North Korean nuclear program: what can and what cannot to be done about it

North Korean nuclear program: what can and what cannot to be done about it.

Back in the 1990s, a recently appointed Vietnamese ambassador to the United States jokingly remarked that one of his major tasks would be persuade Americans that “Vietnam is the name of a country, not a war”. It would be just a minor exaggeration to say that for the vast majority of people outside East Asia, North Korea is not a country but a bomb.

This is sad, but also rather understandable. In economic terms, North Korea is tiny, and its political system is in utter disarray. So since long ago then, its nuclear weapons program has been North Korea’s main claim to fame, and its major source of strength in international relations. Therefore, when people speak of “North Korea”, they are nearly always talking about “North Korea’s nuclear program”. When they talk about solving the “problem of North Korea”, this nearly always means “denuclearization of North Korea” – that is, some deal which will make North Korea surrender its nuclear weapons.

For such people I have some bad news: if the only acceptable solution is the ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID)’ (as American diplomats put it) of the North Korean nuclear program, there is little hope of this Holy Grail ever being reached. Under no circumstances will North Korea under the leadership of the Kim family relinquish its nuclear weapons capabilities – and this family might stay in control for decades.

Why does North Korea need nuclear weapons?

Unfortunately, this stubbornness of North Korean leaders is not the result of some paranoia or ideological zeal, but rather a reflection of a cold-minded assessment of North Korea’s international and domestic situation. North Korea’s leadership has little to gain in surrendering nuclear weapons, but they do have much to lose by doing so.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the late 1950s, and began to accelerate in the 1970s. From its inception, it has served three purposes whose relative significance has changed over time. First, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are meant to serve as a deterrent against a possible foreign invasion, which its elite fear. Second, nuclear weapons are an important diplomatic tool, one of very few tools a small and impoverished nation has when dealing with much more affluent and potentially dangerous partners – i.e. the nuclear program can serve an important role in extracting aid and concessions. Third, nuclear weapons have some domestic propaganda value since their existence can be cited as a reason for the need to bear economic problems and persistent shortages.

So, first of all, nuclear weapons are a powerful deterrent. It seems plausible that currently the leadership in Pyongyang see their nuclear weapons as the primary means by which to guarantee their security. The Pyongyang decision-makers presume that no foreign power would dare to invade a country which is known to possess nuclear weapons. One should not describe this fear of foreign invasion as “excessive” – as the recent experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan testify. North Korean diplomats often say that had Saddam really had nuclear weapons, he would still be living in his luxurious palace as the unchallengeable master of his country.

Recent events in Libya further reinforced this perception. Back in 2005-6, many American diplomats (including, for example, John Bolton, then US ambassador to the UN) went on record as saying that North Korea should learn from Libya and emulate Gaddafi’s decision to surrender Libya’s nuclear weapons in exchange for economic concessions. It seems that North Korea has indeed learnt Libya’s lesson when they saw how this bargain worked out for Gaddafi, his family and loyal supporters.

Among other things events in Libya have demonstrated to North Korea leaders how nuclear weapons might be useful even when combatting internal opposition. Even the most brutal government will be quite reluctant to use nuclear weapons against its own people, but the existence of nuclear weapons makes it less likely that outside forces will get involved in a revolutionary crisis (either with airstrikes or providing direct aid to the rebels).

On March 22, 2011 the KCNA, North Korean official news agency quoted a spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry as saying: “The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that ‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement’ much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force. It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world.” For a change, the present author believes that this particular KCNA statement makes perfect sense.

In a sense, Libyan experience was the last nail in the coffin of hopes for North Korea’s denuclearization. The sorry fate of an eccentric Arab colonel has once again demonstrated that no amount of economic concessions will be seen as a sufficient substitute for security.

Second, nukes are important as a diplomatic tool. Pyongyang decision-makers rightly assume that nukes are their major leverage in dealing with the developed world – and they have made great use of this leverage in the last two decades.

They need such a blackmail tool indeed. If we look at the geographic and macro-economic indicators the one of closest analogue to North Korea is Ghana. If the CIA Factbook is to be believed, in 2010 North Korea’s and Ghana population was 24.4 and 24.7 million, while their per capita GDP $1,800 and $1,700 respectively. Still, North Korea is light years ahead of Ghana when it comes to the international attention and ability to manipulate the external environment. In terms of aid volume, North Korea punches above its weight.

The aid monitoring regime in North Korea is remarkably lax by any accepted international standard.  It has to be lax, since North Korea does not merely need foreign aid: it needs the aid which will come without too many conditions, and whose distribution the donors will not monitor too carefully. Contrary to what some extreme critics of the regime say, it does not want starve its population to death. Kim Jong Il – and now his son Kim Jong Un – as well as their advisers would probably much prefer to see North Korean farmers alive and well (and extolling the leadership’s wisdom and benevolence), but their survival is no very high on the regime’s political agenda. So, uncontrolled and unmonitored foreign aid can be distributed to the chosen groups of population whose support or, at least, docility is vital for the political stability – above all, to the military, police, officials and population of Pyongyang and other major cities. Therefore, irritating presence of foreign monitors is not welcomed. Needless to say, political demands of the donors – like, say, suggestion of some changes in the economic management – are not acceptable as well.

So far, North Korean diplomats have been remarkably successful in getting aid on the conditions which would be seen as unacceptable had it been some other country – and there is little doubt that the nuclear program played a key role in this success.

Throughout 1996-2007 period (the time when the food crisis was most acute) North Korea received a total of 11.05 million metric tons of food aid. Most for this aid came from countries which were described by Pyongyang’s official propaganda as the “mortal enemies of Korean people” – the US, South Korea and Japan. Of the ostensibly “friendly” countries, only China was a major provider of aid.  Those food shipments played the major role in mitigating the humanitarian disaster and keep the regime afloat – and one would doubt that such shipments would be possible without nuclear sable-rattling.

