By Kang Seung-woo
With the North standing firm against giving up its nuclear ambitions after decades of unsuccessful U.S. diplomacy, experts are advising the incoming Joe Biden administration to shift the conversation with the regime from denuclearization to arms control, which they believe is a more realistic approach to the challenge.
Previous U.S. administrations have dealt with the North Korean nuclear program from a denuclearization perspective, which led to decades of disappointment when it came to actual results, according to Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who advised several Democratic presidential campaigns.
"Denuclearization has been unachievable and therefore unrealistic since at least 2006," Jackson told The Korea Times.
"You don't test nuclear weapons and then get rid of them, particularly when your national security policymakers feel besieged by enemies in the outside world. This is the heart of the failure of U.S. and South Korean policy toward North Korea for the past decade."
He added: "If you make delusional goals the object of your actions, you will end up disappointed. This is why an arms control process is the only stable path forward."
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor in International Relations at King's College London, also said the time to shift toward the goal of arms control in negotiations with the North should have come years ago.
"North Korea has made clear often enough that it won't denuclearize. So the second-best option is to negotiate an arms control deal as an interim step," Pardo said to The Korea Times.
"At the very least, this will prevent North Korea from continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program and, crucially, this will also help to prevent its proliferation activities."
An arms control deal means curbing the North's nuclear development and avoiding use of its existing weapons, but there are lingering concerns that should the U.S. reach such a deal with the North, it would formally recognize the Stalinist state as a nuclear power ― a status the country has aggressively sought.
In response to the worries, Pardo, who doubles as KF-VUB Korea Chairman at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, said the process should be framed as an interim measure toward the goal of denuclearization.
"This doesn't mean that CVID shouldn't remain as the ultimate goal. In fact, I don't see how any South Korean or U.S. government could renounce CVID as the goal to be achieved," Pardo said. CVID refers to complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of a nuclear weapons program.
"This suggests a more realistic approach of managing the North Korea nuclear problem, even if the ultimate goal of denuclearization remains in place," he added.
There are enough signs coming out of Washington that the incoming Biden administration may consider pushing for an arms control deal.
During a presidential debate last October, Biden said he would meet with Kim on the condition that the North Korean leader had agreed to draw down his country's nuclear capacity.
In addition, the president-elect's Cabinet picks are also positive regarding this approach.
"Incoming Vice President Kamala Harris has written that denuclearization is a long-term goal. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken is on record as saying that the United States should first settle for an arms control deal," Pardo said.
In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, June 11, 2018, a day before the historic first-ever Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Blinken hinted at his inclination toward an interim deal with the North.
"The administration may find merit in an interim agreement that requires North Korea to disclose all of its programs, freeze its enrichment and reprocessing infrastructure under international monitoring and destroy some warheads and missiles in return for limited economic relief," he wrote.
Pardo also said prominent North Korea experts in the U.S. are now openly discussing the possibility of settling for such a deal.
Jackson said arms control is politically necessary for Biden, who values alliances.
"If he wishes for good relations with Seoul, his team has to show a willingness to engage North Korea with realistic expectations and to try a more conciliatory approach that goes beyond anything we've ever tried before," he said.