Now we face a nuclear North Korea: That might not be the worst thing

Kim Jong-un now has a nuclear deterrent, and diplomacy is the only sane option. Let's hope the U.S. gets that

By Patrick Lawrence

Published December 3, 2017 6:00AM (EST)

Kim Jong-Un (Getty/STR)
Kim Jong-Un (Getty/STR)

We do not know everything, or maybe even very much, about North Korea’s latest missile test. But we know what we need to know at this moment: North Korea probably did not join the regrettable fraternity of nuclear nations last week, but it is going to do so soon. Another case of proliferation is deplorable in the main — another failure of the professed post-Hiroshima ethos. But the world the major nuclear powers insist we must live in is full of perversities. If North Korea can now deter a nuclear attack by a nation that repeatedly threatens one, it stands to stabilize a frightening situation. In my read, diplomacy just took a step forward.

Pyongyang conducted this latest test last Wednesday, when it sent an intercontinental ballistic missile eastward into the Sea of Japan. It is the 23rd launch this year. Combining missile and nuclear tests, Kim Jong-un has conducted well over 40 since, reversing his father’s policy, he began to reemphasize the nation’s nuclear capabilities in 2011–12. There were big advances this time: The Hwasong–15 ICBM is more powerful than anything the North has heretofore marshaled. It has big new engines, can travel farther, and carry a larger warhead. The commonly shared conclusion now, as reported in the press, is that Pyongyang is a few tests away from a credible capability of hitting Washington and everything west of it with a nuclear weapon.

South Korean scientists say there remain several things for the North to demonstrate. These include the missile’s intact reentry into the earth’s atmosphere and the North’s ability to guide the trajectory and activate the warhead. There is no reason to doubt that Pyongyang is indeed still short of a perfected nuclear delivery system. But the equation nonetheless changed this week. It would be sheer recklessness to conclude otherwise.

Now what?

In brief, it is simply put. The nation that elevated deterrence to a sine qua non creed during the Cold War decades is now deterred. Good, under the circumstances. A step in the right direction. One must hope the Trump administration — whoever in it may actually have a handle on policy — is not so hellbent on destroying North Korea by one or another means that it does not understand this. The old Cold Warriors — the game theorists, the mutually-assured-destruction set, the first-strikers — left out one thing: There is no deterring a nuclear-capable nation so stupid or full of hubris to recognize that somebody else is deterring it. This is not least among the dangers that now beset us.

*  *  *

There has been a lot of parsing of the details since last Wednesday. This time the North did not launch a missile over Japan. Neither did it aim at the waters near Guam, a U.S. territory, as it did earlier this year. It did not test an actual warhead. Maybe these things are significant, but to me they do not seem to say much. Or not necessarily, let us say. Sometimes tea leaves are just tea leaves.

Kim’s choice of language after the test, on the other hand, seems potentially significant. Official statements referred to the test result as “a breakthrough.” Kim asserted the North “has finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” In my read Kim spoke in the statesman’s broad terms. He seemed to say, “There are a few details outstanding, but we are a nuclear power now.” This is what requires our attention. By common agreement now, it is the short- or medium-term reality facing us.

But it was the immediate term that preoccupied the analysts last week. The good ones picked up on Kim’s “completing.” If he has finished the nuclear project to his satisfaction, does this mean he will now stop or at least slow its testing programs? Some North-watchers in Seoul think so. More broadly, will Kim now turn his attention elsewhere? It is interesting to consider this against what we know of Kim’s background. And finally, the big one — supposedly, anyway: Is Kim now ready to negotiate a settlement?

For my money Reuters and the Associated Press owned the North Korea story last week. Here is an analytic item by Foster Klug, an AP man in Seoul, suggesting that Kim may make a formal declaration of the North’s nuclear status at New Year’s and may now turn his focus to the nation’s economy. “Could the end be near for North Korea’s years of headlong, provocative nuclear development?” Klug asks. Good question, Foster, except for the “provocative.” It is important to assign provocations properly, a chicken-and-egg question.

Here is a Reuters piece, by Hyonhee Shin and James Pearson, casting Kim’s leadership years in a historical context — much, much needed — and putting some flesh on Klug’s thesis. Excellent reading.

Kim Jong-un inherited his father’s preference for using the prospect of remaining denuclearized to win material concessions from the U.S., the Reuters team recounts. Jong-un continued the policy, promising in 2012 to halt nuclear development programs in exchange for aid — foodstuffs, to be precise. One man seems to have changed Kim the Younger’s mind: Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan leader had renounced nuclear weapons in 2003. By the end of 2011, when Kim was making up his mind, Gaddafi was disemboweled and dead. Saddam Hussein, of course, had also led a non-nuclear nation and was also dead.

Shin and Pearson term Kim a “developmental dictator” at heart — a leader whose preferred focus is on improving the economy to give the North a measure of material prosperity that compares better with the South than it has to date. He had been keenly interested in China’s reform program after visiting that nation with his father. The project, as he saw it, was to ease economic restrictions without prompting political challenges — a familiar undertaking across much of Asia.

One of the curious features of the Shin-Pearson piece is their mention of Antonio Razzi, an Italian parliamentarian who spent time in the North at around the time Kim was shifting gears toward ramped-up nuclear and missile programs. “I have talked with many [North Korean] local leaders,” Razzi said (apparently in a recent Reuters interview, though this is not clear). “They have no plan to attack anybody. North Korea is interested in nuclear only as a form of defense.”

Several decades of history flash before one’s eyes. As I have written on this topic elsewhere (here and here), I will state the case briefly. There is no accurate understanding of the North or its leadership without an awareness of the savage bombing campaigns — Dresden-like, Tokyo-like — the U.S. conducted during the Korean War and the aggressive military posture it has maintained off North Korean shores and on its borders ever since. This is what counts as prolonged provocation.

*  *  *

Along with decades of provocation in Northeast Asia, there is its unfortunate cousin, complacency. Even after the North began developing nuclear technology with Soviet assistance in the 1980s, at that point for the purpose of power generation, the U.S. continued to act as if all prerogative would eternally lie with Washington. When talks finally began, in the 1990s, this presumption did not change. Commitments were unkept as if there would be no consequence. As just reviewed, Kim Jong-il’s policy of keeping non-nuclearization on offer shifted under Kim Jong-un, to swift pursuit of a nuclear deterrent.

Now the music stops.  

One is hardly surprised the Trump administration had nothing coherent to say last week. It has ordered more sanctions, and again pressed China to move on the North. These do not count as coherence: Given that both are dead ends, they amount to parrying, the appearance of doing something while having no idea what to do. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — why is a soldier discussing diplomacy? — came out late in the week to say diplomatic negotiation remained possible. In my reading, this is more of the same. What Washington means by negotiation is well outlined: Agree in advance to what is to be negotiated and then we can negotiate. The problem is not now, and I do not think has ever been, Pyongyang’s unwillingness to negotiate. The problem lies in Washington, as is understood in Seoul, Beijing, Moscow, probably Tokyo, and numerous other concerned capitals.

I do not see that the U.S. can shuffle short of the mahogany table much longer. As of last week, the urgency of negotiation is simply too evident. Where is there room left to pretend otherwise? The only alternative — and Washington may count it one — is prolonged tension at a very high level. Should Kim tilt in the direction suggested in the analyses noted above — toward economic repair — impatience in Beijing, Seoul and elsewhere, now subterranean, may well break the surface. It would do no harm.

The North nuclearizes and we advance toward a solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. How strange a thought is this? For the record: I stand against all that makes deterrence necessary but entirely for it when one nation forces another to seek it.

Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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