree to permanently give up all of its new capabilities seems even more remote, according to Lewis.

"The old formula of freezing the program just looks less appealing," he said.

Still, Lewis said he believes it is better to negotiate freezes to North Korea's nuclear weapons work -- even if they end up being temporary -- than to have no moratorium in place at all.

The last freeze Washington negotiated with Pyongyang, the so-called 2012 Leap Day deal, never even got off the ground. The aborted accord would have provided North Korea with a limited quantity of U.S. food aid in exchange for its moratorium of all nuclear and long-range missile tests and a halt on its uranium enrichment work. The United States walked away from the deal after the North fired a space rocket in April 2012.

Michael Green, an East Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there is no "clear option" for ending the North's nuclear work.

Participants in the six-party talks "will probably go for some second-best solution, which involves sanctions and pressure to impose a cost on the regime, slow down their program, dissuade other proliferators, and strengthen the net needed to prevent [weapons] leakage."

Such an outcome is not satisfactory but is the "reality," Green, a former National Security Council staffer under President George W. Bush, said in an e-mail.

Wit said he would like to see more coercive diplomacy on the part of the Obama administration. What currently exists, he said, is coercion in the form of deepening international sanctions and interdictions of smuggled weaponry but no substantive diplomacy, which could involve routine contacts through both official and semi-official channels.

The United States must also be persistent when engaging with Pyongyang, he said.

"We need to have the patience to sustain a dialogue with North Korea," Wit said. "Even if we get traction, it's going to be long and difficult, so we need to be able to stay with it."

Additionally, the Obama administration should be open to sending high-level "diplomatic assets" to engage with the North, said Wit, who is a visiting scholar at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "We need to lead from the front of the pack on this issue, not from way behind, which is what we are doing now."

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