Foreign Policy Essay

North Korea and the Problem of Managing Emerging Nuclear Powers

By Nicholas L. Miller
Sunday, March 25, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: As the world watches North Korea with a mix of alarm and nausea, officials can agree that no one wants new nuclear powersespecially ones led by erratic and bellicose leaders. But at times prevention fails, and policy options for dealing with such powers are scant. Nicholas Miller at Dartmouth takes on this question, arguing that the current approach, especially the non-proliferation treaty, can often do more harm than good. 


For close to a year now, the Korean Peninsula has teetered on the brink of war. As North Korea has made dramatic strides in its nuclear and missile programs, the Trump administration has orchestrated increasingly potent U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and repeatedly threatened to launch a preventive attack. The ultimate goal of this coercive campaign, Trump administration officials have made clear, is the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

In recent weeks, North Korea announced a willingness to begin negotiations and suspend nuclear and missile tests in the interim, and President Trump agreed to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un, ostensibly to discuss denuclearization. Yet there are many reasons to be skeptical of this overture. Countless diplomatic efforts have failed over the past few decades, including under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. North Korea’s apparent demand for security guarantees as its price for denuclearization also raises red flags, as Pyongyang has in the past asked for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea—an almost certain deal breaker. On the U.S. side, it is not clear that the Trump administration has a coherent strategy for the talks, and many crucial diplomatic positions remain unfilled.

Perhaps the biggest reason to doubt that the North Korean regime will give up its nuclear weapons is the fact that it views its arsenal as the ultimate guarantee of regime survival. Indeed, the experience of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi after dismantling their WMD programs suggests that Pyongyang would be prudent to maintain its nuclear deterrent in order to defend against potential threats from the United States. Moreover, it has invested huge amounts of economic and political capital in the project, defying the predictions of experts who doubted its capability to develop a sophisticated nuclear arsenal and gaining international clout as a result.

This raises a question: If North Korea is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, why does the United States continue to demand this? Instead of threatening preventive war and raising the risks of dangerous miscalculation, why doesn’t Washington accept the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons and focus on deterring the regime from using them, achieving limits on the size or sophistication of the arsenal, or reducing the risk of conflict on the Peninsula?

Much of the answer to this question lies in the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, the cornerstone of contemporary efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This treaty recognized the five states that had exploded nuclear weapons as of January 1, 1967 as the only legitimate nuclear powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. It barred non-nuclear signatories from developing their own nuclear weapons, called for the nuclear powers to support the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, and committed the nuclear powers to work toward eventual disarmament. Since the 1970s, the United States has added teeth to the nonproliferation regime by enacting legislation that mandates sanctions on countries that pursue or acquire nuclear weapons outside the NPT.

At least when it comes to preventing additional states from acquiring nuclear weapons, there is substantial evidence that the treaty has succeeded—by creating norms against developing nuclear weapons, mitigating security dilemmas between rival states, and facilitating the aforementioned coercive enforcement measures by the United States and others.

Yet there is an unintended downside to the NPT regime. By freezing the roster of legitimate nuclear powers at the five that existed in 1968, the NPT makes it difficult for the United States to adopt realistic policies toward countries that have subsequently acquired nuclear weapons. This includes countries that did so outside the treaty (Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan) as well as those who acquired weapons after withdrawing from the treaty (North Korea). In each of these cases, efforts to uphold the nonproliferation regime by not legitimizing the state’s nuclear arsenal have seriously complicated U.S. foreign policy—providing the proliferator with coercive leverage over the United States, limiting the possibility of cooperation on other issue areas, or incentivizing risky efforts at rollback rather than realistic arms control efforts. The current dynamics between the United States and North Korea may be the most extreme example of this phenomenon, but they are part of a broader pattern of the challenges Washington faces in dealing with emerging nuclear powers in the shadow of the NPT.