One might argue that North Korea’s decision to denuclearize would be rewarded with a generous aid package. But without nuclear leverage, North Korea’s elite would be unable to ensure that aid would be distributed in a way that serves the interests of itself. In fact, such ‘normal’ aid is likely to be carefully monitored and it will therefore be difficult to use it to strengthen the current elite’s ability to keep its people under its control.

There is a third reason for North Korea’s stubbornness regarding nuclear issues. The North Korean nuclear  program provides the North Korean government with a good excuse that justifies the persistence of shortages and the general suffering of its population. The average North Koreans are told that their country faced with the constant threat of US imperialism has little choice but to dedicate many resources to missile and nuclear development – with predictable consequences for the civilian economy. North Koreans are also constantly reminded that a nation can ‘live without candy, but not without bullets’, and most of them seem to believe that their country (not only the regime, but the entire country) faces a mortal threat from overseas. Therefore, the nuclear program paradoxically contributes both towards reducing internal pressure on the government and increasing it externally. The former though is considerably more important than the latter.

Last, but not least, the North Korean public – or rather a considerable element of it – might feel outbursts of patriotic pride when they think about their country’s nuclear program. One should remember the joy which was expressed by crowds in both India and Pakistan when in the late 1990s these two South Asian countries went nuclear. Unfortunately perhaps, but many people seem to love it when their country has nuclear weapons.

Some hope for an imperfect solution…

Therefore, the North Korean government has valid strategic, economic and domestic reasons to persist with its nuclear program. Under Kim Jong Il, no amount of pressure or concessions was sufficient to change this state of mind, and there is little doubt that this will remain the case under his son Kim Jong Un.

However, this does not mean that the North Korean nuclear issue is unsolvable. We must, though, change the definition of what we mean by ‘solution’. While ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID)’ of the North Korean nuclear program is impossible so long as the Kim family remains in control, the North Korean nuclear program still can be dealt with through a negotiated settlement. Of course, the North Korean side has refused to denuclearize, but it has been willing in the past, and will be probably still be willing to negotiate restrictions on future nuclear development.

From the North Korean perspective this makes perfect sense, since the North Korean politicians know that they are not in a position to ever outproduce Los Alamos or Arzamas-16. At present they are believed to be in the possession of between five and ten nuclear devices. If with more time and more spending they manage to increase their nuclear stockpile to 50 or even 100 devices, it will not increase their ability to deter foreign attack or extract more aid. Actually, for those purposes the existing stockpile is quite sufficient, and further increases in their number will yield fast diminishing returns. Therefore, the North Korean side might be willing to freeze (but not dismantle!) its nuclear program if the international community is willing to pay a hefty price in return. If the money is good, they might even agree to resume comprehensive international monitoring and other measures which will decrease the likelihood of cheating. In other words, Pyongyang leaders would accept accept de-nuclearization, but might be interested in nuclear arms control.

The North Koreans have already expressed their interest in the solution recently proposed by Siegfried Hecker, the former head of the US Department of Energy laboratories in Los Alamos as the ‘three no’s’: “No more nukes, No better nukes, No proliferation”. This means that North Korea is expected to halt its nuclear research and production, while keeping the existent nukes – in exchange for some concessions and compensations from the outside world (which, for all practical reasons, means the US).

From the American, and broadly speaking, international point of view, this deal is not particularly attractive at first glance. After all, American diplomats have repeated countless times that they will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea under any circumstances – and they have good reasons to say so.

Indeed, if North Korea is allowed to keep its nuclear program, and will even be rewarded for its success, it will create a dangerous precedent, which may be eventually emulated by other rogue states. Indeed North Korea is so far the world’s only state which first signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), but then withdrew from the NPT and successfully developed a workable nuclear device. If it is not only allowed to keep its nuclear arsenal but also manages to squeeze some monetary aid from the United States it will clearly create a dangerous precedent.

However, politics is seldom the choice between good and bad, but rather the choice between unacceptable and barely tolerable. An agreement regarding nuclear controls in North Korea might be the perfect case of a barely tolerable choice, if that is we take into account the unpleasant alternatives to such a deal.

Indeed, if Americans will stubbornly refuse to consider anything but full denuclearization, North Korean scientists and engineers will surely work hard to improve their nuclear potential, making North Korean nuclear weapons increasingly sophisticated and dangerous. They are also likely to engage in proliferation-related activities, providing their technological knowhow to anyone willing to pay. It is also worth noting that US  refusal to accept the de facto nuclear status of North Korea will not much reduce its status as a dangerous precedent undermining the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Realistically, in the current American political climate, such a deal is unlikely to be accepted or even to be openly discussed in the political circles. But with the passage of time this attitude is likely to change – at least so long as a domestic crisis does not bring the Kim family regime down. American decision makers might change their mind once they face clear signs of North Korea’s improving nuclear capabilities – like say the successful test of a uranium-based nuclear device. They might also be influenced by another case of North Korean nuclear proliferation, and therefore they will have little choice but to accept the fact that nuclear arms control negotiations are a significantly lesser evil compared to the current policy of stubbornly ignoring the obvious.

In the long run, the current North Korean regime is unsustainable and probably unreformable, so it will probably collapse sooner or later, solving the nuclear issue. However, currently it is impossible to know when this will happen, and for the time being therefore we better learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. This means that we should access the situation realistically and be prepared to compromise, even if such compromises are difficult and costly and unpalatable.

One Response to North Korean nuclear program: what can and what cannot to be done about it

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