Sanctions Aren't Stopping North Korean Nukes

Somewhere in there, a middle class grows.

Photographer: Kim Doo-Ho/AFP/Getty Images

Alarming new estimates of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have emerged in recent weeks. The country may already have as many as 20 nuclear warheads and could produce enough fissile material to double that number by next year, according to Chinese experts. It probably has the ability to miniaturize the warheads and deliver them by intercontinental ballistic missile to U.S. territory, a top U.S. general claims. And various studies predict a scary future if the North’s weapons programs continue unimpeded: By 2020, Pyongyang could have 100 nuclear warheads, about as many as India and Pakistan each have today. 

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Whether such estimates prove accurate, one thing is clear: The sanctions now in place against North Korea aren’t likely to keep the stockpile from growing or force a change in the regime's thinking. Under Kim Jong Un, the North has pursued a dual-track policy of nuclear development and economic reforms, with apparent success. Some experts suggest economic growth could reach 4 to 5 percent this year if, as signs indicate, farmers are allowed to keep even more of the earnings from their crops. An urban middle class appears to be thriving: Imports of Chinese cigars, wristwatches, cosmetics and LCD televisions are all up. 

There's little sign that the regime faces internal resistance. The usual speculation that Kim may not be fully in control in Pyongyang has been revived by his decision not to attend World War II anniversary ceremonies in Moscow this weekend -- in what would have been his first overseas trip since ascending to power. Others, however, point to Kim's unusually heavy reshuffling of top lieutenants as evidence that potential rivals are being eliminated. Certainly the government seems confident enough to slightly relax its grip on the wider populace, as citizens take advantage of nascent market reforms. 

Under these circumstances, it's counterproductive to focus exclusively on rolling back the nuclear program -- what negotiators refer to as “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” Kim -- or whoever is in charge -- isn't about to negotiate away the country's nuclear deterrent, its only real insurance against a U.S. attack. 

Instead, the world needs to work on two levels: containing the threat posed by Kim's arsenal while exploiting his reforms in order to crack open North Korean society. The U.S. should press for even stricter international cooperation to keep the North from importing nuclear technologies and expertise, in hopes of slowing down the program. At the same time, it should move ahead with plans to install new missile-defense systems in the region. Efforts to improve intelligence and defense coordination among South Korea, Japan and the U.S. should be redoubled. 

China could help -- not by cutting off all support for the North (which it wouldn't do), but by continuing to lean on Kim to forgo nuclear and long-range missile tests. Fissile material is one thing; without repeated testing of both warheads and missiles, the chances of a North Korean ICBM making it across the Pacific and landing anywhere near its target necessarily decline. 

Although not ideal, a freeze on the program may for now be the most realistic goal. Meanwhile, the U.S. and others should hone a more sophisticated carrot-and-stick strategy to take advantage of Kim's increasing need for outside investment. While continuing to hammer the regime for its ongoing human-rights abuses, the world should stoke the hopes and desires of North Korea's people for a better life, whether by exposing them to more information or dangling the prospect of greater economic and trade links. Ultimately, this greater openness and the North Koreans' own rising expectations represent the most sustainable threat to the Kim dynasty. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.