Foreign Policy

Give Nuclear Freeze a Chance

Integrating North Korea into the global economy, not forcing denuclearization, is our best chance at improving ordinary citizens’ quality of life.


President Donald Trump's unprecedented visit to North Korean soil was followed Sunday by a New York Times report that his administration is seriously considering a "nuclear freeze" deal. The Times described the concept—which, if implemented, would have far more lasting ramifications than Trump's much-analyzed jaunt across the demilitarized zone (DMZ)—as one which "essentially enshrine[s] the status quo," permitting Kim Jong Un to retain the nuclear arsenal he has now and receive some sanctions relief in exchange for a moratorium on all future nuclear weapons development.

By Monday morning, National Security Advisor John Bolton, the proposal's chief opponent according to the Times, had flatly denied the report on Twitter. "I read this NYT story with curiosity,"Bolton tweeted. "Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to 'settle for a nuclear freeze by NK,'" he continued, closing with a conspiratorial allegation that the article is "a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President," plus a vague call for "consequences."

In many White Houses, this denial might be the final word on the administration's perspective, but this mercurial administration eludes that interpretation. The president's approach to North Korea often seems to differ from Bolton's absolutist tack, and his stated preference for opaque messaging in foreign policy could also be in play. Contra Bolton, the freeze deal may indeed be on the table—and so it should be.

Pursuing this plan is not, as interventionist hardliners like Bolton might claim, an exercise in appeasement for a hideously brutal regime. It is a prudent recognition of reality which could serve as a key step toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and, in time, greater liberty and prosperity for the North Korean people.

And it is those two ends, more than denuclearization itself, which should be Washington's goals for realistic engagement with Pyongyang. This becomes obvious if we recognize three facts: First, Kim will not willingly denuclearize so long as he considers nukes necessary to regime survival. Second, war to relieve Kim of his weapons would be disastrous even with a quick nominal victory, causing enormous civilian suffering and economic disruption that would take decades to repair. Third, opening North Korea to international trade and cultural influences may be its people's best shot at freedom and comparative normalcy.

Evidence for the first fact abounds in both Pyongyang's behavior and words: Kim sees his nuclear weapons as the sole effective insurance available against U.S.-orchestrated regime change. "History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders' aggression," his government has argued, explicitly pointing to U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya as proof that the risk it perceives is real. Trump's selection of Bolton—a longstanding advocate of forcible regime change in North Korea and elsewhere—can only exacerbate this suspicion. 

Polling shows three in four Americans already realize Pyongyang is unlikely to denuclearize any time soon, and Washington would do well to catch up. Insisting on complete denuclearization ensures stalemate in U.S.-North Korea relations at best. At worst, it will usher us into a devastating war. The hardline position is a reckless step toward avoidable conflict.

And the plausible outcome of such a war is undeniable. Though Kim could never pose an existential threat to the United States, he could and would wreak enormous anguish once attacked. If a U.S. offensive makes Kim's retention of power inconceivable, there is every reason to anticipate a response of indiscriminate destruction. Pyongyang could easily use its nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons to inflict unspeakable damage on civilian populations in Seoul—a city of 25 million people, just 35 miles from the North Korean border—to say nothing of U.S. military members, their families, and their South Korean allies near the DMZ. Close quarters on the peninsula guarantee mass casualties in the initial battle, to say nothing of the permanent guerilla warfare, nation-building, and occupation that would follow, if recent U.S. interventions elsewhere are any guide.

Though we might hope a North Korea freed from Kim's oppression would promptly become a modern, healthy society, those hopes would probably go unfulfilled for years. The effects of life in a murderous prison state cannot go away overnight, and what we know of Pyongyang's exhaustive brainwashing apparatus suggests U.S. invasion would not be immediately welcomed by many. While far from ideal—no one of good conscience wishes for Kim to remain in power for even a single second longer—the slower and more peaceful approach of integrating North Korea into the global economy is our best chance at improving ordinary North Koreans' quality of life. It may even empower them to demand the political change they desperately need and deserve.

Prioritizing peace and progress for the North Korean people instead of making a maximal denuclearization demand may entail an intermediary deal like the one in the Times' Sunday report. The good news is it just might work. 

Backed by the indefinite deterrence assured by America's unparalleled military might, what this gradual strategy of local-led diplomacy and international trade lacks in naïve simplicity it makes up for by offering a real shot at success.

NEXT: Betsy Ross Is Canceled

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  1. "in exchange for a moratorium on all future nuclear weapons development."

    Don't you mean all North Korean future nuclear weapons development? It's hard to imagine Americans signing away development of newer, better, more exciting nuclear weapons.

