U.S. Policy Toward a Nuclear North Korea Should Reflect Reality

Reducing the arsenal will not only help the United States with its relations to North Korea, it will also save billions of taxpayer dollars.

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That South Korea and North Korea resumed talks this week, but failed to reignite inter-Korean economic cooperation by reopening the complex at the Kaesong Industrial Zone, puts the fight over the North's nuclear fight program in the political spotlight. The geopolitical importance of North Korea, and the need for diplomatic engagement with this country, has been overshadowed by crises in Syria and Egypt. But we cannot forget about North Korea. There is too much at stake.

Since President Barack Obama's Berlin speech last month, many have focused on his pledges to reduce nuclear armaments by roughly one-third, but not on what he said regarding North Korea, specifically that America will "reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking." These two commitments by Barack Obama, coupled together, have a clear impact on U.S. relations with North Korea and how we deal with its nuclear weapons program. But first, a few facts are in order.

To be clear, North Korea is not seeking nuclear weapons. It has nuclear weapons. To date, it has conducted three nuclear tests. While the number of warheads North Korea possesses is very small, the fact that it has built and tested weapons cannot be ignored. The U.S. government, therefore, must change its narrative to reflect current reality.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

Second, what politicos have forgotten, or conveniently overlooked, is that in the past few weeks, North Korea has twice made offers to talk with the United States about its nuclear program. Clearly, something happened – possibly China condoning sanctions or Dennis Rodman saying he was going to visit North Korea again – that made the reclusive country want to begin discussing its nuclear program. This is a good trend and something we should support.

Third, the United States has been neutral, even chilly, in its response to North Korea's recent overtures. Immediately following North Korea's diplomatic gesture, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said, somewhat coldly, "We will judge North Korea by its actions, and not its words and look forward to seeing steps that show North Korea is ready to abide by its commitments and obligations." This is a mistake. The U.S. should accept the offer of talks, unconditionally, otherwise there will be no tractability on negotiations going forward, and that is no way to secure the peace.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Take North Korea's Saber-Rattling Seriously?]

Fourth, the U.S. must lead the way on nuclear reductions – especially if we want countries like North Korea to follow in our footsteps. The United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France are all committed under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to disarm completely. While no timetable is set for this, we are obligated by an international treaty to adopt policies and postures which support that goal. Reducing the U.S. arsenal by up to one-third is a necessary next step and confidence building measure in that direction.

What better way to induce North Korea to come to the table to have real, serious talks than to follow our own obligations and to reduce our arsenal. The United States, with the largest nuclear arsenal, must be willing to decommission our weapons if we expect and demand other nations to do the same. If we are not prepared to give up our dependence on nuclear weapons for our own security (even with our huge conventional forces), then we cannot presume other nations with much weaker and smaller forces to do so either. Especially as we improve our arsenal, it is folly to think other nations will unilaterally disarm.

Reducing the arsenal will not only help the United States with its relations with North Korea, it will also save billions of taxpayer dollars. Nuclear weapons are expensive to maintain, store, deploy and modernize. America cannot afford to maintain this Cold War-era nuclear stockpile while other programs, in both the domestic and defense realm, are being cut dramatically. The president's proposal would be good for the United States on both diplomatic and cost-efficiency fronts. 

All of this would make the world a less dangerous place. Even for those people who don't adhere to the idea that a world free of nuclear weapons is safer, there should be unanimous consensus that a North Korea free of nuclear weapons does make for a safer world. The United States, then, should take all diplomatic steps possible to achieve this better world. The time is now. 

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Rachel Kent is the nuclear disarmament program assistant at FCNL.

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