A 'Third Track' To Solve The North Korean Nuclear Threat

Participants gesture during a celebration rally attended by service members and civilians following the country's successful
Participants gesture during a celebration rally attended by service members and civilians following the country's successful test of a nuclear warhead on September 9, in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on September 13, 2016. North Korea is ready to conduct another nuclear test at any time, South Korea's defence ministry said on September 12, just days after Pyongyang sparked worldwide condemnation with its fifth and most powerful test. / AFP / Kim Won-Jin (Photo credit should read KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea's fifth nuclear test, ostensibly to perfect the design of a device capable of being deployed on a wide-range of ballistic missiles, has sent ripples throughout the American national security policy community, which continues to wrestle with the question of how best to deal with the issue of a nuclear-armed North Korea. The policy options available to protecting American national interests while reducing the threat posed by North Korea to the region and the United States have been historically synthesized by American policy makers into two basic tracks. The first uses classic quid pro quo engagement that seeks the termination of North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs in exchange for the promise of eventual economic and political reengagement with North Korea's regional neighbors and the United States. The second is to contain the threat posed by North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs by using any and all measures necessary, up to and including the threat of preemptive nuclear attack.

There is no debate that the American current policy of turning to economic sanctions against North Korea in an effort to compel that nation into halting its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs has been a failure; North Korea is not responding to the pressures of economic sanctions. It is also clear that the United States is not willing to resort to the preemptive use of military force in order to compel North Korea into compliance. Both presidential candidates seem to recognize this - Hillary Clinton has noted that American-led economic sanctions were not enough to stop North Korea's nuclear ambition, all but admitting that the existing policy is a failure. Donald Trump has expressed similar sentiment. While both candidates, together with the Obama administration, have pointed out the need for Chinese assistance in making any sanctions regime targeting North Korea viable, the recent decision by the Obama administration to deploy an advanced anti-missile defense system to South Korea to counter the threat posed by North Korean missiles, despite strong Chinese protests, make any cooperation on the part of Beijing regarding enhanced economic sanctions unlikely. This collective recognition of policy failure across the political spectrum begs the following question: Rather than focusing on past policies that have only strengthened North Korea's resolve to build nuclear weapons, why doesn't America focus on new policies designed to soften it?

It might be time for American policy makers to embrace a "third track", one that is the geo-political derivative of Newton's Third Law of Physics that holds that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This "third track" would unilaterally terminate economic sanctions, end the state of war that officially exists between North Korea and the United Nations by signing a formal peace treaty, and officially recognize the Communist government of North Korea as the legitimate government of that country. The "third track" would remain silent on the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

The goal of this new "third track" would be to bring North Korea into the family of nations as a full-fledged member, and then offer it the potential of unencumbered economic and social development if it conforms to international norms and standards when it comes to nuclear and ballistic missile nonproliferation. In order to fully join the community of nations, however, North Korea would eventually be required to voluntarily disarm, along the same lines that South Africa did with its nuclear weapons program in 1994, and Argentina did with its ballistic missiles in 1997. There is no turning back the clock and undoing, by force or compulsion, what North Korea has already achieved regarding its nuclear and ballistic missile capability; any effort to do so would only harden North Korean resolve. The best way out of the current impasse is to accept reality, and use the promise of economic development, as opposed to the threat of economic sanctions and military force, as the ideal vehicle for getting North Korea to self-correct and undertake policies, voluntarily, that would align it with the rest of the world.

It is clear, given the tortured history of US-North Korean relations that the conditions for successful engagement between these two nations is virtually impossible if the present policy formulations, which emphasize economic sanctions-based coercion and unveiled threats of military force, both of which underpin a policy of regime change, are maintained unchanged. The politics and inclination of North Korea in pursuing its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs are directly related to the difficult history of relations between it and the United States (the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula by the United States in 1958, in violation of the armistice agreement, and the American policy of nuclear pre-emption announced under the administration of President George W. Bush both predate Pyongyang's recent spate of nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation.) Rather than trying to compel North Korean willingness to work with the United States, the time has come for the tables to be turned, and for the United States to instead change the emphasis by focusing on its willingness to work with North Korea, as opposed to against it. American concerns over human rights abuses in the North must become subordinated to a concerted effort to eliminate the threat of nuclear conflict.

At this late stage of the game, North Korean disarmament will either come voluntarily, or not at all. Given the negative consequences of living with an isolated North Korea armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, the United States would be well served to try and change the game by creating the conditions that facilitate a major policy course correction. A "third track" represents the best chance of obtaining such an outcome.

Scott and Victoria Ritter

Scott Ritter is a former Marine intelligence officer and arms control specialist who served as a weapons inspector in the former Soviet Union and in Iraq. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West's Road to War, forthcoming from Clarity Press, Inc. ( http://www.claritypress.com/Ritter.html). Victoria Ritter is a senior at SUNY Albany, majoring in international relations, and the term paper for her American Foreign Policy course, written several months before the North Korean nuclear test, served as the basis for this essay.