Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time for a nuclear compromise with North Korea?

Nuclear talks between the US and North Korea have resumed in Beijing, and a deal was announced in late February.

North Korea agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment program and refrain from nuclear and long-range missile testing. In exchange, the US agreed to ship 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea.

This deal is typical of the entire North Korean nuclear affair, which, dragging on for two decades now, has become increasingly reminiscent of a never-ending soap opera with repetitive and predictable plots. We have seen this before — and a number of times. North Korea has once again agreed to freeze (or at least slow down) its nuclear development on the condition that the US pay a sufficiently large reward. And once again, the US has reluctantly agreed, largely because US diplomats (correctly) presume that the alternatives are far worse.

If the official rhetoric is to be believed, both this deal and its predecessors were made in order to achieve the holy grail of US nuclear negotiators — the ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation’ of North Korea. Alas, as US negotiators are at long last beginning to realise, this lofty goal will remain unattainable as long as the current regime stays in power in Pyongyang.

Indeed, why would North Korea even consider surrendering its nuclear program? Like it or not, North Korea has nothing to gain from giving up its hard-won nuclear status. The North Korean nuclear program serves two purposes, and both are vital to the regime.

First, the North Korean leadership believes that nuclear weapons serve as an effective deterrent. Saddam Hussein might still be living in his palace today had he successfully developed nuclear weapons, since nobody would have dared invade Iraq. And the recent demise of Muammar Gaddafi has demonstrated that nuclear weapons can also be used by authoritarian regimes when dealing with local dissent — not by nuking rebel towns, of course, but by keeping foreign supporting forces at bay. The insurgency would not have been assisted by NATO and could probably have been effectively suppressed had Gaddafi not scrapped his nuclear program in 2004.

Second, nuclear blackmail is an effective way for the North Korean elite to maintain their decrepit economy. If North Korea had never developed nuclear weapons it would remain irrelevant to the international community — a ‘Turkmenistan without gas’.

This is a difficult position for a regime whose stability depends upon the regular influx of foreign aid. And this aid should preferably come as monetary transfers which can be easily controlled and managed by the North Korean government, not as investment.

So, denuclearisation is unacceptable and off the table for North Korea, and it is clear the leadership will never completely surrender its existing nuclear capability.
The North Korean regime is, however, quite willing to talk about nuclear arms restrictions, as distinct from complete nuclear disarmament. It seems the North is quite willing to close its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for ongoing aid.

Pyongyang might also agree to freeze or dismantle its nuclear research and production facilities or even accept international inspections, thus making sure that North Korea will not further increase its nuclear capability — if the price is right.

In fact, the North Korean regime has no political or strategic need to advance its nuclear program much further. North Korean scientists cannot out-produce US laboratories, having only produced about 5–10 crude nuclear devices to date. But if they increase this to 50 or even 100 devices, the regime’s diplomatic leverage will not increase tenfold — it will probably not increase at all. The North Koreans might therefore agree to freeze their nuclear program if, in exchange, they receive generous and regular payments from the international community.

A compromise deal would be possible only as long as Pyongyang is explicitly or implicitly allowed to keep some nuclear devices and stockpiles of weapon-grade plutonium. North Korea’s leaders need some sort of nuclear potential, both as a deterrent and as an aid-extracting tool.

Right now such a deal is unacceptable to the American side though, as it looks like rewarding blackmail. Such a compromise would create a dangerous precedent: a rogue state will not only be allowed to flout international law with impunity; it will be rewarded too. But diplomats seldom face a choice between acceptable and unacceptable deals. More often than not, they have to choose between several unsavoury, not to say morally dubious, options — and the North Korean program will continue apace if nothing is done. This will mean more nuclear devices of higher quality, the development of workable delivery systems and perhaps even a fully functioning uranium-production capability — not to mention the possibility of proliferation.

So, one might expect that sooner or later the US side will seriously consider the unconsiderable and start negotiating nuclear arms limitations, rather than nuclear arms disarmament. But this will take time — and perhaps a couple more nuclear tests, missile launches and some revelations about proliferation activity in the Middle East.
Andrei Lankov is Professor at Kookmin University, Seoul, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian National University. East Asia Forum

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