Why We Must Recognize North Korea
By Arthur Waldron
The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.
This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a State, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.
On 21 June 2017, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to "a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula." Two weeks later, on 7 July 2017 it was reported that President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump had also agreed on such "a complete and irreversible denuclearization." South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.
But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up.
Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which "The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine". That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.
No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.
Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.
Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author's estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China's perhaps 1,000 (author's estimate), India's 130, Pakistan's 140, Israel's 80, France's 300, Britain's 215, and the United State's 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.
Current shaky alignment
At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies are having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.
No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China's illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.
This fact of Chinese aggression means that the US and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defences of our Asian allies. My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.
Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate, lest she causes nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with rogue nations. She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.
These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.
(Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI's Asia Programme and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.)
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