Nuclear Anti‐Proliferation Policy and the Korea Conundrum: Some Policy Proposals

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The United States needs to rethink its position on nuclear proliferation, particularly with regard to North Korea. Anti-proliferation efforts are useless at best and dangerous at worst. However, easing up on this position could help normalize relations with North Korea and the rest of the world.

Since the Cold War, foreign policy experts and politicians from both sides of the aisle have held strong to the doctrine of anti-proliferation. To this day, conventional wisdom holds that it would be a disaster for countries like Iran or North Korea to develop or obtain nuclear weapons. As a result, the United States has worked tirelessly to prevent nuclear proliferation by any means necessary.

But history has proven such aggressive anti-proliferation to be misguided and counterproductive. Nowhere is this more clear than North Korea, where U.S. anti-proliferation policies are stalling crucial geopolitical advances.

Nuclear proliferation is not as dangerous as experts tend to suggest. “In general, regimes that have acquired the weapons have used them to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats.” Proliferation has proceeded slowly, and has not caused any real tragedy. Even unstable leaders like Stalin and Mao refrained from using nuclear weapons -- indeed, a growing body of evidence indicates the Soviets never so much as fathomed striking the United States with nuclear weapons.

Moreover, proliferation does not seem to come with any real benefits. Deterrence has largely been disproved as an effective strategy, and it’s hard to imagine countries that don’t already have nuclear weapons gaining real geopolitical influence by obtaining them. Nor is it reasonable to assume countries could increase their power by expanding their arsenal.

Two hypotheticals illustrate this point: would China’s rise have seemed less consequential had the country lacked nuclear weapons? And would the United Kingdom have a greater position in the global arena if it drastically expanded its arsenal? Even if a country like Iran tried to use a nuclear weapon to dominate its region, it wouldn’t likely be successful. Surrounding countries would sooner band together and resist than collectively bow to Iran’s nuclear might.

If anything, such aggressive anti-proliferation efforts could have negative consequences. Efforts to curb proliferation have caused far more deaths than nuclear weapons themselves, which haven’t caused any deaths since 1945. Case in point: U.S. involvement in Iraq, which began as an effort to prevent Saddam Hussein’s regime from “from developing nuclear (and similarly threatening) weapons,” but ended with decades of senseless death and devastation.

There’s no evidence to suggest that North Korea will cause real problems with nuclear weapons. The country already has the nuclear capacity to wipe out Seoul, but has refrained from doing so in part because it knows launching a nuclear attack would result in its own annihilation. The Kim regime, though “pathetic, contemptible, and insecure,” is and always has been focused on maintaining power. There’s nothing to suggest that the regime would jeopardize its own existence by launching a nuclear attack.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un seems even more open to economic development than his predecessors. And though his efforts have faced various setbacks, “the direction so far is distinctly positive, and judicious efforts to nudge the progress along, particularly by South Korea, could create a more relaxed atmosphere and eventually lead to a highly desirable normalization of relations on the peninsula.” By easing off its anti-proliferation mantle, the United States could join South Korea in nudging the North towards economic development, and perhaps normalcy.

To move forward, the United States should “downplay the nuclear issue” while emphasizing opportunities for progress. To further these efforts, the United States can lift or loosen current sanctions on North Korea, and stop actively trying to overthrow the regime. Finally, while a change in U.S. policy can help improve things with North Korea, the United States should ultimately let South Korea “take the lead in the normalization process.” Fortunately, Seoul has already signaled its willingness to do this.

There’s no guarantee that North Korea will successfully normalize if the United States gives up its anti-proliferation efforts. But the potential benefits of this approach far outweigh the potential problems. It’s time to rethink this Cold War mentality.

Read the full policy analysis here.