How to Learn to Live With a Nuclear North Korea

The United States has spent 25 years trying to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. It has failed.

North Korea long ago crossed the nuclear threshold. It is now at the stage of fine-tuning nuclear weapons and developing long-range delivery systems. The government has embedded nuclear weapons in the nation’s constitution; North Korea means business in saying that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, no matter how many carrots the United States can possibly offer.

Nuclear weapons, in other words, are here to stay in North Korea, unless the United States uses military force to remove them — a dangerous and bloody undertaking.

Yet the United States still has an indirect way to deal with the North Korean provocations. It can entertain a long-overdue but usually dismissed course of action: answering North Korea’s call for normalizing relations and removing the animosity between the two nations. In this scenario, the Trump administration would make a couple of things utterly clear to the North’s leaders. First, that their provocations are suicidal: If they launched a nuclear strike on the United States or its allies, South Korea and Japan, they would be annihilated. Second, if they stop the provocations, Washington will formally end the Korean War with a peace treaty and normalize relations — even if the North remains a nuclear power.

This option is not a politically palatable one at the moment. Nor is it a panacea for the problems Washington has with Pyongyang. But it would free the United States from being the primary target of North Korea’s nukes and missiles and the primary responder to North Korea’s provocations. And with the removal of the basic animosity and the establishment of direct contacts between the two governments and peoples, the United States would put not just North Korea, but also the entire Korean Peninsula, on the path toward lasting peace.

Roads not taken

There were previous chances to stop the North’s route toward being a nuclear power by normalizing relations. The first miss occurred during the dramatic changes in the aftermath of the Cold War. Russia, the successor of the imploded Soviet Union, took the initiative to normalize relations with South Korea in 1991, ostensibly in return for economic incentives. China surprisingly followed suit immediately, putatively for the same reason. The two big powers also sponsored the two Koreas to become full members of the United Nations in 1992 (prior to that,…

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