Living with a nuclear North Korea

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President Donald Trump is to be credited with motivating Chairman Kim Jong-Un to not test any nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles in the last 260 plus days. But Trump needs to recast his overall strategy with Kim, because his stated chief goal will never be realized. Kim will never denuclearize North Korea. It is certainly possible that he will partially denuclearize. For example, he may reduce the number of nuclear weapons he has, from 60 to 30. But it is hard to see how he could completely denuclearize.

North Korea has been an outcast nation since the end of the Korean War. North Korean leaders and North Koreans citizens live in fear of the United States and the West. The United States dropped atomic bombs on an Asian country in World War II (and destroyed three quarters of the buildings of North Korea during the Korean War), and North Koreans therefore have some basis to think that they are an Asian country that might have atomic bombs dropped on them by the United States in the future.


Trump has significant experience in the area of construction. As president, he is partly responsible for economic development in our country. He has said that he wants to see North Korea undergo great economic development.

The question is: To what extent can the United States help North Korea undergo major economic development along the lines of Vietnam or even Japan and South Korea, without seeing North Korea totally denuclearize? Many hard liners in the United States demand total denuclearization, as has Trump and his administration. But if this is never going to happen, is it a good goal to have?

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Why would any country which has nuclear weapons, and especially a country that fears for its existence, give them up? Is Pakistan giving up its nuclear weapons? Is Israel? Is Russia? Are we?

Libya did, and look what happened to its leader.


The United States has been betting on the trade of economic development, both removal of sanctions and presumably some sort of Marshall Plan, for denuclearization. If this trade is not going to happen, is it still to our benefit to lift up the North Korean economy?

There is no clear answer to this question, but it is worth remembering that if North Korea ever did unleash nuclear weapons on the United States it would basically be kissing its existence good-bye. No president could absorb that kind of catastrophe with a proportional response. We would have to destroy their country.

Kim knows this, but he likes having the threat to attack us with nuclear weapons as leverage in his negotiations.

Realizing that it will be impossible to get Kim to destroy all of his nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, the rational course of action is to force him to be a peaceful player in the world. Make him scale down his nuclear capability. Punish him if he tests nuclear weapons or ballistic weapons. Compel him to sign a treaty which lays out a viable path forward with specific goals and timetables, including partial denuclearization.

If Kim acts responsibly, then, yes, we should help him build up his economy and bring the vast majority of his citizens out of poverty. This is not to say there should be unification. That is a separate issue which should not be a part of the peace treaty we need now. But if the North Koreans thrive and we befriend them, then this probably the best we can do.

We also cannot take the liberty to insist that North Korea cease violating basic human rights we believe all citizens have, including rights to free speech and rights to petition your government. Our immediate task is to protect the United States and our allies, not to address every moral failing in North Korea. Ideally, as we helped North Korea build up its economy and become a recognized nuclear power Kim would feel less insecure and he would be less compelled to beat down so many of his citizens.

We should also make it clear that we are not calling for regime change, and we should leverage our relationship with China to move Kim in the direction of reducing his nuclear capacity, refraining from any tests, and being a peaceful
member of the global community.

Seeking a reasonable compromise with the North Koreans, for Trump, is not being less presidential than being unyielding on the goal of denuclearization. Being presidential in this context requires a realistic assessment on what ends can
be achieved.

Trump needs to be realistic and pragmatic with North Korea, not idealistic and unyielding. n

Dave Anderson is editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework.” He ran for Congress in the 2016 Democratic primary in Maryland’s 8th District

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