The Dilemma of Successful Proliferation

Writing in 1996, Peter Feaver and Emerson Niou introduced what they termed the “managing nuclear proliferation problem.” Their article perceptively identified a core dilemma of U.S. nonproliferation policy: Namely, that efforts to cooperate with a country after it acquires nuclear weapons may make strategic sense—in particular, to ensure the safety or security of their arsenal—but that such a policy risks legitimizing their nuclear capabilities and thereby undermines the nonproliferation regime, reducing the odds that the country gives up its weapons and potentially accelerating the spread of nuclear weapons elsewhere. The challenges presented by the managing nuclear proliferation problem extend beyond inhibiting emerging nuclear powers from developing safer and more secure arsenals, though. They can lead to a range of additional negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy as well.

For example, in dealing with friendly states that have developed nuclear weapons since the NPT was signed in 1968—Israel, South Africa, and Pakistan—the United States has often pursued a policy of concealment, seeking to convince its partners to keep their nuclear capabilities secret or under the radar in an effort to limit the odds of triggering proliferation elsewhere. This has at least two unintended downsides, however. First, it gives the proliferator leverage over the United States, as they can threaten to publicly reveal their nuclear capabilities and thereby undermine the nonproliferation regime further if the United States does not offer them concessions—for example, political or military support in a crisis. Indeed, Israel, South Africa, and Pakistan all initially adopted such a catalytic strategy with their nuclear weapons, and at least Israel and Pakistan used this strategy to significant effect. Specifically, in the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel hinted to Washington that it might be forced to unveil its nuclear capabilities, helping to spur the United States to resupply Israel with conventional arms. Likewise, during a crisis with India in 1990, Pakistan deliberately signaled to Washington that it was mobilizing its nuclear assets, leading U.S. policymakers to step in and defuse the situation. Second, when these efforts at concealment are inevitably revealed, they lead to charges of hypocrisy. This is just one example of what Joseph Nye has termed the “compromise/hypocrisy” dilemma, whereby any U.S. effort at cooperation with countries that successfully acquire nuclear weapons leads to accusations of hypocrisy, potentially eroding the broader nonproliferation mission.

This dilemma existed before the NPT, but was not nearly as acute because there was no nonproliferation regime to uphold. Although the United States did not support the United Kingdom or France acquiring nuclear weapons, once they did so the United States offered them direct assistance in improving their weapons and missile capabilities, as part of an effort to improve alliance relations and increase U.S. control over their nuclear plans. Such a policy may make good strategic sense but it is essentially unthinkable today due to the strictures of the NPT.

In dealing with unaligned and adversary states that have gone nuclear since the NPT, U.S. policy has been similarly hamstrung. India’s nuclear weapons program has been a consistent irritant in relations with Washington since the first Indian test in 1974. As late as 1999, a year after both India and Pakistan tested several nuclear devices, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott wrote in the pages of Foreign Affairs, “The United States must remain committed to the long-range goal of universal adherence to the NPT. It cannot concede, even by implication, that India and Pakistan have by their tests established themselves as nuclear-weapons states with all the rights and privileges enjoyed by parties to the NPT, such as full international help in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To relent would break faith with those states that have forsworn a capability they could have acquired.”

It ultimately took more than thirty years after India’s first test for the United States to agree to resume peaceful nuclear trade with New Delhi, and obstacles persist in the actual implementation of this agreement, including disagreement over liability for nuclear accidents and Indian resistance to U.S. policies for keeping track of any nuclear material it transfers. The nuclear issue has arguably stood in the way of U.S. efforts to develop a closer strategic relationship with India in the context of China’s rising power.

U.S. policy toward North Korea since its first nuclear test in 2006 has displayed similar pathologies. As noted above, recent Trump administration efforts to achieve denuclearization have raised the risk of catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. But prior U.S. administrations also maintained that complete disarmament was the ultimate goal, which likely made it harder to achieve more pragmatic limits on North Korea’s capabilities or to reach deals in other issue areas—for example, in reining in North Korea’s dangerous nuclear and missile exports. Efforts to achieve total disarmament can make the perfect the enemy of the good, allowing nuclear threats to grow in the absence of any pragmatic restraints.

