Denying North Korea nuclear status may be “as foolish an act as trying to eclipse the sun with a palm.” Since its first nuclear test in 2006, Pyongyang has detonated progressively more powerful devices, in 2009, 2013 and twice this year and also made major strides in developing its delivery systems. The more the U.S. isolates North Korea, the more are the chances of Pyongyang rising to a fully fledged nuclear power.
Following North Korea’s fifth and most powerful nuclear test last week, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated a stance that has undergirded American and much international policy for decades: Pyongyang would never be accepted as a member of the nuclear arms club.
Promising new sanctions against the already isolated country in response to its “unlawful and dangerous actions,” Obama was unequivocal that “the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”
It’s a vow, however, that appears increasingly hollow in light of Pyongyang’s impressive advancement of its nuclear ambitions, forcefully demonstrated by last Friday’s detonation, the second this year and fourth on Obama’s watch.
The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official mouthpiece, on Sunday quoted a foreign ministry official as saying that to deny the country’s nuclear status was as “foolish an act as trying to eclipse the sun with a palm.”
Since its first nuclear test in 2006, Pyongyang has detonated progressively more powerful devices, in 2009, 2013 and twice this year, with its most recent weapon thought to have been more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. At the same time, it has made major strides in developing its delivery systems. Last month, it successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submarine.
Experts such as Siegfried Hecker now consider plausible the once fanciful idea that North Korea could soon be capable of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead, possibly within a decade.
With the clock ticking, Obama and presidential favorite Hillary Clinton have essentially reaffirmed the status quo, calling for the further isolation of the regime — even though a decade of censure and sanctions, punctuated by bursts of diplomacy, has not brought the Kim family’s regime to heel.
Just in March, the United Nations imposed its toughest sanctions yet as a response to the fourth nuclear test two months earlier. While taking this punitive approach, Washington has refused to countenance official dialogue with North Korea without prior signs of willingness toward denuclearization.
“Pressure without negotiations has never worked with North Korea in the past and is not likely to work now,” Leon Sigal, a North Korea analyst and former State Department official, told The Asia Times.
Sigal has joined a chorus of pro-engagement figures calling for a change in policy, arguing that, without talks, North Korea’s ultimate goal is almost assured.
“The language issue is trivial,” he said of the U.S. not recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state. “The point is whether we can try a strategy that might succeed. Deterrence and pressure alone will not suffice.”
But if isolation has failed, diplomacy and engagement, too, have a checkered history on the peninsula. The Agreed Framework, a deal Pyongyang signed with Washington in which it promised to give up its nuclear power program in exchange for non-proliferation-friendly reactors, fell apart in 2003, within a decade of its signing, when the American side accused the North Koreans of cheating.
The follow-up Six-Party Talks, also involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, produced a similarly futile outcome, with North Korea storming out of discussions after the UN condemned an attempted satellite launch as a pretext to test ballistic missile technology.
Under two liberal presidents, meanwhile, South Korea embarked on a decade-long project of rapprochement known as the “sunshine policy.” While its legacy remains the subject of heated debate to this day, the project reached an ignominious nadir when Pyongyang detonated its first nuclear device half-way through the tenure of Roh Moo-hyun, the inheritor of “sunshine” from Noble Peace Prize-winning President Kim Dae-jung.
Through the lens of the last two decades, none of the feasible options to rein in Pyongyang seem especially promising.
“Two pathways to a non-nuclear DPRK: disarm them by force, or revolutionary change within,” said Daniel Pinkston, a professor at Troy University and former Korean linguist with the U.S. Air Force.
“Unless one of those two things happens, yes. They work on their nuclear and missile programs every day.”
While Pinkston is pessimistic about the prospects for stopping North Korea’s rise to fully fledged nuclear power, he believes Washington’s official stance is unlikely to change regardless of the eventual reality.
“’Accepting the DPRK as a nuclear state’ would mean passing new United Nations Security Council resolutions to invalidate the sanctions regime, giving the DPRK a seat as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, recognizing the DPRK as the ‘legitimate Korea,’ basically rewriting the rules of the international system to suit Pyongyang’s whims,” Pinkston said.
“So yes, Pres. Obama is right. It’s not acceptable. I don’t expect to ever see that being acceptable in my lifetime.”
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.
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