06/25/2014 10:55 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Living With the Bomb, Pyongyang Style

JUNG YEON-JE via Getty Images

The Korean War started 64 years ago today on June 25, 1950. The time has come for the United States and the rest of the world to accept that North Korea has, or will soon have, nuclear weapons. It should be no surprise that a disciplined nation of millions urged on by ruthless and single-minded rulers have achieved a dream of atomic greatness pursued in fits and starts for half a century. North Korea likely still lacks reliable means to deliver nuclear weapons on the continental United States. But that, too, may just be a matter of time. And North Korea can hit South Korea and Japan now.

It is, however, highly unlikely that North Korea will actually use nuclear weapons. This is not because of any moral or legal qualms about breaking the 69-year old taboo on dropping nuclear bombs in populated areas. Rather, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his courtiers understand that escalating to nuclear weapons use will almost certainly result in military retaliation that will not stop short of regime change. The North Korean regime's highest priority is self-preservation, and, contrary to popular impressions, it has been, and will be, rational about ensuring its survival. And so its strategy will be to threaten use in order to extort as many concessions and economic payments as possible.

But threatening possession of nuclear weapons and threatening use of them are very different. When North Korea threatened possession of nuclear weapons, the end state of getting them did not entail certain military retaliation by the United States, South Korea, and their allies. If everyone accepts that North Korea has nuclear weapons, it can no longer leverage threats to have them in the future -- it can only threaten use. And use, as observed above, is not a credible threat because of the virtual certainty of retaliatory regime change. North Korea may offer to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for concessions -- that is, it may try to return to the old game. But two decades of broken promises (by both North Korea and the United States) has proven the old game to be an unredeemable broken record.

Under these circumstances, the United States needs to remake its policy for dealing with North Korea. For 20 years, the one and only game plan, pushed relentlessly by anti-proliferation officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations, was to stop North Korea from getting nuclear weapons. The U.S. government now needs a new plan that presumes it has them.

The new plan should have two parts. First, the United States has to make crystal clear that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea will be met by deadly force to take out the current regime. Consequently, the United States needs to keep sizable military forces in Korea and Japan as tripwires, and joint war planning and games to maintain combat readiness. South Korea and the United States should also accelerate and reinforce military and civil preparedness for nuclear attack. The reason for this is not so much a probability that North Korea will actually use nuclear weapons, but to uproot complacency among Americans and South Koreans who have gotten used to the status quo after six decades of peace. Indeed, everyone, not just the United States, needs to understand what it means that North Korea has nuclear weapons. From the perspective of China, North Korea's principal patron, this includes the possibility that South Korea and Japan may withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (joining India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan) to restart their mothballed nuclear-weapons programs. Some Japanese are already urging withdrawal from the Treaty and development of "defensive" nuclear weapons consistent with the Japanese constitution in light of the tense security picture in Northeast Asia and the prospect of diminishing American military power in the region.

Second, the United States should work to build a global coalition of powerful states and to use international law and institutions to pressure the Kim Jong-un regime to undertake internal political reforms and to give up nuclear weapons voluntarily. There is a powerful historical analogy for this strategy -- apartheid South Africa's voluntary surrender of nuclear weapons and peaceful transition in the 1980s and 1990s. South Africa then, like North Korea today, had a highly effective state that systematically violated its people's human rights. Its criterion of inhumanity was race, not ideology or feudalistic pseudo-communist class distinctions. It was an open secret that South Africa too had the bomb, given the apartheid regime's paranoia about being swallowed up by its black neighbors. South Africa had a happy ending: It gave up nuclear weapons and peacefully (for the most part) dismantled the apartheid regime. This happened in large part because South Africa's key patrons, the United States and the United Kingdom, disgusted with their client's human rights record, executed a policy sea change and abandoned their staunch anti-Communist ally.

The big discontinuity with the South Africa analogy is that North Korea's patron, China, is not sympathetic to international human rights claims. Indeed, the Chinese leadership and people today seem downright hostile to West-led criticisms of human rights abuses in Asia at a time of rising nationalism and economic downturn at home. Accordingly, the challenge is to frame North Korea's human rights violations in a way that does not reflect upon China's own human rights record or call directly for regime change, while underscoring Chinese national interests in avoiding the nuclear weaponization of the Korean peninsula and Japan and stability along its Korean border.

Just as in 1950, the United Nations may prove to be the key focal point for shifting U.S. foreign policy in North Asia. In 1950, the United Nations Security Council, owing to a Soviet boycott, quickly authorized military action after a large North Korean attack across the 38th parallel. In 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea issued a 372-page report with detailed findings based on testimony from escaped North Koreans. The UN report is studded with eyewitness accounts of state-sponsored inhumanity beyond the pale of the imaginable. The systematic and institutionalized nature of the brutality in North Korea is truly unique today, exceeding, most likely, the historical heights of totalitarianism in Stalin's gulags or Mao's labor camps. Generations of families found guilty by virtue of lineage or accusations are born, tortured, abused, killed or worked or starved to death in these camps.

China today may not be as committed to human rights as the United States was in the 1970s, but it is nowhere near the human-rights outlier that North Korea is now. Many Chinese, including in the leadership, are as appalled as people in the West by the stories of what is happening in North Korean concentration camps. By focusing strictly on the unique horrors documented in the UN Commission's report, it may be possible for the United States and other countries to initiate a campaign that focuses on North Korea alone, without any suggestion of an affirmative agenda of regime change to a liberal democratic state. The tone to be set is that whatever differences the powerful countries of the world may have about individual rights, what is going on in North Korea is unacceptable for an organized state in the 21st century. More generally speaking, I believe that it has been a strategic mistake for international human rights advocates to push aggressively for a broad, West-inflected wish-list of rights, rather than focusing on generating consensus and action on truly heinous cases like genocides, mass killings, and apartheid. If the UN Report on North Korea is framed in this more modest way, it stands a chance of mobilizing Chinese support, particularly when North Korea's human rights record is linked to its possession of nuclear weapons by simultaneous high-profile acknowledgments by the United States of the UN Report and intelligence assessments that North Korea likely has or will soon have nuclear weapons. China can be the human rights good guys for a change. As important, replaying the South Africa strategy may be the beginning of a way for the United States and the rest of the world to defuse a nuclear North Korea.


Thomas Lee is a law professor at Fordham in New York. From 1991 to 1995, he was a U.S. naval cryptologist in the Western Pacific.