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North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. has three good reasons to talk anyway.

- March 9, 2018

Having successfully tested a high-yield nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach U.S. cities, North Korea appears eager to engage in talks with the United States. Not only that, South Korean officials delivered an invitation to President Trump to meet Kim Jong Un, and North Korea appears to be dangling the prospect of “denuclearization” in front of U.S. officials.

Whether a meeting between Kim and Trump ever takes place remains to be seen. Nonetheless, talks between the United States and North Korea in some form now seem likely. And although the U.S. government has made a variety of statements about the circumstances in which it might talk to North Korea, the possibility of denuclearization makes talks with North Korea more politically palatable for the United States.

But denuclearization is unlikely. It’s doubtful North Korea would ever agree to give up its nuclear weapons, for a simple reason. The United States cannot offer North Korea what it wants, which is a credible commitment not to threaten the regime in the future.

The enormous military power that the United States possesses, the ideological divide between North Korea and the United States, the extensive nature of U.S. interests in Asia, and the U.S. track record of regime change around the world mean that the United States will always pose a military threat to North Korea. As long as this is the case, North Korea will continue to see its nuclear weapons as crucial to deterring that threat.

If denuclearization is unrealistic, does that mean talking to North Korea is pointless? Hardly. The United States has plenty to gain from talks and has plenty of interests in North Korea beyond denuclearization. Here are three ways talks could be useful even if denuclearization is not realistic.

1) Restricting the growth of North Korea’s nuclear program 

Although the United States has consistently opposed the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries — known as horizontal proliferation — it has also worked to restrict vertical proliferation, or the improvements countries make in their existing nuclear arsenals.

The United States often has sought to restrain and reduce the independence, scope and sophistication of the nuclear programs of allies and adversaries. For example, the United States made deals with Israel, South Africa and Pakistan to prevent them from conducting nuclear tests, sought to restrict the independence of the British nuclear arsenal, and made a deal with North Korea in 1994 that froze its program for several years before it fell apart after violations by both sides.

Pursuing these same types of limited and pragmatic goals with North Korea today would, therefore, be consistent with the history of U.S. nonproliferation policy. Seeking to prevent further nuclear tests (in particular, preventing an atmospheric nuclear test), restricting growth in the number and variety of North Korean nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and limiting the amount of weapons-usable nuclear material North Korea produces remain achievable.

What would the United States have to offer in exchange? There would likely need to be limited concessions that would reduce North Korean fears of a surprise attack, such as restricting future military exercises with South Korea, or reducing the B-1B Lancer flights close to North Korea’s coasts. Relief of some sanctions on North Korea would be another possibility.

Getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear program may be unachievable, but keeping it limited in meaningful ways in exchange for limited U.S. concessions would be a valuable accomplishment. 

2) Deterring the export of nuclear technologies 

North Korea has a track record of exporting nuclear and other technologies that remain a concern to U.S. policymakers. North Korea may have assisted Syria with its chemical weapons program, and probably sold Syria the nuclear reactor that Israel bombed in 2006. The AQ Khan network that emerged from the Pakistani nuclear program and sold uranium enrichment technologies to Libya, Iran and North Korea shows the damage that illicit nuclear exporters can do.

If the two parties engage in talks, the United States would have a credible threat to deter such exports that it lacks today: The United States can threaten to walk away from talks if it sees evidence of such exports. More broadly, talks would allow the United States to communicate the seriousness with which it views nuclear exports and help establish a venue within which to confront North Korea about violations. 

3) Avoiding accidents and miscalculations 

In the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union established a hotline between the Kremlin and the White House to allow for better crisis communications. Both sides recognized that nuclear war could easily have occurred without either side wanting it and that there were numerous incidents during the crisis that could have led to the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

In the fog of a crisis, accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations are all very real possibilities. Any crisis between the United States and North Korea would face all these risks, compounded by North Korea’s relative inexperience with nuclear weapons and the incentives that both sides have to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis.

Talks with North Korea could establish “rules of the road” that reduce the risk of crises occurring or spiraling out of control. For example, both sides would benefit from better understanding each other’s red lines for nuclear use; sharing information about upcoming military exercises; and establishing military-to-military communications and other avenues for swift communication in the event of crises.

Of course, deals on these issues would be the type of smaller-scale results typically negotiated by diplomats and staffers, not presidents. It remains to be seen whether a meeting between Kim and Trump — if it occurs at all — can produce tangible progress on these issues. A dramatic agreement on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula might be nice, but it is highly unlikely to occur.

That should not, however, mean the potential benefits of more limited agreements need to fall by the wayside. Ultimately, politics is the art of the possible. If North Korea offering to discuss “denuclearization” makes it easier for Washington to engage in talks with Pyongyang to pursue limited but important goals, then deals that benefit the United States are possible. If the United States demands denuclearization at all costs, it will likely fail to get anything.

Mark S. Bell (@mark_s_bell) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.