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Why can't we just talk?

As Pyongyang’s missile tests rain down on the region, it’s time to open up those old lines of communications with North Korea.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

This article is part of our weeklong series commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War armistice, July 27, 1953.

After seven decades of a state of armistice between the United States and North Korea, tensions remain high on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has continued to strengthen its nuclear deterrent, and the United States and South Korea have insisted on pressure-based tactics that have failed for decades to achieve progress toward denuclearization. Because of these failures, North Korea is building up a substantial deterrent that doctrinally prioritizes nuclear warfighting and South Korea's political discourse is moving pro-nuclear. 

The status quo is only escalating tensions and incurring steep fiscal costs and it must change before things get worse. A step-by-step approach to de-escalation and risk reduction based on mutual trust and transparency will create a more stable environment and forge a path toward peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Intensifying Tensions and Arms Race in East Asia

While the exact capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are not well known, the nation has made a concerted effort to demonstrate that it possesses both the will and the capability to use nuclear weapons in response to — or in some cases to preempt — aggression from its perceived enemies. 

North Korea has shown recent advancements in its nuclear weapons program by testing a new solid-fuel ICBM, the Hwasong-18, and displaying a new warhead, the Hwasan-31. While the exact capabilities and readiness level of this warhead are still unclear, images released by state media suggest this new warhead is meant to be mated with a variety of short-range delivery systems, including cruise missiles and “underwater nuclear-capable attack drones.” 

North Korea has also been prioritizing the continued development of its launch platforms, satellite technology, and post-boost vehicle deployment. While there is still much unknown, it is clear that North Korea is improving its nuclear deterrent. 

The heightened number of North Korean missile tests comes against the backdrop of deepening militarization by the United States and South Korea. In March 2023, the United States and South Korean militaries held their largest joint field exercises in five years. In May and June, the two countries conducted live-fire drills near the demilitarized zone border, called “combined annihilation firepower drills,” the largest of their kind. Because North Korea views joint military exercises as rehearsals for war, some researchers compellingly argue that the exercises do not actually deter North Korea. Conversely, North Korea heavily criticizes these exercises and often responds with more missile testing and provocations, which repeats the escalatory cycle. 

Additionally, concerns about North Korea’s provocations have led to growing conversations around South Korea’s need for a nuclear arsenal. Recent polling shows more than 70 percent of the South Korean public support developing nuclear weapons or the United States returning nuclear weapons to South Korea. As South Korean public opinion tends to follow the tone of U.S. policy in the region, we’re seeing a deterrence-first approach from South Korea in reaction to the worsening tensions with North Korea.

The 2023 Washington Declaration between the U.S. and South Korea is an example of this continued focus on deterrence-based actions. The United States agreed to regularly send bombers, aircraft carriers, and other assets to the region, in exchange for South Korea agreeing to not pursue its own nuclear weapons program. 

Recently, the USS Kentucky SSBN arrived in Busan, South Korea, marking the first SSBN visit since 1981 and the first time the United States has placed nuclear weapons in South Korea since 1991. These moves eliminate the possibility that North Korea will return to the negotiation table and instead perpetuate the cycle of tit-for-tat military provocations that increase the possibility of escalation — evidenced by the satellite launches and ballistic missile tests North Korea has conducted since the signing of the declaration.

The Status Quo is Not Working

In order to de-escalate rising tensions, the United States should reconsider the status quo policies it has pursued for decades. The current goal of “complete denuclearization” is based on the phrase “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID, which dates back to the six-party talks that began in 2003. North Korea at the time threatened to cease engagement with the United States if it insisted on pursuing a CVID stance. Nevertheless, the Bush administration demanded “nothing less” than CVID, and efforts at diplomacy and arms control consistently failed to achieve progress

This insistence (and misunderstanding) on the goal of CVID has continuously prevented the United States from making any progress on deterring or dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. 

Today, the United States insists on the two-decades-old stance that was implemented in a context where North Korea had no nuclear weapons and had not even conducted its first nuclear test. Since 2003, North Korea has survived economic hardship and a major leadership transition — contrary to what many thought would happen — while simultaneously pursuing a capable nuclear weapons program that has become an integral aspect of the nation’s culture, economics, and politics. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as it stands today is complex and established — “complete denuclearization” two decades ago meant something very different than it does today, and remains a non-starter for Kim Jong Un. 

After all, Kim Jong Un has made statements specifically about the “irreversibility” of North Korea’s nuclear program and commitment to “never give up its nukes.”

Risk Reduction Must Come First

In September 2022, North Korea codified a new nuclear doctrine that alluded to the potential for delegated launch authority and claimed that its nuclear weapons are prepared to be launched “automatically and immediately” if need be. Because of North Korea’s legitimate security concerns and its significantly inferior conventional capabilities, Kim may view the escalation to nuclear first use — whether preemptive or retaliatory — as a viable strategic option. Prioritizing risk reduction is in the immediate best interest of the United States and its allies.

The United States must redirect its focus away from “complete denuclearization” toward first creating an environment in which North Korea will not perceive nuclear weapons as an appropriate response or precaution. Without approving or accepting North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, the United States can recognize the deterrence dynamic that already exists, which will open the door for engaging in risk-reduction measures that stem from a shared interest in ensuring stability and preventing war. Persisting with the status quo leaves no room for diplomatic pathways that may foster stability and help de-escalate tensions in an imminent security crisis. 

De-escalatory measures could also be key steps toward eventual denuclearization. Implementing regularly-used communications channels could help mitigate the potential for misunderstanding or mishap while also being an initial action for re-engagement in arms control discussions. Focusing on confidence-building measures and dialogue could help to build up some level of trust upon which more conversations about transparency can be based. 

Eventually, regular conversations and exchanges of information could lead to freezing the production of fissile materials or implementing a missile launch moratorium will mitigate the risks of nuclear use while providing momentum for the dismantlement of certain systems or even a no-first-use agreement.

If the United States can focus on mutual transparency measures and consider North Korea’s security concerns, this would open up space for discussions around loosening North Korea’s grip on its nuclear weapons and pulling back the throttle on its weapons testing and deployments. 

History has shown that diplomatic approaches decrease provocations on the Korean Peninsula, while pressure-based tactics narrow the space for a viable solution. Both sides have to address mutual security concerns and gain each other’s trust in order to have any hope of moving toward peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Joint Security Area (JSA), South Korea - April 3, 2017: North Korean soldiers are filming inside Panmunjom in the Joint Security Area. (Photo: Yeongsik Im via shutterstock.com)
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