The upcoming United States presidential election will be a significant moment for the future of US nuclear policy. While questions relating to nuclear security and deterrence on the campaign trail have largely focused on the Iran Deal, North Korea’s recent provocations are cause for concern. In order to more effectively address the growing North Korean threat, the next American administration will have to cooperate with the US’s frenemies China and Russia
The Growing Nuclear Threat
North Korea’s nuclear program has been increasingly active in the past six months. Since withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, North Korea has conducted several nuclear tests, with the most recent success in January 2016. The passage of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2270 on March 2 was a direct response to the latest nuclear test, as well as North Korea’s missile and rocket launches in February, April, and June. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has stated that North Korea is likely planning a fifth nuclear test by the end of this year, as evidenced by its constant state of readiness and indications of restarting its plutonium nuclear fuel production..
North Korea has been known to conduct nuclear tests in protest of increased sanctions, but the ramp-up in testing and missile launches over this year has some experts worried that their technology might be advancing faster than previously predicted. Based on its tests and model displays (with Russian and Chinese influences), North Korea may be only a few years away from mounting a nuclear warhead on an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that would have the capability to reach the west coast of the US. When North Korea held its seventh Congress for the Korean Workers’ Party in May, largely considered a display of Kim Jong-Un’s consolidation of power, the leader stated that North Korea has a “discretionary no-first-use policy.” Nevertheless, these statements have been of little comfort to the US and its allies in the Pacific.
Frenemies in Need?
Working with traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea to counter the North Korean threat may not be enough for the United States, as they do not have as much political or economic influence over North Korea as China and Russia. In April 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated his appreciation for China’s cooperation and its actions to impact North Korean nuclear policy in compliance with UN Resolution 2270. In response to the first nuclear test in 2006, Russia pulled major diplomatic and financial support from North Korea, and it appears that China may be following suit this year. These two nuclear states still contribute greatly to the North Korean economy, however, and therefore have very high leveraging power in the nuclear security discussion. If the next US president further strains relations with Russia and China, he/she will not be able to take advantage of their influence over North Korea.
The United States’ deteriorating relationship with Russia and China is a result of regional issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea, which have overshadowed the need for continued nuclear security cooperation. Specifically, the US-Chinese relationship has tensed over its naval and land disputes with US allies in the Pacific, dropping the nuclear cooperation discussion into the background. There were even reports that the United States and China may be headed for a nuclear arms race to develop a new hypersonic glide vehicle, which could be armed with a nuclear warhead. Such a vehicle would be “almost unstoppable” by current anti-missile technology and a huge step in the wrong direction in terms of US-China nuclear cooperation.
Russia has also increased its own nuclear saber-rattling since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict in 2014, its discord with the United States highlighted by the absence of Russian representatives at the most recent Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) earlier this year. The conflict in Ukraine, increased tensions in eastern and northern Europe, as well as Russia’s continued participation in the Syrian Civil War have all but disintegrated US-Russia talks on strategic nuclear cooperation. It is unclear whether the next administration will bring back the NSS as a method to continue the nuclear security conversation and bring Russia back to the table to discuss strategic stability.
New US President, New Relationship on Nuclear Security?
Our future relationships with Russia and China, and the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrence policy for North Korea, will largely be determined by the upcoming election. Presidential candidate and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has the most experience in this field from her time spent as Secretary of State. After the January 2016 nuclear test, Clinton called on the US to work with the UN and China to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. She recently made statements starkly contrasting and condemning Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s nuclear policy, stating that “unpredictability… and loose talk is dangerous.”
Both Clinton and Trump recognize China’s influence on North Korea, but have outlined very different approaches to encourage deterrence. Clinton suggests increasing international pressure on North Korea with the inclusion of China, a policy congruent with her support of increased involvement in the Asia-Pacific. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has suggested engaging in economic blackmail to encourage Beijing to solve the problem. This tactic supports Trump’s plans to scale back US military involvement in the region and to encourage other countries to increase their own deterrence efforts. Trump has also stated that he would be open to allowing South Korea and Japan to build their own nuclear arsenals to which Hillary Clinton commented t “Even letting friendly nations go nuclear would make it harder for us to prevent rogue regimes from doing the same.” Trump has even expressed interest in speaking directly with the North Korean leader, despite referring to him as a “maniac” earlier this year. Despite all the rhetoric of North Korea as well as the recognition of China’s important role, neither candidate has yet mentioned Russia’s possible influence on North Korea. The two have, however, conveyed different methods of dealing with Russia and President Putin in general, with Clinton suggesting taking a harsher line than Trump over Russian regional conflicts.
North Korean missile technology is gradually improving. The window to negotiate and to effectively deter North Korea from launching a nuclear-armed ICBM is closing. The US needs Chinese and Russian leveraging power over North Korea – sooner rather than later. Due to increased tensions with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, as well as strained relations with China over the South China Sea, it is increasingly difficult to predict whether Russian and Chinese cooperation with the United States against North Korean nuclear testing will occur in the next US administration. Despite the next president’s need to address these tensions, the nuclear discussion is one in which we cannot afford to lose these strategic partners.
Olga Novitsky previously served as a graduate fellow at the Peace and Security Funders Group, a network of foundations and philanthropists who make grants that contribute to global security. Olga Novitsky received her MA from Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program with a concentration in Intelligence. She received her BA in International Studies from Boston College. She is regionally focused on Europe and North Africa, and her research interests include intelligence, legal and illicit weapons trade, and non-conventional weapons proliferation.