Accept reality, craft arms control agreements: US North Korea experts urge reality check

Experts reckon North Korea has close to or around 50 nuclear warheads and an array of missiles.
Experts reckon North Korea has close to or around 50 nuclear warheads and an array of missiles.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Pyongyang has yet to greet the Joe Biden administration with a good old-fashioned weapons test.

But that could change at any moment.

Even though obvious tensions appear to be lower, a reminder of the challenge North Korea poses to the United States was offered on Wednesday (Feb 17) in the indictment by the Department of Justice of three "North Korean military hackers" engaged in a "wide-ranging scheme to commit cyber attacks and financial crimes across the globe".

Former president Donald Trump is given credit for deterring North Korea from carrying out intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by threatening North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un with "total destruction".

But after three rounds of high-profile summitry, North Korea is actually further along in its nuclear and missile capability. Experts reckon North Korea has close to or around 50 nuclear warheads and an array of missiles - some of which may be able to reach the continental United States.

New ICBM

At a military parade on Oct 10, 2020, North Korea showcased what appeared to be the largest liquid propelled road mobile ICBM in the world.

Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken ordered a review of US policy on North Korea. The US is looking for a fresh approach.

"We are doing that in close consultation with our South Korean allies, with our Japanese allies, and with other allies and partners both in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly," State Department spokesman Ned Price told The Straits Times at a media briefing on Wednesday.

"We need to have them with us if we are going to take an effective and ultimately successful approach vis-a-vis the challenge of North Korea's nuclear programme, its ballistic missiles programme, its other areas of concerns," he said.

"And... we do remain committed to the principle of denuclearisation. It is... very much a part of that approach that we will have going forward."

But since the photo-op summitry failed in inducing any strategic shift, the conversation has shifted in US policy circles, where it is now loudly said that North Korea is not going to give up nuclear weapons.

That leaves the option of arms control talks - similar to those with Russia during the Cold War.

An interim deal is being mooted that would freeze or cap nuclear weapons. That would inherently recognise North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power - like Pakistan, for instance.

Until only recently, this idea has been an anathema to Washington.

Reality check

"A reality check is overdue," Mr Markus Garlauskas, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, wrote for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) on Feb 9.

Mr Garlauskas was, until very recently, the senior official leading strategic intelligence analysis of North Korea; before that, he was chief strategist for US Forces Korea.

"The Trump administration's headline-grabbing threats and summits were just new packaging for the decades-old approach of expecting Beijing's help to pressure Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear programme," he wrote. "This failed again and North Korea's threatening capabilities grew."

"Kim Jong Un has made his 'strategic decision' clear - to become and remain a nuclear-armed power despite the costs," he wrote.

"The Biden administration should seek to escape the inertia of its predecessors by crafting a pragmatic new strategy... (focusing) on reducing the risks of regional destabilisation, military escalation and nuclear war."

In November 2020, Dr Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), suggested seeking to "cap and contain the most dangerous elements of North Korea's weapons programmes in order to stop their growth and minimise chances of inadvertent use, proliferation, and leakage".

Earlier in October 2020, Mr Joseph Yun, senior adviser to the Asia Programme at USIP and a former US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, wrote that the US "should discard maximalist policies based on quixotic dreams about near-term denuclearisation".

Strategic goal: Recognition

Another problem for the US is that it now has less bargaining power, contends Dr Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA North Korea analyst and currently senior fellow for Korea at the CSIS.

North Korea has long maintained the same strategic goal, she noted.

"They seek regime survival, regime security, international recognition and the prestige that comes with nuclear weapons," Dr Terry said on Feb 10 in a discussion at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

"Let's get to a practical solution, a realistic solution" she said. "North Korea is never going to give up their nuclear weapons. China is not the answer."

"If North Korea's goal is… gaining, securing international acceptance of North Korea's nuclear weapons power, they're going to achieve that goal. They are headed in that direction."

"And if our goal is denuclearisation, we're not anywhere near it."