After North Korea’s successful space launch last December and nuclear test this month, Kim Jong-un has said that North Korea will conduct further launches and nuclear tests, both to demonstrate the country’s advances, and also to prove their power to the international community. Despite Pyongyang's posturing and labeling of the United States as an enemy, we must not fall into the rhetoric of conflict. Instead, we must focus on diplomatic and deterrence options to prevent potential escalation on the Korean peninsula.
We first have to accept that nuclear energy is going to spread around the world gradually and it will be done, primarily, under the sovereign choice to do so by existing and emerging legal arrangements, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, there are and there will be exceptions.
It is no secret that North Korea is operating outside of this order, but there is practically nothing we can do to take these weapons and capability away, short of using nuclear weapons ourselves or investing in a prolonged conventional war that would have horrendous implications. What would work is a geopolitical shift, on par with the fall of the USSR, to give at least temporary relief to the spread of nuclear weapons and their delivery means.
Our choices with North Korea are limited to diplomacy and deterrence. It is timely that the United States has placed its priorities in Asia, because the alliance system in the Pacific Basin is going to become one of the most important in the next decades. Pyongyang likely understands that it is becoming a threat on the regional, and now global, level but its leadership is seemingly not realizing that the bilateral relationship of effects between North Korea and the rest of the world are not solely dichotomous; the choices made by North Korea effect the whole world. Therefore, one of Washington’s objectives must be impressing upon them that intentional aggression is intolerable.
Diplomatically, China has an interest in maintaining North Korea as a buffer against American dominance in the Pacific, but is not entirely happy with what one might call a potential free radical of an ally, wielding a functioning space program and nuclear weapons. It is certain that negotiating with North Korea is a long and difficult process, but it must begin with an agreement on the principles about the use of nuclear energy, regardless of the signatory status of negotiating parties. Pursuing a principle agreement on negative security guarantees, no first use, a commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons – these measures will not eliminate North Korea from the nuclear club, but they will spark a gradual movement to their responsible management. If we need be honest, the number of nuclear countries is going to grow, as economic power shifts East and countries seek technological development.
Finally, in a multi-polar world, the democratization of access to capital and technology away from the West makes the wider access to nuclear energy, with all its potential uses, a lawful outgrowth. In this respect, nothing short of a fundamental political-economic crisis or a war will reverse the process. From this point of view, totalitarian regimes like North Korea will take advantage of globalization and it is their right as sovereigns to do so – however, we must make clear that the security risks they pose are unacceptable and that to be functional members of the international community, they need to oblige by the accepted norms governing the use of nuclear power.