Is North Korea really ready to denuclearize?

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Is North Korea ready to dismantle its nuclear program? Kim Jong-un’s surprising moves in recent months, from inviting South Korean envoys to visiting China, give reason for optimism.

It is indeed worth noting that for the first time since the Korean War, a North Korean leader will be visiting South Korean territory. We will also see a first-ever meeting between the incumbent heads of the United States and North Korea.

However, as unique as these occasions may be, the expectations for the meetings’ success are inflated. In South Korean media, there are even talks of potential unification following denuclearization within a decade.

But total denuclearization – defined by the US as complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of a nuclear program – is a goal far over the horizon for now. Kim is unlikely to give up irreversibly his “ticket to survival” any time soon. The North’s nuclear weapons are too deeply intertwined with state survival to let go.

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Pyongyang hopes to maintain its nuclear arsenal first and foremost because it serves as an external deterrence against South Korean and American “aggression.” North Korea experts assume Kim is rational, arguing that even his most bizarre decisions, such as assassinating his half-brother in Malaysia or executing his own uncle, can be explained by his obsession with power.

Kim Jong-nam was a reclusive wanderer who posed little threat to his half-brother Kim Jong-un’s throne. Using VX gas outside the Korean Peninsula – North Korea does have a habit of trying to poison defectors and human-rights activists in Seoul – at the risk of triggering a diplomatic showdown is erratic even by North Korean standards.

It is fair to say Kim Jong-un wants a guarantee of regime survival, almost to a hysteric extent. In that context, it would be surprising if Kim did not demand an absolute guarantee that his regime will survive. Considering South Korea’s overwhelming military and economic superiority, that reciprocal treatment would need to be something more than just sanctions relief.

Much optimism has surfaced since South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Kim did not expect the withdrawal of US troops  from the South. However, it is not the first time the regime has implied willingness to accept the American presence.

Contrary to common belief, North Korea has always been ambiguous toward the US role in the region. In 1992, the North Koreans even commented that American troops helped prevent Japan’s remilitarization and therefore contributed to regional security. At other times, however, Pyongyang declined to engage in nuclear talks with Seoul precisely because of the Mutual Defense Treaty – the legal basis for United States Forces Korea (USFK) – and said there was no point talking directly with the South as Washington was its master.

Pyongyang has repeatedly urged its southern neighbor to escape the “grips of Western imperialists” and work together with fellow Korean people. Maybe Kim will not explicitly demand a US withdrawal. The more likely approach would be to propose a peace treaty that grants regime legitimacy and can be used as a pretext to demand a gradually diminished US role in the peninsula.

Alternatively, Kim could demand the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear assets from the peninsula, as the regime has done in the past, which may sound strange since there are no American nuclear weapons stationed in the South. All tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn in 1991 at the closing moments of the Cold War. Pyongyang’s eyes are on US nuclear submarines that routinely visit South Korea, as well as the USFK, the reinforcement of which entails nuclear assets.

In essence, the Kim family’s main goal continues to be the decoupling of Seoul and Washington. At the very least, Kim can expect to create schisms in the US-ROK alliance by confusing the South Korean population: “Why is Washington sticking to its Maximum Pressure campaign when the North Koreans have clearly changed?” or “Why is a foreign army still stationed in our territory when North Korea has transformed?” The more pertinent question to ask, however, is: “Did the North Koreans really change?”

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Kim Jong-un also considers nuclear weapons an internal deterrence. North Korean officials have repeatedly mentioned Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall as a proof that one should never give up nuclear weapons.

To be precise, however, Gaddafi was killed because he was a tyrant allegedly massacring his own people. The Arab Spring, not denuclearization, swept him away. South Africa, South Korea, Argentina and Taiwan, all of which allegedly at some point pursued nuclear weapons but gave up, remain stable.

When the United Nations Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya, it employed the relatively novel concept of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P): The international community has the responsibility to protect people who are suffering mass atrocities when the national government manifestly fails to stop them.

It is clear that Kim Jong-un is heading to at least some degree of economic liberalization, which could potentially lead to sociopolitical confusion. In that backdrop, can Kim afford to suppress his own “Tiananmen”?

