This one truth we should all understand: the certainties of the post-World War II nuclear world blew were blown apart at high noon on Sunday, when North Korea tested its sixth nuclear weapon at the Punggye-ri test site. A nation with a puny Gross Domestic Product of just $26.8 billion, about a tenth of that of Pakistan or Bangladesh, bludgeoned by international sanctions for over a decade, and with no real industrial or technological base, has shown it can build a hydrogen bomb—and the means to deliver it across the Pacific ocean. If North Korea can, any determined can—and many will.
Now, as North Korea prepares for yet another ballistic missile test, and President Donald Trump considers what to do with his threat to rain “fire and fury” on it called, it is time for some serious—and calm—thinking about how and why we got here.
Ever since the 1990s, North Korea’s increasingly isolated and unstable regime was known to have been seeking nuclear weapons. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung, South Korea’s former President, initiated a dramatic reconciliation process called the “Sunshine Policy”, hoping to lure North Korea out of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. He injected billions of dollars into North Korea’s economy — as well as several million, credible accounts have it, into the personal accounts of the country’s former ruler, Kim Jong-il.
Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts but storm clouds gathered not long after the ink dried on the citation. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. declared North Korea part of the “axis of evil.” North Korea responded by calling off talks—and four years later, tested the first of its nuclear weapons.
The United States considered preemptive strikes. Former United States Defence Secretary even warned in 2011 that North Korea would be able to target his country within five years—a warning that’s turned out to be only very slightly off the mark.
But North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme worked with a gun held to the South’s head. The North’s 10,000 artillery and rocket pieces could level Seoul, the South’s capital, and home to 50 million people; no military strike could prevent that outcome. In addition, North Korea had missiles—missiles it had sold in return for nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan, and cash to build the bomb from Iran and Libya. Finally, United States strikes would mean the destruction of North Korea—and China didn’t want the South on its borders.
From the point of view of North Korea’s ruling élite, getting a bomb isn’t madness, but life insurance. Kim Jong-un fears an East Germany style regime collapse with his citizens choosing to merge into the richer South. The dictator also fears that his neighbours might sponsor an internal insurrection, or that the United States might chose to launch an attack, aimed at bringing down his regime.
Nuclear weapons are, thus, both instruments of self-defence and tools for blackmail: they guarantee regime survival against all currently conceivable crisis. Kim, once he has nuclear weapons, is a creature all actors have an interest in ensuring remains stable.
North Koreans know, too, that Muammar Qaddafi, who surrendered his nuclear-weapons ambitions in return for an end to sanctions, ended up being sodomised and murdered on video on a roadside in Libya. Saddam Hussein, who failed to build one, also ended up dead, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, is struggling to survive.
Hopes the regime can be bribed to give up its nuclear weapons, as the world did elsewhere, are plain silly. Ukraine agreed to surrender its warheads in 1994, after receiving guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—which have proved worthless. The lesson hasn’t been lost on others.
Nor are yet more sanctions likely to work. To use the words of the analyst Andrei Lankov, the élite might miss its Henessy cognac—but is willing to make that sacrifice to avoid an appointment with the lamp-post.
The United States’ military commanders are unanimous that, like before, there are no good military options. Sunday’s test showed that South Korea can prepare and launch a nuclear missile without detection. That means any attack will have to be carried out at risk of losing one or more cities—a cataclysmic risk. The destruction of Seoul, moreover, is certain.
Is there an alternative? The heretical possibility is simply to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. The theorist Kenneth Waltz, writing in 1981, famously postulated that when it came to nuclear weapons, “more may be better”. This, he went on, was because in “a conventional world, deterrent threats are ineffective because the damage threatened is distant, limited, and problematic. Nuclear weapons make military miscalculations difficult and politically pertinent prediction easy”.
Put simply: “In a conventional world, one is uncertain about winning or losing. In a nuclear world, one is uncertain [only] about surviving or being annihilated”.
North Korea, thus, can use its nuclear weapons only in the complete certainty that it will invite utter annihilation in return—something a regime, no matter how crazed, is likely to do, given that it created a regime for the express purpose of, so to speak, enjoying its Hennessy.
Accepting that North Korea won’t give up its weapons opens the door to pragmatic negotiations that acknowledge the realities. For example, the North Korean government could be offered some economic incentives and diplomatic recognition in return for capping its arsenal.
This is not a happy situation. Normalising North Korea might lead other states to seek nuclear weapons of their own—among them, Japan and South Korea, which have the technology and means to produce them at very short notice. It might also embolden less stable regimes to go down the North Korean road. Each new nuclear state also raises the odds of nuclear weapons use, either by accident or design.
But as nuclear weapons become easier to manufacture—an inexorable consequence of technological progress—these are outcomes the world will have to grapple with. Ever since the United States tested the first nuclear bomb in 1945, it was certain that its rivals, and its rivals’ rivals, would do so too. The bomb, the North Korean case has made clear, cannot be kept in the hands of a small club.
The option to engaging North Korea and seeking a pragmatic deal is freezing it out of the international system, and waiting for the regime to collapse, all the while hoping it does not use its weapons in an act of regime blackmail or suicide. That isn’t policy; it’s a prescription for an endless, terrifying nuclear nightmare.