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

Summary of Study

Bottom line: The U.S. should give up efforts to prevent North Korea from attaining a nuclear weapon and use South Korea to renormalize relations with Pyongyang. This detente may not result in the reunification of the Korean peninsula, but it would significantly reduce the risk of armed conflict while improving the lives of the North Korean people.

U.S. policy should pursue normalizing relations with North Korea by removing or relaxing sanctions, stopping threats, and holding off on demands that North Korea forgo nuclear weapons. The anti-proliferation movement has been enormously costly, and demanding North Korea denuclearization as a precondition of normalization is counterproductive. The costly impact of aggressive denuclearization policies has historically been overlooked or ignored.

North Korea may be at a turning point where Kim Jung-un wants to develop economically and is open to normalizing relations. Yet a steadfast demand that North Korea relinquish its nuclear weapons risks destroying this opportunity. North Korea believes that nuclear weapons are vital to its national security, notably to prevent the U.S. from overthrowing its regime. Therefore, renormalization efforts must downplay the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The pros of normalization on the Korean peninsula are enormous and the cons are minimal. If successful, the North Korean regime will likely become similar to those in other developing Southeast Asian countries. If North Korea isn't able or willing to take the steps to economic reform, North Koreans will not be worse off than they are now.

U.S.-North Korea policy should follow these suggestions: 

  • Downplay the nuclear issue while actively exploring the possibilities for normalization.
  • Relax or remove the sanctions.
  • Stop threatening to overthrow the regime.
  • Let South Korea take the lead.

Even if this renormalization push is successful, the reunification of the two Koreas is still unlikely. Their economic and cultural divergence over the past several decades has been significant, and the idea that they should or could be reunified is idealistic and potentially even dangerous. 

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