This post is authored by Christopher J. Watterson, a research associate at Project Alpha, King’s College London. Watterson responds here to an article by Eric Brewer, deputy director and fellow at the project on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The below discussion is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts addresses the U.S. nuclear posture in Northeast Asia, implications of North Korean nuclear and missile programs for U.S. extended deterrence commitments, operational and tactical dimensions of deterrence on the peninsula, and regional dimensions of stability.
Last month Eric Brewer published a piece on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog that challenged the U.S. policy of denuclearizing North Korea. He took particular aim at three oft-stated rationales for denuclearizing North Korea—that tolerating a North Korean bomb would set a permissive precedent for other proliferators, allow Pyongyang to sell nuclear weapons, and undermine U.S. alliances—and claimed that such concerns were “overblown.” On this basis, he argued against an “unwavering faith in the gospel of denuclearization, though he stopped short of calling for an outright change of U.S. policy on North Korea.
While the piece raises important challenges to U.S. policy in North Korea, I believe that key oversights undermine the optimism with which Brewer appears to view the prospect of a relaxed U.S. policy on denuclearizing North Korea. In the spirit of constructive debate, I offer a counter argument in favor of maintaining a strong U.S. policy aimed at denuclearizing North Korea.
The Importance of Precedent
Brewer first engages with the pro-denuclearization argument that “if the United States drops its insistence on North Korea’s disarmament it will prove to other countries that they can wait out U.S. pressure,” offering a replicable model for other nuclear aspirants to pursue the bomb. He counters this point by arguing that states will ultimately make decisions on nuclear weapons acquisition based on their own strategic exigencies, not on the experience of others. Sanctioning North Korea would not alleviate the complex geostrategic rivalries that rationalized the Iranian nuclear weapons program, for example.
Certainly, states will not make the weighty decision of nuclear weapons development without a clear and self-interested strategic rationale for doing so. Importantly, however, the experiences of other states inform proliferators’ understanding of the implications of nuclear weapons development, which forms the basis of their strategic calculations. Libya, for example, abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 not because the strategic rationale for acquisition (the Israeli nuclear weapons program) had been resolved, but because it saw that by pursuing nuclear weapons, it was courting the same U.S.-led regime change that transpired in Iraq. If the United States abandons its efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the lesson to future proliferators will be that “the United States will punish you for a bit and then give up.” If Libya heard that lesson in 2003, they may have judged that continuing nuclear weapons development would only incur limited costs. Had Libya then rationalized its continued nuclear development by the need to balance a nuclear Israel, we could be looking at a very different Middle East and North Africa today.
The Risk of Horizontal Proliferation
Next, Brewer engages with the argument that “unless North Korea’s weapons are eliminated, there will always be a risk that its leadership will sell them abroad”—a risk that increases proportionally to the size of their stockpile and as they have more “spare nuclear material” to trade. He challenges the assumption of a “direct and linear relationship between more nuclear weapons and willingness to sell,” arguing that each prospective nuclear trade will remain constrained by an assessment of the risk of trading (the primary risk being retaliation by the United States). Regardless of how much nuclear material Pyongyang has, the risk of trade, and by extension the amount of trade, remains constant.
This argument has three critical flaws. First, any perception of risk is tempered by that of a reward, the latter of which increases proportional to the volume of trade. As North Korea has more nuclear material to trade, the amount of profit to be made goes up, encouraging Pyongyang to take on greater risk by trading more. Second, the risks of trade are not static and decrease as North Korea’s own nuclear deterrent develops and the United States can no longer credibly threaten regime change in response to nuclear trades. And third, it is not simply a question of how much “spare nuclear material” Pyongyang has, but of what kind of material it has. As pressure on the North Korean nuclear weapons program lessens, we can expect the sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear enterprise to grow more rapidly, whether through regaining access to the import of dual-use goods or through diverting economic growth to indigenous development. These new and higher value-added materials will increase the profitability of trade and, therefore, the willingness to engage in such trades.
In his recent piece in Asia Unbound, Brewer took aim at the U.S. policy of denuclearizing North Korea, stating that the fears of shifting away from a policy of denuclearization are overblown and that a more moderate position on North Korea might yield strategic dividends. This was a valuable contribution to the debate, in particular given the propensity in Western policy circles to uncritically view denuclearizing North Korea as “gospel.” In my view, however, the arguments he presents fall short of striking a critical blow to the logic of the U.S. denuclearization policy. To do so, we would need some assurance that a nuclear North Korea would both act as a responsible nuclear weapons state, and would not offer a replicable model for acquiring the bomb in the non-proliferation era.
Eric Brewer Response:
In the above post, Dr. Christopher Watterson offers a critique of my May entry that sought to challenge three common objections to changing the longstanding U.S. North Korea policy. Watterson is correct that I did not strike “a critical blow to the logic of the U.S. denuclearization policy,” but I did not intend to. Indeed, the risks of abandoning denuclearization are but one factor to consider before potentially altering U.S. policy.
Watterson challenges my argument that few potential proliferators would find the North Korea “model” of nuclear weapons pursuit attractive, as it resulted in extreme sanctions, international isolation, and risk of war. He posits that if the United States had abandoned its goal of denuclearization of the peninsula prior to 2003, Libya might have decided to hold on to its nuclear program. But as multiple studies have shown, factors ranging from level of desire to integrate with the global economy, to state capacity, to challenges associated with making use of imported technology—not just a fear that the United States was “tough” on proliferation—were critical to shaping Gaddafi’s decisions. These studies support my argument that specific circumstances and conditions, not a belief that one can mirror the path of a different country, matter more.
Watterson also argues that I’ve missed other factors that could shift Kim’s calculus toward selling weapons or materials: an expanded program, and thus more materials to trade for greater profit (as pressure relaxes), and Kim’s increased confidence that he can credibly deter any U.S. response. I agree that Kim has little reason to believe the United States will respond harshly to proliferation attempts, but these problems exist both under current denuclearization policy (Kim’s arsenal is growing, and he has an ability, although imperfect, to reach the United States with ICBMs) and under many potential alternatives. Thus, it is a problem to be managed, but should not unduly constrain consideration of alternatives.