The regime has so far managed to escape foreign intervention despite its gross human-rights abuses. If Kim dismantles his nuclear program completely and irreversibly, can he be perfectly sure he can escape Seoul’s or Washington’s intervention in the face of a humanitarian disaster? North Korea’s conventional weaponry including long-range artillery may be enough to deter R2P intervention, but he will never be sure. And Kim doesn’t like uncertainty.

Furthermore, nuclear weapons are at the heart of regime legitimacy. North Korea is a constitutional nuclear power; in 2012, Kim Jong-un added a clause in the constitution stating that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was now a nuclear-armed state that had risen through the ranks of global powerhouses.

In recent years, North Korea publicly boasted of its unprecedented scientific advances unmatched by any country. This comes in tandem with the view that for North Korea, nuclear weapons are an important symbol of modernity.

During the 1990s, more than a million North Koreans starved to death in the “Arduous March,” during which it continued nuclear development. How is the regime going to explain to its own people that it is going to forgo its nuclear weapons, a symbol of national autonomy and the Juche ideology, that they acquired at the expense of such sacrifice?

It is in this backdrop that the North Korean media have so far fallen short of mentioning anything about Kim’s much-touted “willingness to denuclearize.”

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Much attention is on Kim’s renewed focus on economic development, sprouting hopes that he could exchange nuclear weapons with economic progress through aid and trade. This shift should not be a surprise. The Byungjin Policy, which promotes simultaneous development of the economy and nuclear weapons, has been the central state aim since 2013.

Having reached a terminal phase in its nuclear and missile development, North Korea may be entering negotiation from a position of relative strength to reach Kim’s second objective – the economy. It is therefore unrealistic to expect his economic aspirations would be translated into denuclearization.

The term byungjin itself means “parallel advancement,” so giving up one of the two central aims would simply bely the entire doctrine. Kim could accede to a freeze or a rollback, but it remains highly unlikely he will accept the complete removal of his nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, nuclear weapons are the regime’s insurance in case economic renovation fails. It remains to be seen how, if it is possible at all, Kim can develop the North Korean economy without putting the political system into disarray. Should economic reform fail, Pyongyang needs to be ready to blame the uncooperative Americans and return to a confrontational stance to extort aid from the South. In the process, North Korea will use nuclear weapons as a powerful leverage as it has done between 2000 and 2007 when progressives were in control of the South Korean government.

Another overlooked factor that consolidates North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons is the relative political inconsistencies in Seoul and Washington.

South Korea and the US are democracies that undergo periodic administration transitions. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives take turns occupying the White House and the Blue House. This structure sometimes works to Pyongyang’s advantage; North Korea’s seasoned diplomats in its Foreign Ministry and the “New York Channel” have been dealing with the US for decades. On the other hand, their South Korean and American counterparts are often relatively inexperienced as a result of repetitive political turnovers, giving North Korea the upper hand in negotiations.

However, such a discrepancy sows a dangerous seed of chronic uncertainty for North Korea. For example, officials in Pyongyang were taken by surprise when George W Bush’s administration grouped it with Iraq and Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” Compared with the relative moderates in the Bill Clinton administration with whom the North Koreans landed the 1994 Agreed Framework, the neoconservatives in the Bush administration were visibly more hardline against Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-il even allegedly hid in underground bunkers for weeks during the US campaign of air strikes on Baghdad in 2003, fearing he might be next in line. If his son and successor Kim Jong-un wants a permanent guarantee of regime survival, he cannot simply hand over his nuclear weapons without knowing who will take the Oval Office in 10, 20 years’ time.

Moreover, the US is a global superpower; it can and will be distracted by conflicts and issues in other regions. Bill Clinton nearly became the first sitting US president to visit North Korea in 2000, but Yasser Arafat (then leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization) persuaded him to focus instead on the Middle East peace process.

North Korea needs consistent attention and help from the US to solve economic crises and be accepted as a “normal state.” Removing nuclear weapons is likely to bring the opposite effect by taking away North Korea’s strategic importance in the region.