      1. Funk Seoul Brother.

  2. Bolton must have some dirt on Trump, right? The two don't match up well. Perhaps the war-mongering mustache has a video of Trump engaging in some delectable scat play. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)
    I have other ideas:
    * Trump was seen listening to any Dream Theater album besides Images And Words and Awake.
    * Bolton saw Trump using a Japanese toilet. (A betrayal of Western values but very hot otherwise)
    * Trump caught enjoying Panda Express.
    * Recordings of Trump enjoying Bruce Shitsteen.
    * Pictures of Trump crossdressing. (We've all done it and received arousal from it, but we're mere plebs.)

    1. ""* Pictures of Trump crossdressing."'

      Trump is no Rudy Giuliani.

  3. Look at the size of that pathetic border wall. No wonder Trump was able to cross it so easily.

    1. Alright...that shit was funny.

  4. Yeah, as if Iran or North Korea would stop trying to build nukes after signing a worthless piece of paper.
    Good luck with that, Ms. Naive, aka. Ms. Kristian.

    1. It would be so nice if we had 25 years of history to learn from....

  5. The thing is, going to fat face and playing the 'peaceful negotiation; game they way it has been played since the Korean ceasefire is a proven loser. Trump's combination of "Play nice and nice things happen, play nasty and I'll ruin you" has had more success than the last three administrations combined...not that that's a high bar.

    1. If you're to read any of the mainstream press, the only thing they're talking about is how he took Ivanka and Tucker Carlson with him and how it was just so gauche.

    2. Trump is taking the correct approach. Just as you said, plus a little charming.
      If he can get Michael Jordan to pay Un a visit, we might just get any deal we want

  6. Calling this appeasement is a fatal misreading of NK society and the wishes of its government. Similar to our dealings with formerly hostile nations like Iran and Russia, we're using old information to evaluate new people. We think NK is the Kim Il-sun NK of old with dreams of a unified Communist Korea deeply rooted in anti-occupation/Japanese resistance and a dispute over who the legitimate heir to Korean society truly was. We're long past that point.

    There are three major problems in NK from the perspective of the govt:

    1. They know quality of life is shitty and there's a lot of people who resent those born into power.
    2. They know they've ruffled feathers over the years and can't assure their own safety without nuclear weapons. They used to have MAD with their regular army, but that was more than 50 years ago when NK wasn't as unsuccessful and impoverished as it is today.
    3. Un can't abdicate power and start liberalizing because it's in the interest of the govt (due to reason #1) to kill him and have someone else take control.

    These people want a parachute and they know what abdicating power or loosening the reigns leads to. Un is a lot smarter than people give him credit for. He has a Western education and isn't a stereotype of some evil dictator. Give him and his people a way to amicably dial things back and they will.

    1. Lefties SHOULD know what appeasement is but they don't.

      Neville Chamberlain giving Nazi Germany part of Czechoslovakia for worthless peace guarantees=Appeasement.

      Obama giving Iran pallets of cash for nothing in return= Appeasement.

      Trump standing up to China and North Korea militarily, stroking Chinese and NK narcissistic egos, and using trade as leverage to get the USA a better position is NOT Appeasement.

      1. Well said.

      2. Given the examples you give, you seem to think appeasement is something bad. Trump appeased Israel by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and didn't even get so much as a worthless peace guarantee in return. Trump also appeased North Koreans by canceling 'provocative military exercises' a long standing North Korean gripe without similar concessions on their part.

  7. The "de-nuclearization" of the Korean peninsula, like the "two-state solution" in Israel/Palestine and the ongoing with Iran, is one of those longstanding stalemates of successive U.S. administrations that have made no sense whatsoever, in terms of reality or bona fide American interests. We have certainly needed a president ready and willing to step in and question the premises upon which our Korean policy has been based and, perhaps, to concede what heretofore we have not conceded.

    Unfortunately, I do not believe that Trump has the strategic skill or depth of diplomatic talent necessary to shift course here in a way that both protects our interests and the interests of our regional allies while mollifying a domestic base that doesn't quite grasp the issue (see the other comments, above).

    I suspect that Bolton is absolutely correct that someone (Kushner?) is trying to "box Trump in" to a policy position that Bolton will be powerless to unwind. That seems to be how this administration works. I don't know why he's complaining, since he's done exactly the same thing on Iran.

    1. I don't know the word for it, but re-nuclearization is the path forward. One of the biggest challenges (understandable from SK's perspective) towards reunification is economic development. NK is impoverished but it's not like their people are stupid. There are lots of exchange and guest work programs to help with integration. We need to help NK into the 21st century so the gaps between north and south won't be as insurmountable.

      It's really not all that different from East and West Germany. Koreans are still Koreans, people are tired of antagonism, and while there may not be the same nationalistic fervor for reunification, this is the first time at any point in post-war Korean history where there was even the slightest chance of reunification.

