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Getting it Wrong on North Korea and Nuclear Reductions

A visitor walks past North Korea's Russian made Scud-B ballistic missile (C in grey) and South Korea's U.S. made Hawk surface-to-air missiles at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji).

Arms control critics wasted no time citing North Korea’s nuclear test as a principal reason why the United States should avoid further nuclear arms reductions. On February 12, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon stated: “It is also unfortunate that on the same day the president of the United States plans to announce further reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons, we see another hostile regime unimpressed by his example. U.S. security cannot … afford even more cuts to U.S. defense capabilities, such as our nuclear deterrent.”

It may make for a nice sound bite, but the argument does not stand up to serious scrutiny. The current U.S. arsenal numbers between 4,600 and 5,000 nuclear weapons, many of which sit atop intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles capable of launching within minutes. The North Korean stockpile, by contrast, is estimated at eight to ten weapons, though it seems intent on increasing these numbers.

If the president tomorrow chose to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by 50 percent, it would still be 200-300 times larger than North Korea’s. The United States also possesses a wide array of conventional deep strike weapons that could inflict devastating damage on North Korea should it contemplate an attack on South Korea, Japan or U.S. regionally deployed forces. And, despite its claims, North Korea lacks a demonstrated capability to strike the United States with a nuclear warhead.

North Korea’s nuclear defiance is deeply troubling, and its latest test warrants heightened multilateral measures to inhibit Pyongyang’s efforts to increase its arsenal both quantitatively and qualitatively. The leaders in the North appear to believe that their nuclear weapons can legitimate the country’s power and entitle it to enhanced international status. These claims are rooted in a deeply adversarial nationalism that has defined North Korea since the earliest years of the state. By claiming undiminished U.S. hostility, it seeks to rationalize the country’s acute isolation and economic dysfunction to its beleaguered citizens.

North Korea is well practiced at identifying the United States as its “sworn enemy.” If anything, additional reductions in the number of warheads in the U.S. inventory would weaken the case Pyongyang seeks to make to justify its nuclear pursuits. But the driving imperatives of its nuclear program reflect its domestic needs and vulnerabilities, not the aggregate numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons.

The nuclear cuts reportedly under consideration by the administration—such as reducing the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to 1,000-1,100—would hardly embolden North Korea or any other state to challenge the United States in a manner different than it does now. Moreover, Pyongyang is undoubtedly aware that the remaining inventory of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons was unilaterally withdrawn from the Korean peninsula more than two decades ago.

If the United States, with a nuclear arsenal 15 times larger than that of any country other than Russia, is not prepared to reduce further, can it credibly argue that other nuclear weapons states should not build up or that other countries should not acquire nuclear arms? Further reductions, on the other hand, would bolster the ability of U.S. diplomacy to persuade third countries to increase pressure and sanctions on nuclear outliers such as Iran and North Korea. In the three years since New START was signed, American diplomats have had ample success in getting other countries to increase sanctions on Iran.

A nuclear-armed North Korea undoubtedly represents a serious threat to stability and security in Northeast Asia. But that is no reason to argue that Washington should not pursue the next stage of nuclear arms reductions with Russia.

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