PYONGYANG’S version of YouTube recently featured a computer-animated clip of a nuclear strike on Washington, D.C., delivered via a North Korean ICBM. The North, which a decade ago tested its first nuclear weapon, will soon cross another threshold that could make its video propaganda a genuine threat: It will be able to attack the U.S. homeland with nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missiles.
North Korea’s potential nuclear breakout is both quantitative and qualitative. Unclassified American assessments estimate that North Korea will possess from 20 to 100 nuclear warheads by 2020, and some U.S. officials believe it has already achieved the miniaturization necessary to mount warheads on ballistic missiles.
An arsenal of this scale and quality would be a game-changer not only for the United States, but also for China, whose security interests would be harmed by the inevitable U.S. response — a significant arms buildup on China’s doorstep. This convergence of Western and Chinese interests creates political space for coordinated diplomacy aimed at freezing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities at the present level.
Relying on sanctions in hopes of bringing about the collapse of the Kim government won’t work. Pyongyang has already withstood societal pressures, such as mass starvation in the 1990s, that would topple other governments. In 2002, on the assumption that the government of the late Kim Jong Il was teetering, the George W. Bush administration voided the 1994 Agreed Framework, which had resolved the first nuclear crisis of the early 1990s by freezing the North’s plutonium program. It confronted Pyongyang over its alternate route to a bomb: covert uranium enrichment. The teeter never materialized; the bomb did.
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The Obama administration came to office with hopes of re-engaging the Kim government. After these ambitions were dashed by North Korean border provocations and nuclear tests, the U.S. defaulted to a policy of strategic patience. When Pyongyang rewarded patience with an additional nuclear test and missile launches earlier this year, the U.S., working through the United Nations Security Council, reverted to sanctions yet again. Alternating between strategic patience and sanctions has resulted in tacit acquiescence to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Beijing, meanwhile, will not permit sanctions to endanger the government of Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, which could precipitate a refugee crisis in northern China and lead to a unified Korea allied with the United States. (Just recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared “we will never allow … chaos on the Korean Peninsula.”) But Beijing must now weigh that risk against a North Korean strategic breakout that could lead to the U.S. deploying its latest anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea.
Working with the U.S. to secure a freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear program is the best achievable outcome for Beijing as well as Washington. China can’t compel Pyongyang, but it can influence North Korea’s actions, and a freeze would demonstrate its responsible regional leadership. It would also stabilize the north-south division of the Korean Peninsula that gives China a buffer against American alliances in the Pacific region and free China’s leader to focus on the country’s daunting social and economic challenges.
The timing is therefore as good as it will ever be to engage Beijing in a freeze campaign. The full diplomatic attention of both great powers, combined with sanctions that punish North Korea even if they don’t cripple it, could prove a sufficient inducement to Kim to negotiate a freeze.
Reinvigorating diplomacy with North Korea has its pitfalls. Pyongyang has cheated on past agreements, and any American concessions will be characterized by administration opponents as the propping up of an odious regime. Kim Jong Un would surely sell the deal at home by credibly claiming that his strong leadership had caused the West to change its demands.
Distasteful as those prospects are, joint diplomacy with China remains America’s best strategy. As with the Iran nuclear agreement — in which China (and Russia) played a constructive role — the goal would be to buy time and prevent a deteriorating situation from getting worse.
Freezing North Korean’s nuclear capabilities is an imperfect, interim solution, but it would avert the greater danger of North Korea developing a nuclear weapon that could strike the United States. The alternative — principled refusal to negotiate and the blinkered hope that sanctions and patience will bring Kim Jong Un to his senses — will almost certainly result in North Korea’s full emergence as a belligerent nuclear state.