By Matthew Teasdale
Overtaken by the war in Ukraine, bellicism on the Korean peninsula has taken a back seat in the international media, despite the very real rising nuclear threat. North Korea has fired more than 70 missiles this year – more than any previous year – including two purported intercontinental ballistic missiles that have flown over Japan, the first such escalation in five years. While the Russian nuclear threat over Ukraine must also be taken seriously, managing the Korean nuclear threat would send a powerful signal that threats to international order need not be Europe-based to matter.
It’s no secret that North Korea has traditionally represented a failure for American policymakers of all parties and ideologies. From Bill Clinton to Joe Biden, no American president has successfully brought about a limitation or reduction in nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. From the 1994 Agreed Framework that would have terminated Pyongyang’s civil nuclear program, to the Six-Party Talks, to Donald Trump’s reality TV show diplomacy, nearly every international initiative to denuclearize the Korean peninsula has seen, at best, only temporary success. Chairman Mao Zedong once called the strategic relationship between China and North Korea “as close as lips and teeth,” and warned that “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” A valuable servant to Beijing, the hermit kingdom’s nuclear threats are often a method for the latter to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington while feigning consternation. All the while, the possibility of a regional war in Asia threatens to disrupt global stability and prosperity.
The reality is that Asia is more and more the heart of the global economy and global power. The continent is projected to account for more than 50 percent of global gross domestic product and more than 40 percent of total consumption by 2040. Out of 71 developing economies, McKinsey identified seven Asian economies as their sole long-term ‘outperformers’ who propelled themselves to middle-income and advanced stages along the ranks of Western Europe and the United States. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is then the greatest threat to a rising Asian market that the United States has every incentive to protect and benefit from.
The North Korean nuclear program poses challenges to the American order. One reputed Korea observer writes that the North’s development of nuclear weapons is more and more aimed at subjugating the South rather than self-defense. More than 70 percent of South Koreans are concurrently in favor of acquiring an independent nuclear arsenal. Japan, too, is becoming more independent. Under the American nuclear umbrella since 1952, Tokyo is developing deterrence by denial capabilities including space-based missile defense systems and special warships equipped with ballistic missile defense systems. The nuclear umbrella, by contrast, offers a reactive deterrence by punishment. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even raised the prospect of hosting American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Japan’s three non-nuclear principles — to never possess, produce or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons — look more and more to be under stress.
The United States should work with a nuclear North Korea rather than keep an exclusive focus on denuclearization. Opening a dialogue with Pyongyang can be the first step to convincing Kim Jong-Un that nuclear weapons are not the ultimate shield for his regime. With or without the nukes, North Korea can still be an actor in the international system if it chooses to be. If we engage more tactfully with the North, the road to total disarmament will likely be long, but so far, 30 years of the opposite has only facilitated a game of nuclear chicken.
Maintaining peace in Asia must be a major priority for U.S. foreign policy going forward. Burgeoning economies like India and Singapore have grown by more than five percent annually for the past 20 years and are already prime markets for American investors. Lowering tensions on the Korean peninsula will have a positive effect on the regional investment climate and reassure Asian governments nervous about seeming U.S. disengagement in the face of toxic Chinese nationalism. While the war in Ukraine rages on, American policymakers should not forget the critical North Korean flashpoint.