Is it time to accept a nuclear-armed Pyongyang?

A North Korean navy truck carries the Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade on April 15, 2017.
A North Korean navy truck carries the Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade on April 15, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

North Korea's two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in a month have raised questions in South Korea about whether it is time to recognise the North as a nuclear-armed state.

Analysts noted that options to break the current impasse are limited, and time is running out as Pyongyang accelerates its missile and nuclear programmes, which it views as a means of survival.

South Korea's Prime Minister Lee Nak Yon warned yesterday that last Friday's ICBM test brought the North to a "critical point of the red line", and that opportunities for dialogue under pro-rapprochement President Moon Jae In's peace initiative are "closing".

Separately, the Defence Ministry warned in a report to Parliament that the North is ready to conduct another nuclear test "with more explosive power", so as to develop a nuclear-tipped ICBM. This would mark its sixth nuclear test to date, including two last year.

Global pressure and toughened sanctions have not worked so far. North Korea has also snubbed the South's recent offers of dialogue and cooperation.

The alternative could be to "give the North what it wants - status as a nuclear state", The Korea Times noted in an editorial. "But that recognition should be given in a way that the North is brought back into the international nuclear control regime so Pyongyang will act responsibly with its nuclear arsenal," the English- language daily added.

Dr Lee Seong Hyon of the Sejong Institute think-tank said the United States will soon realise it has to choose between attacking and accepting North Korea, and that experts and policymakers will have to debate this "confusing yet very important" issue in the weeks ahead.

He recalled a similar debate in the 1960s when China developed nuclear weapons against the wishes of major powers, the US and the former Soviet Union. "The US suggested to the Soviets that they jointly block China's nuclear ambition. The Soviets told the Americans that China would 'calm down' after it accomplished its goal."

Whether North Korea will also calm down after achieving nuclear status "remains uncertain", he said.

North Korea has long refused to return to the negotiation table, insisting instead that it should be recognised as a nuclear state first. The US, however, has long maintained that the North should give up its nuclear weapons first before dialogue can begin.

Some experts warned that giving North Korea nuclear status could undermine the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and encourage other countries with nuclear ambitions to follow suit.

Also, North Korea has yet to demonstrate its ability to mount a nuclear warhead on its missiles, noted Dr Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

He doubts whether the US would want to deal directly with North Korea - it has so far preferred to pressure China and Russia to do more to rein in the North instead.

He said dialogue is possible only if Pyongyang makes a significant gesture, like announcing a nuclear freeze or blowing up a cooling tower - like it did in 2008, two years after its first nuclear test. If not, it will be "politically incorrect for the US leadership to have negotiations under the threat of nuclear weapons by a morally unjustifiable state like North Korea", he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Is it time to accept a nuclear-armed Pyongyang?'. Print Edition | Subscribe