No optimism on NK nukes
Is the North Korean nuclear problem solvable? If by a solution we mean the oft-repeated demand for North Korea’s ‘verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,’ then the answer appears to be no.
The North has no intention of surrendering its nukes, and this stubbornness is based on quite realistic assumptions about North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy situation.
North Korea needs nukes as a deterrent against a foreign attack and as a tool for blackmail diplomacy. Both tasks are vital for the regime’s survival, and North Korean nukes are decisively not for sale.
Denuclearization might be achieved only when and if the Kim family regime is removed from power. Sooner or later, it is going to happen, since in the long run the regime is unsustainable. However, in this case, the long run itself might be very long indeed. One cannot rule out that the regime will collapse in 2012, but it’s also possible that it will last well into the 2020s or even the 2030s.
If this is the case, what can and should be done in the meantime? Now, it seems that decision makers in both Washington and Seoul have finally realized that neither engagement nor sanctions are likely to deliver denuclearization. So their favoured policy is one of ``benign neglect” (also known as ``strategic patience”). In a nutshell, this policy implies that the international community should behave as if the North Korean nuclear program doesn’t exist, ignoring this troublesome country.
Unfortunately, strategic patience is not a long-term option. North Korea is not going to remain quiet whilst being ``benignly neglected” and North Korean politicians have demonstrated this recently when they presented their newly acquired uranium enrichment capabilities to a group of visiting American scientists. While ``neglected,” the North will work hard to produce more highly enriched uranium, to perfect their (still crude) nuclear devices and maybe even create a reliable missile delivery system. It is also possible that Pyongyang would be willing to sell nuclear and missile technology and materials to countries and groups willing to pay handsomely.
Is there a solution to this problem? It seems that such a solution exists, but currently it is almost a taboo in Washington and Seoul. This solution is a nuclear arms restriction agreement with the North.
Such an agreement was recently described by Dr. Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos laboratories as ``three no’s approach.” The ``three no’s” stands for ``no more nukes, no better nukes, no proliferation”.
Such an agreement would imply that North Korea would first agree to freeze and/or dismantle its existing nuclear facilities, so that it would be unable to produce more fissile materials or improve its existing stock of nuclear weapons. The deal might also include conditions related to proliferation control, even though counter-proliferation measures might be difficult to enforce effectively. However, the deal would also mean that North Korea would be allowed to keep its existent nuclear devices and a certain amount of weapons-grade plutonium. In other words, it is tantamount to recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear power.
Such an agreement would not be free ― nothing is free when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Pyongyang will see its willingness to freeze nuclear program as a major concession and will demand hefty payment. It should also be remembered that all agreements are kept by the North so long as the money keeps flowing into their bank account.
Right now, there is little chance that the U.S.-ROK side would accept such an option. Indeed, such an agreement can be seen as a reward for a blackmailer. It will mean that the North Korean government will be rewarded for its decision to walk away from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). This creates a seriously dangerous precedent, so reluctance to discuss such a course of action is understandable.
That said, one cannot be sure whether such intransigence will survive a chain of crises which is likely to be produced by further developments in the North Korean nuclear program.
As said above, the North’s government is not going to remain idle, it will push ahead with its nuclear program and if history is an indicator, it will make its nuclear ambitions as troublesome for the outside world as possible. So it is likely that in five to 10 years (assuming that the Kim family regime survives that long), nuclear arms restrictions negotiations will come to be seen as an acceptable lesser evil, if compared with damage to be inflicted by the continuation of North Korea’s nuclear program.
This seems to indeed be the case. Yet we should not be excessively optimistic about such a deal, if it is ever going to be struck. It will just freeze the North Korean nuclear program and will help to win a few years of relative quietness ― even though it will not solve the problem for good.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.