The threat of North Korea’s nuclear project is so serious—and the various options as to how to respond to it are so unattractive— that the time has come to think outside the box. One good way to start is by asking why Kim Jong-un’s regime is so keen on developing nuclear arms. Some believe that the leaders of North Korea are completely irrational, which has led them for two generations to subject their people to extreme deprivations in order to invest in a prestige-building, nationalist project. However, before one writes off an adversary as irrational (and hence incapable of responding sensibly to incentives and disincentives)—one should consider the argument that North Korea sees in nuclear arms the best way to protect its regime, for those in power to stay in power.
North Korea has good reason to hold that its regime is threatened. The US has long considered, at least since Woodrow Wilson, its mission to be the promotion of liberal democratic regimes overseas. The neoconservatives embraced the thesis that if such regimes do not come about ‘naturally,’ the US should use force to try to bring them about, as it did in Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Chile, Iran, Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan (among others). Moreover, North Korea was openly put on the short list of evil regimes by the Bush Administration in 2002, just before the US invaded Iraq.
Pyongyang also noticed that nations that did give up their nuclear programs did not fare well, while those that persisted fared much better. Libya gave up its nascent program and was invaded by the UK, France, and the US—first to prevent a civilian blood bath, but then to remove Qaddafi and open the door to a democratic regime. Ukraine, which gave up it nukes, was invaded by Russia and lost part of its territory. In contrast, Iran is treated as a power with which one must negotiate but not invade.
The question hence arises: Is there a way to test the proposition that the main concern of North Korean leaders is to stay in power? If this is true—they should be willing to give up their nukes if (a) their regime would be seriously threatened if they kept developing their nuclear program and (b) if they could find another way to safeguard it.
The US could threaten the regime with its military forces, but as many have noted, such action could trigger a devastating counterattack by North Korea. Indeed, as Max Fisher pointed out recently in the New York Times, given that North Korea must be concerned with its ability to protect its nuclear facilities from an attack by the US—even a small attack, say on its missile sites or nuclear testing grounds, or major building up of forces by the West― may well trigger a massive North Korean first strike. (The fact that South Korea is adamantly opposed to taking on North Korea also agitates against the military option.) Indeed, several observers conclude that the best the US can do is to deter a nuclear-armed North Korea rather than seek to roll back its programs.
The challenge is to find a way to get North Korea to perceive pressure on it as aimed at changing its behavior but not its regime. That is, giving up its nukes but not fearing that its leaders will be cast out of power. This can be achieved if China would agree to treat North Korea the way the US treats Japan. The US has a treaty with Japan that assumes that an attack on Japanese territory is a threat to regional peace and commits American forces to “act to meet the common danger.” That is, as if US itself was attacked. Note that the agreement enters force only if Japan is attacked, not if it is attacking; it is a defense treaty. If China offered North Korea such a defense treaty on the condition of giving up its nukes, and—threatened to cut off oil supplies if North Korea did not (a supply essential to North Korea’s survival)–North Korea may be open to such an agreement. It is at least worth finding out.
Why would China take such as step? The answer lies in the US providing China with incentives it will find hard to refuse. Fortunately, there are several policy changes that are highly valuable to China that the US can provide at little loss. For instance, Beijing is very concerned that the anti-missile batteries the US installed in South Korea might render China unable to retaliate if it came under a nuclear attack. The US could readily commit itself to remove these batteries once the North Korean nuclear program is defanged. Similarly, the US could commit to not positioning its forces on Chinese border, even if the two Koreas united.
Granted, such a double deal (US-China and China-North Korea) is improbable. But in ‘the land of lousy options,’ it deserves to be road tested.
This piece was originally published in The Diplomat.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. He is the author of Avoiding War with China, published by University of Virginia Press.