Despite this backdrop, the South Korean government is taking note of Kim’s surprisingly friendly gestures. Much attention was given in particular to Kim’s remark to South Korean envoys in February and during his visit to China in March that “denuclearization is his forefathers’ wish.” Officials in the Blue House cautiously speculated that even Kim does not have the latitude to defy his own father and grandfather in North Korea’s rigid hereditary system.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa in an interview with the US Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on March 18 also said that it was the first time a North Korean supreme leader had himself explicitly indicated commitment to denuclearization. However, Kim Jong-il personally reiterated Kim Il-sung’s instruction to denuclearize on at least four different occasions: the 2005 meeting with South Korean special envoy Chung Dong-young, the 2007 summit with South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, the 2009 meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, and a 2011 interview with Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

It is also important to remember that in his New Year speech, Kim Jong-un once again talked about the historic accomplishment of completing Pyongyang’s nuclear capability. If denuclearization is truly his father’s will, is Kim implying he is a traitor to the Juche ideology and his forefathers? Granted, this statement may be a political maneuver to show off his “accomplishment” to his people. Nevertheless, the idea that denuclearization has always been North Korea’s hope has no grounds.

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Last, Kim’s recent announcement is triggering excessive optimism in the media. On April 21, Pyongyang declared that it would suspend nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missile ahead of its summits with Seoul and Washington.

Nonetheless, Kim fell short of suggesting any intention to give up nuclear weapons. The announcement of suspension itself is promising; North Korean nuclear and missile tests were in a de facto freeze since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and this announcement serves as an official policy declaration.

Kim’s reassurance that North Korea does not need more tests because it has already acquired necessary technology may reflect its position of strength – having gained considerable missile capability – but is also a public rationale to explain the government’s new course of action to its own people. It may be a hint that North Korea can be flexible in future negotiations depending on the concessions offered.

However, what’s more notable is his promise to keep North Korea a “responsible nuclear power.” Kim said he would “never use nuclear weapons nor transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology under any circumstances unless there are nuclear threats and nuclear provocation against the DPRK.”

Pyongyang’s quasi-no first use (NFU) policy is nothing new – it has always implied that it would not use nuclear weapons first against the South. Pyongyang time to time even claimed moral superiority over the US, which is yet to adopt NFU in the fear of eroding the credibility of its nuclear umbrella.

Pyongyang is also appealing to Washington’s biggest fear that North Korea’s nuclear technology might be transferred to other rogue states or even non-state actors. In essence, North Korea aspires to be recognized not only as a normal state but also a responsible nuclear power. It wants to follow the precedents of India and Pakistan, which, despite international pressure to forgo nuclear weapons, ended up becoming implicitly accepted members of the nuclear club.

But Seoul’s and Washington’s ultimate goal is CVID. They want North Korea to be a non-nuclear state, not a responsible nuclear power. North Korea has just announced that it will not give up nuclear weapons.

The unusual sincerity Kim has been displaying over the last three months gives much hope for further progress in gradual denuclearization. The Moon and Trump administrations deserve much kudos for forcing the reclusive regime to the table.

Seoul and Washington could potentially roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, reducing or limiting the number of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. They could also facilitate inspections on North Korea’s nuclear facilities for verification of development suspension. North Korea will likely put up a guise of denuclearization by making seemingly big gestures, such as demolishing the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Kim Jong-il did just that in 2008, apparently to show the world he was abiding by the Six Party agreements. However, North Korea promptly returned to its nuclear program with such expediency that it’s hard not to believe it intended to keep nuclear weapons from the beginning.

The most reliable way to implement denuclearization would be to force North Korea to choose between regime survival and nuclear weapons. A military strike would serve that purpose, but would be excessively risky. During the course of negotiations, if North Korea does turn out to be deceitful yet again, the US-South Korea alliance should be ready to resume the Maximum Pressure campaign immediately, but this time with irrevocable ferocity that can threaten the regime’s very survival.

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Talks are good; after all, there may have been a paradigm shift in Pyongyang after generational change. Summits also significantly reduce chances of miscalculation, which escalated to a dangerous level with US President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury,” “totally destroy North Korea” comments and North Korea’s threat to “envelop Guam with fire.” If the international sanctions regimes remain intact during negotiations, we can expect positive developments.

In the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the two leaders could agree on a broad consensus to de-escalate tension, with denuclearization as the ultimate end goal. The two Koreas can agree to expand cultural and social exchange, barring unreciprocated economic aid.

It is hoped that the allies will get so far as to freeze or roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, which would reduce – but not eliminate – the North’s nuclear menace. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that a complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement is imminent.

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