How are US and North Korea Testing the Waters on Arms Reduction?

North Korea’s policy goal is denuclearization, but the likelihood of this is unrealistic given the country’s growing nuclear arsenal and improving strategic weapons capability. In 2017, North Korea declared that it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, demonstrating the progress made in weapons technology since the US’s first nuclear test in 1945 to 1956.

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test in seven years but regularly tests missiles capable of delivering them. In 2022, North Korea conducted sixty-eight missile tests, exceeding its previous record of twenty-five tests in 2019. In 2023, North Korea fired at least a dozen missiles, including six short-range missiles with Kim Jong Un and his daughter. These tests advance research and development, help North Korean missile crews improve proficiency, and reduce warning time and accuracy.

However, each time North Korea conducts a nuclear test or launches a missile, the US and international community responds with a formal statement condemning the test, additional sanctions, a White House statement indicating “all options are on the table,” and a “show of force” military exercise. These measures will not prevent North Korea from conducting additional missile or nuclear tests, as the US and its partners continue to do the same things repeatedly, hoping for different results.

North Korea knows what to expect, and the US has little deterrence credibility due to Washington’s reluctance to risk war on the Korean Peninsula. White House Situation Room conversations have always focused on potential escalation and conflict. The United States and its allies have been reluctant to take military escalation or actions that could threaten North Korea, as well as South Korea. This is due to concerns about economic prosperity and the potential threat to citizens living within North Korea’s artillery range. The US has engaged in talks with North Korea for most of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, including the Four-Party Talks, Three-Party Talks, and Six-Party Talks. Despite three US-North Korea presidential summits from 2018 to 2019, North Korea continues to expand its strategic arsenal.

The Obama administration’s North Korea policy, characterized by “strategic patience,” aims to shift focus from denuclearization to arms control and reduction. The first step is to accept North Korea’s de facto status as a nuclear weapons state, which is more realistic than complete, irreversible, verifiable disarmament. This shift is crucial for a diplomatic resolution.

However, the United States has dealt with nations who developed and assembled nuclear weapons outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) depended on the country’s relations with Washington. America never publicly pressed Israel to come clean or denuclearize, despite allegations of possible nuclear cooperation with South Africa’s apartheid government. Pakistan received billions in US military aid and continued to expand its nuclear arsenal, while Presidents Bush and Obama signed significant civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India, demonstrating Washington’s willingness to disregard denuclearization for geopolitical interests.

North Korea’s strategic weapons program is primarily used to deter the United States, not South Korea. The Six-Party Talks between the United States, China, North and South Korea, Russia, and Japan were a significant achievement in establishing a multilateral framework for arms control and reduction. However, North Korea has been known to cheat on agreements, including shutting down the reactor in Yongbyon and developing a highly enriched uranium weapons program.

North Korea’s past behavior suggests it may obfuscate the truth, but the United States can gain an opportunity to take a peek into the room during talks. Pyongyang may throw outlandish demands during the talks, such as inspecting US bases. The United States has more at a lower risk of disclosure due to its mature deterrence programs and the open nature of American society in policymaking and scientific development.

The North’s new, limited program, governed by a xenophobic regime, will cease weapon testing during talks, halting arsenal improvements, and monitor certain aspects of its program. Arms reduction talks are also between nuclear powers by nature, and conventional force reduction talks or steps to improve inter-Korean ties can be a pre-condition or corollary. If North Korea proves to be an unreliable negotiating partner during past denuclearization talks, the United States should consider more talks to test the waters on arms control and reduction with the North.

The US policymakers’ sense of urgency in negotiating with North Korea in the 1990s was to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. However, the urgency now lies in reducing stockpile and proliferation risks. North Korea’s history is not in their favor, as it has a significant global influence compared to its GDP. Unless social science tools are incorrect, North Korea could be a hereditary dictatorship relying on international handouts. The most valuable thing it has to export is nuclear weapons and missiles, which are sought by many countries.

The challenge is not to stuff North Korea’s nuclear genie back in the bottle, but to prevent it from breeding other genies. The international community cannot afford to fail in this situation, and the policy and statecraft challenge is not to try to stuff the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle. The challenge lies in preventing the genie from breeding other genies, and the international community cannot afford to fail in this regard.

How are US and North Korea Testing the Waters on Arms Reduction?North KoreaUnited StatesUS