      I really hate how cynical people are about Trump meeting with Kim as much as he has (and Moon being there too). Anyone paying attention to Korea over the past 75 years knows just how much it means for a US President to set foot on northern soil so casually.

      1. I was really happy for Germans when West and East Germany united.

        I will be happy for Koreans if they once again have a united nation that is free.

        The Commies in Russia and Democrats Roosevelt and Truman allowed for Germany and Korea to be split. Always remember that Socialists are enemies to freedom.

      2. China will not like the prospect of a unified Korea, nor will Japan.
        Tough titties

        1. I agree it is unlikely that China will ever allow a reunited Korea. What might be explored is how far China would allow reforms in N. Korea to go forward. I hope they are sick of the Kim regime and they might allow some middle ground solution. Like Communist Party control but a more open society. In this scenario, NK could rely on China for protection and not need nuclear weapons. It unlikely they would get rid of them but they might let them just decay away. This is years away and will require thoughtful diplomacy, not a strong suit of the Trump administration.

  8. Heard George Will say in a recent interview that any country that really wants nuclear weapons will eventually get them. I suspect he’s right.

    1. ^ This. People act like there's some magic to nuclear weapons and that no one could possibly figure it out without being granted access to special secrets.

  9. Checking again, has the courier been by Barack's house to retrieve the Peace Prize?

    1. Elizabeth Warren will go and get it if she becomes President.

      She cannot Indian-give right now on the campaign trial.

      1. I just got off the horn with dispatch. They've sent two couriers, both received no answer when they knocked.

        1. Did they at least leave a flaming bag of poop?

  10. Isn't it madness to trust the future good intentions of N. Korea?

    Kim seems to have a homicidal nature.

    If he makes more and more nuclear weapons, he may use them.

    It's better to have unpleasantness now instead of future disaster.

    1. So all out war with the nuclear-armed client state of nuclear-armed China?
      That's what you're saying?

  11. Trying to get North Korea to agree to a nuclear freeze is the easy part. Getting them to adhere to it is the tough part. Clinton and Bush both tried to make deals to get Kim Jong-Un's grandfather and father to freeze the development of nukes, but to no avail. Given Trump's inability to stay on message (unless it's about him) and his revolving door of policy wonks, I sincerely doubt any deal can be had that will not be violated within six months if not from the get-go. But no matter. Both Trump and Kim Jong-Un will likely agree to a piece of paper to guarantee "peace in our time" because the photo-op of the two of them signing is personally expedient for them both.

    1. I appreciate your complete lack of imagination.
      Thank you for stating the standard line, it's quite the contribution.
      We all await the next profound utterance from such a deep thinker.

  12. Remember 2016? Polling shows three in four Americans already realize Trump can't possibly win? Even the bookies in Ireland got their clocks cleaned for believing polls are not rigged, and that fools who answer them are wise. Looter states and nuclear weapons do not mix. If they put them on ballistic missiles they're easy to intercept. If dictators hand them to submarine or bomber crews, they just might find out why Patrick Henry was never a British or Soviet hero.

  13. Why bother? Just nuke the little fucker and his POS country off the map.

  14. Integrating North Korea into the global economy, not forcing denuclearization, is our best chance at improving ordinary citizens’ quality of life.

    Ah, typical collectivist and globalist thinking: "we" must worry about "improving the North Korean citizens' quality of life"! That's "libertarianism" Reason-style.

    1. Just as it is typical libertarian thinking to dismiss that there could possibly be any negative repercussions for letting a state collapse in on itself that we could forestall with a bit of planning.

      There's nothing wrong, or anti-liberty, in feeling some sympathy for the people suffering under the DPRK regime. It is possible to use American economic and political power to improve their lot, without infringing on the rights or welfare of Americans, in a way that also promotes North Koreans' freedom.

  15. It is worth pointing out we had a nuclear freeze with Iran and they were complying with that freeze. But it got thrown out the window. Just for politics. If I am a country looking at the US right now I am skeptical of any deal.

  16. hi.Thank you dear friend

  17. NK would have to be retarded to give up their nukes. It IS the only thing protecting them from potential invasion.

    A freeze, strictly enforced, might be the best shot we really have. He doesn't seem crazy enough to use them if he's not provoked, so I say call it good. If we open up normal relations with them, they may well become another China... AKA tyrannical, but not SO horrible we feel like anybody needs to do anything about it. It would certainly improve the quality of life for the people there, and perhaps eventually will lead to something better.

    I just don't think we should give enough of a shit about NK either way to take any firm action one way or another, provided they don't have ICBMs that can actually hit the US reliably. So give it a go, and if they continue developing shit, deal with that as needed.

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