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Should America Stop Trying to Denuclearize North Korea?

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John Glaser

There is an ongoing debate about how to overcome groupthink in US foreign policy and make necessary changes to America’s strategy in the world. Most recently, Cato’s own Emma Ashford wrote in Foreign Affairs about the so‐​called “blob,” a reference to an insular foreign policy elite and the resultant policy inertia it creates.

Earlier this month, David C. Kang, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, lamented one example of the narrow parameters of debate on one of the recurring priorities in U.S. foreign policy, North Korea:

Kang is generally right, but last week a card‐​carrying member of the blob landed on precisely this point. In an interview with PBS, Robert Gates, former defense secretary and CIA director, argues that the quest for denuclearization of North Korea is futile and implies it is distracting policymakers from more realistic objectives.

We need to come to the realization that the North Korean leadership is probably never going to give up their military — their nuclear capability. I think they see it as essential to their survival.

At what point do we recognize that the North is not going to give up its nuclear weapons and decide that some minimal number is acceptable, as long as we are able to have complete access to North Korea, to be able to verify an agreement and numbers of weapons and so on, and kind of anywhere/​anytime inspections, so that we know they cannot expand that capability, and we know where the weapons that they have are?

We have to come to grips with the reality these guys aren’t giving these things up, period.

That rare dissent from the broad policy consensus that North Korea is a dangerous, even suicidal, dictatorship that plans to use its nuclear weapons offensively and thus must be denuclearized, was quite refreshing. Especially so because today the Cato Institute is publishing a paper by senior fellow John Mueller with a very similar thesis. Mueller contends that the U.S. demand that North Korea relinquish its nuclear weapons stands in the way of normalization of relations and hinders progress on other discreet issues.

North Korea considers the weapons to be vital to its fundamental security — especially to deter any U.S. attempt to overthrow its regime by force. Accordingly, abandoning or at least downplaying the nuclear weapons issue is essential to make any progress toward normalization.

The upside to a normalization on the Korean peninsula is enormous, while the downside risk is marginal. If the effort fails — most likely because the North Korean regime, unlike similar ones in China and Vietnam, will prove to be unwilling or incapable of taking the required steps of economic reform — no one will be much worse off than they are now. Accordingly, U.S. policy should focus on the possibilities for normalization by relaxing or removing sanctions, stopping the threats, and letting South Korea take the lead in the process. Any demand that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons can, and should, wait.

Read Mueller’s Policy Analysis in full: “Nuclear Anti‐ Proliferation Policy and the Korea Conundrum: Some Policy Proposals.”


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