Again, a comparison to pre-NPT cases is instructive. After the Soviet Union and China acquired nuclear weapons, the United States never made a serious effort to convince either state to unilaterally dismantle their nuclear arsenal. Instead, the United States focused on deterrence and was open to cooperating with its nuclear-armed adversaries on issues of strategic importance. Within twenty years of the Soviet Union acquiring nuclear weapons, for example, Washington and Moscow had worked together on creating the International Atomic Energy Agency, Limited Test Ban Treaty, the NPT, and had begun talks that led to the SALT I Treaty and a broader policy of detente. Meanwhile, within fifteen years of communist China’s nuclear acquisition, the United States reached a historic rapprochement with Beijing and ended its formal alliance with Taiwan, giving the United States an advantage in its Cold War competition with the Soviets. Indeed, the Nixon administration even discouraged the Soviet Union from taking action against Chinese nuclear facilities during the 1969 border war between the two communist powers. Although North Korea today is by no means the same as the Soviet Union or China during the Cold War, it is worth noting that in the 1960s Mao was viewed as the ultimate “rogue” actor, and yet this did not prevent cooperation from emerging.


An Alternative U.S. Post-Proliferation Policy

The fact that the nonproliferation regime has generated unintended negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy does not mean that Washington should abandon its efforts to prevent additional states from acquiring nuclear weapons, especially given that there is mounting evidence of its success in these efforts. Instead, the United States should continue these policies while reconsidering how it approaches the very few countries that successfully overcome the hurdles of the nonproliferation regime.

One potentially attractive option moving forward would be for the United States to give up on the notion of rolling back emerging arsenals or keeping them secret. Instead, the U.S. government could offer to lift certain nonproliferation sanctions or offer other inducements in exchange for the proliferator publicly agreeing to limits on its nuclear program—for example, no testing, no transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies to other countries, and/or limits on the size and sophistication of the arsenal. As Mark Bell has noted in his analysis of current U.S. policy toward North Korea, negotiation may indeed lead Pyongyang to make significant concessions, but “[i]f the United States demands denuclearization at all costs, it will likely fail to get anything.”

This sort of pragmatic policy would have at least five benefits. First, by conditioning any sanctions relief or inducements on clear limits to the proliferator’s nuclear program short of rollback, this policy would limit the damage to the nonproliferation regime. Second, abandoning rollback as an objective in dealing with adversary and unaligned states would decrease temptations for launching potentially catastrophic preventive wars and focus policymakers’ attention on achieving stable deterrent balances. Third, it would open up the possibility of cooperating more fully with the proliferator on issues outside the nuclear arena. Fourth, discarding the idea of keeping the arsenals of friendly proliferators secret would reduce the latter’s leverage over the United States and mitigate charges of hypocrisy. Fifth and finally, such a policy would not require the United States or international community to formally recognize the proliferator’s nuclear status, thus denying them the prestige benefits of being an NPT-recognized nuclear power.

There are, of course, potential downsides to this policy. As nonproliferation purists have long warned, easing punishments on emerging nuclear powers could incentivize proliferation elsewhere by showing that nonproliferation barriers are not airtight. This is certainly possible, but as long as the United States continues to ensure that the pathway to acquiring nuclear weapons is long, painful, and treacherous, this should be sufficient to deter most potential proliferators and to prevent many of those that try from succeeding. Moreover, if the counterfactual is a world in which the United States continues to demand rollback or secrecy while the proliferator’s arsenal grows unabated, this may in fact be worse for the nonproliferation regime than a pragmatic bargain that lifts punishments in exchange for acknowledged restraints on the proliferator’s program.

As the ongoing debate on North Korea illustrates, managing an emerging proliferator is a thorny problem—but there are policy options. It’s time that we acknowledge the downsides of a purist nonproliferation policy and have a more clear-eyed debate about the pros and cons of engaging with emerging nuclear powers. This task has never been more urgent.