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The Peninsula

The Land of Bad Policy Options Just Got Worse, But Denuclearization Remains a Critical Goal

Published February 12, 2013
Category: North Korea

By Chad O’Carroll

The DPRK’s nuclear weapons test today appears to act as a bandage for a number of wounds that have somehow yet to kill the Pyongyang regime.  As the last outpost of quasi-Stalinism in the world, North Korea remains in a Cold War mindset when it comes to its increasingly acrimonious relations with both the U.S. and ROK.  Ruled by an inefficient socialist system and enduring bilateral U.S. financial sanctions since 1953 and ever-tightening UN sanctions since 2006, North Korea’s economy has never truly been given a chance to flourish. In these circumstances, nuclear weapons have become an increasingly critical pillar of Pyongyang’s security, allowing a morally reprehensible government to access significant aid, garner domestic support, deter foreign military intervention and even perpetuate the rule of a family dynasty from generation to generation.  While the unique character and context of the North Korean leadership’s relationship to nuclear weapons suggests that potential for denuclearization is extremely unlikely, the risks associated with what is now an increasing threat suggests denuclearization efforts must remain a critical if lofty international goal.

In the early stages of North Korea’s nuclear program, non-proliferation policy would arguably have only had to deal with perceived external security concerns to prevent the crystallization of the ninth nuclear state.  Perhaps this could have been achieved had the U.S. negotiated a peace treaty with North Korea prior to the collapse of the Agreed Framework.  But now North Korea has nuclear weapons and keeps testing them, any effective denuclearization policy must now address the same security concerns in a far more comprehensive manner, including new external and internal angles.  Externally, a peace treaty still remains essential from North Korea’s perspective, but for this to be achieved sanctions would also have to be removed, isolation ended and decades of mutual mistrust overcome.  Simultaneously, absolute domestic security would have to be assured to Pyongyang during the transition, achievable only through unconditional guarantees of energy and aid provision.  And perhaps most importantly, hard-line political and military figures in North Korea would have to be won over in order to persuade them of the logic to denuclearizing, not to mention persuading the general public.  Unfortunately, even if all of these often contradictory issues could ever be addressed, previous efforts to achieve them underscore the abundance of barriers in applying even the most modest of concessions to Pyongyang.

But while denuclearization seems a dim prospect at the moment, it is clear that the ever growing dangers associated with the DPRK’s expanding nuclear arsenal continue to flourish.  However, it is these dangers that provide a compelling justification for the need to continue efforts to denuclearize the DPRK, no matter how low hopes are that this can ever be achieved. That’s because even just in the process of trying for denuclearization, the international community can have tangible impact on parts and aspects of the North Korean nuclear program that could yield positive effects for partners in both the region and beyond.  These benefits can broadly be split into four areas:

  1. An immediate aspectof the DPRK program that needs to be addressed in the short to medium term is reducing the potential for sensitive nuclear technology and science transfers.  Indeed, the tighter sanctions become and the more that barriers are introduced to limit legitimate trade, the greater the motivation for Pyongyang to try and sell its nuclear know-how on the black market. One way these intellectual transfers could be somewhat minimized is through a dual-track policy of stimulating the DPRK economy and increasing the penalties associated with such transfers.
  2. Safeguarding the North Korea’s weapons and fissile materials is another important issue, especially post Fukushima nuclear disaster, that could be easy to solve through foreign assistance, expertise and investment. Of course, better relations will be required for the DPRK to even consider such a proposal, and while necessary, such initiatives may come with the cost of sending a negative message to would-be-proliferators.  However, the dangers associated with unauthorized usage or nuclear accidents are more pressing than the correspondingly negative, but slow-reaching,  signal such a move would have on the non-proliferation regime.  In addition, this effect could be minimized if safeguarding was pursued under the long-term auspices of denuclearization.
  3. Medium term, the likely potential for a regional nuclear domino effect arising from the DPRK weapons program seems low.  However, this is likely contingent on the continued U.S provision of a nuclear umbrella to allies in the region and the salience of the non-proliferation regime.  In this regard, it is essential that the U.S. remains committed to its security agreements in the region and that the non-proliferation regime remains credible.  This latter issue can be realized to a degree through avoiding temptations to formally ever recognize the DPRK as a nuclear weapon state.  And this response can form part of a long-term denuclearization policy that never accepts the legitimacy of Pyongyang’s weapons in order to minimize the scope for damage to the non-proliferation norm.
  4. Longer term, if engagement policies are pursued – and even if the DPRK acquires significant surpluses of fissile materials – then motivations to one day sell complete arms or fissile materials can and must be reduced.  Only a DPRK better integrated into the world community and economy will be more susceptible to the costs associated with fissile material / arms transfers. A DPRK living in perpetual isolation won’t necessarily care as much.  Importantly, increased confidence in restricting this type of sale could also be simultaneously sharpened through the further development of global nuclear attribution capacities, an area that needs increases in resources at this time.

Because little is known about Kim Jong Un’s leadership and the systems of control in his supporting regime, it is impossible to preclude nuclear weapons being one day deployed in offensive configurations.  Each day that is passed without meaningful progress towards a resolution on the peninsula, this likelihood of this scenario developing sharpens.  However, should nuclear engagement policies be pursued now, these risks could potentially be lowered. That’s because it seems that North Korea would be less motivated to use weapons offensively if efforts to improve its political, economic and security relations were addressed now.

While the third test proves beyond doubt that the prospects for denuclearizing North Korea remains low, an overarching goal of denuclearization should still be pursued as a way of dampening the side effects of what is becoming an increasingly dangerous program. Whilst the weapons program has dangers associated with it, there are steps that can be taken in the short – medium term to mitigate these.  A consequence of these mitigations may be a boost in the DPRK’s confidence in the world system and thus an increase in prospects for denuclearization.

Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from 涉外山頂人’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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