By Andrei Lankov
In recent months, it appears increasingly likely that the North Korean government is gradually switching to a reformist path, largely in emulation of China.
This is welcome development, to be sure. A reforming North Korea, if it manages to survive and remain stable (two big ifs indeed) in some regards will remain a rather unpleasant place. But this transformation will mean significant improvements for the average person there (and outsiders too).
We should not assume that a reformist North Korean government will try, or will be able to, solve all major problems overnight. Among other things, it seems likely that a reforming North Korea will keep nuclear weapons, even though, under a reformist regime, such weapons will constitute a significantly smaller threat for the outside world.
While developing their nuclear weapons program, the North’s decision makers largely had two goals in mind. First, they needed nuclear weapons for security (correctly perceiving them as the ultimate deterrent). Second, they saw nuclear weapons as indeed an important diplomatic tool, making them powerful enough to extract aid from the international community, above all, from the United States.
Under Kim Jong-il, the North Korean economy remained woefully inefficient. To stay afloat, the country needed outside aid, and its diplomats have become very skillful at trading halting their program for large scale shipments of food and fuel. If North Korea starts to reform, its economy is likely to start growing as well. So its government will have much less reason to keep nuclear weapons as a tool for diplomatic blackmail.
However, the second function of North Korean nuclear weapons ― that of a deterrent ― is here to stay. If anything a reforming government will feel even more need for a working deterrent than Kim Jong-il.
The reformist regime, which is seemingly emerging in North Korea, will face two major threats. In the short run it has to be afraid of a conservative backlash. But in the long run its major problem will become its own people’s growing expectations, which are likely to be unleashed by the first reforms and further encouraged by the existence of the rich and attractive South Korea just across the border. In other words, the North Korean regime will face an ever present threat of popular revolution and it is unlikely that this threat will be taken lightly.
In this regard, the experience of Libya is highly instructive, and is indeed frequently cited in official announcements of the North’s media. Moammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya agreed to trade in their nuclear weapons in exchange for better relations with the West. But when a massive uprising erupted in the North African country, Western powers cited the notorious “responsibility to protect” principle and provided the rebels with air cover and military support.
It is not clear whether Western assistance was pivotal in the defeat of Gadhafi loyalists ― it is quite possible that the eccentric colonel would have been thrown out anyway. But it is hard to deny that without Western intervention, his survival chances would have been significantly higher. It is also equally difficult to deny that the West would have been significantly less willing to intervene if Gadhafi still had nuclear weapons at his disposal.
In 2004-05, Western diplomats frequently cited the Libyan example approvingly when talking to their North Korean counterparts whilst urging the North to denuclearize (the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time, John Bolton, even penned an op-ed on the subject). It seems that the North Koreans have indeed learnt the Libyan lesson only too well.
All this does not mean that a reforming North Korea will be as dangerous to the outside world as during the Kim Jong-il era. Pyongyang is highly likely to keep nuclear weapons for security purposes but will also be far less likely to proliferate or engage in diplomatic nuclear blackmail.
Proliferation simply does not make much sense for a country which will become increasingly dependent on international trade: selling cheap running shoes and stuffed toys to the world market will be significantly more profitable and less risky than selling plutonium and nuclear technology to rogue states.
This will mean that the outside world and especially the countries that care most about the North Korean nuclear program should welcome and encourage reform. They might even try to use it as an opportunity to achieve the holy grail of denuclearization – after all, Kim Jong-un is young and seemingly somewhat naive, so there is a slim chance that he will ignore the above mentioned hard-nose pragmatic considerations and sign away his nuclear program.
But one should not be excessively optimistic. A reforming North Korea will become a much less dangerous place but it is likely to remain nuclear so long as the Kim family remains in power.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.