by Luca Papini
Immediately before and during the winter Olympic Games just concluded, a lot has been said by newspapers, spokesmen and scholars about the importance of the agreement reached by North and South Korea that tied their respective delegations to march together at the opening ceremony held in Pyeongchang (평창유감), South Korea. Much of what has been said focused on the possibility given by this occasion for strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries in order to, eventually, solve the decennial-long nuclear crisis.
The handshake shared by the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, at the start of the Olympics with Kim Yo-jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, represents the first visit of a member of the North Korea’s ruling dynasty since the informal end of the Korean War in 1953. Even though there is no doubt about the so far uniqueness of the event, it is important to contextualise it into the general framework of North Korea’s nuclear strategic dilemma before we define it as a milestone for the improvement of North-South relations.
This short paper aims to both rationalize the expectations about a near future solution of the nuclear crisis through the description of the situation and, at the same time, attempt to explain why at the present time the US and the world will need to accept a nuclear North Korea for now.
The reasons behind the importance of a nuclear arsenal in North Korea
First of all it is fundamental to keep in mind the narrative going on inside North Korea about belonging to the restricted club of countries in possess of nuclear capabilities. Kim dynasty’s fleece to develop nuclear weapons starts way before Kim Jong-un’s rise to power: it was initially conceived during mid 60s and acquired military dimension during the 80s under the dictatorship of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader. Arguably this is the only visible success of Kim’s dynasty, therefore if we consider this together with the role played inside the country by the cult of personality of the whole Kim family we can have a partial picture of why giving up nuclear weapons would probably mean implosion of Kim’s regime. Basically the stress applied to the success of the nuclear weapons program is a way for the ruling class to keep their people from revolting, showing the great achievements of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and, at the same time, justify the extremely expensive means necessary to get them, both in economic and social terms, for what it can be, by all account called, a failed state.[i]
Into the international scenario though, the possess of nuclear weapons has a complete different meaning. Despite the small amount of actually usable warheads compared to US, Russia or China,[ii] the arsenal in DPRK’s hands is enough to play the game of deterrence. As Andrei Lankov pointed out, after the invasion by the US of several Middle-East countries during the 90s and the early 2000s, the fear of a foreign attack can be hardly dismissed as paranoid or unfounded.[iii] Moreover nuclear warheads play a fundamental role as a bargaining tool over the international community. Considering the amount of imported resources and food from which DPRK depends on for its own survival (over 90% of the total country consumption) it clearly shows they need aid just to keep the system functioning, and they understand that the world needs a sustainable and compelling reason to provide them with such aid. In other words, North Korea fears that giving up its nuclear capabilities would lead to an international community unwilling to satisfy their demands.
“Without nukes, North Korea would become just another impoverished country which must compete for donor attention with such places as the Sudan or Zimbabwe. Even though some aid would probably come its way, it would be on a smaller scale than is currently being received.”[iv]
Possibilities to tackle the DPRK nuclear issue
Considering the deep rooted reasons for North Korea to develop and maintain even just a small amounts of nuclear devices, how can the international community achieve DPRK denuclearisation and the end of the related three decades crisis? Several options have been taken into consideration. All of them face some serious problems in the moment we consider the main geopolitical actor of the area: China. To start with, China’s role in the Asia Pacific area leads to a very different set of geopolitical priorities for the PRC, on top of this list, China values much more the maintaining of the status quo on the peninsula and the survival of Kim’s regime over denuclearisation. The reason behind this lies on China’s hegemonic affirmation in the area in opposition to the US interference. It is easily understandable why this situation jeopardizes at once the chances to either solve the crisis through military means or by isolation and sanctions. The ladder would just not undermine DPRK deeply enough without China’s full support (China accounts for 90% of DPRK trades), as it has been proven by the sanctions entered into force in August 2017, while, on the other hand, the military means would just be voted out at the UN Security Council level.[v]
Even without considering the legal and diplomatic repercussions of an unilateral military action by the US, such possibility should appear clearly not suitable. First of all South Korea would very much likely not endorse nor enter the conflict in any form, preferring to risk an extremely unlikely nuclear strike by North Korea instead of an open war, with all the consequences, 40 kilometres from its capital. Secondly, a massive ground invasion would probably result in a victory of the US and its allies but the costs of such expedition would be prohibitive, and we cannot even rule out the possibility that in this extreme scenario, in order to protect their interests and avoid the rising of a united Korea close to the US, China and possibly Russia would somehow enter the conflict alongside North Koreans, complicating the situation even more.[vi]
Other possibilities, such as the transformation of the relationship between DPRK and US would very much likely create a dangerous precedent. In other words, concessions from the US would be a necessary starting point, and would inevitably pass through at least the informal recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapon state in order to put a cap on DPRK’s arsenal and limit its development. Going down this road would probably “represent a humiliating defeat of the superpower United States at the hands of a fundamentally weak, ‘rogue’ state”[vii]. Therefore creating an as important as dangerous precedent likely to be followed by others, such as Iran, Israel and Pakistan.
Despite the shortness of the description presented so far, it is easily understandable the infinite number of consequences which can arise no matter what strategy would be chosen to address the North Korean nuclear crisis. Without China’s full commitment to the cause, each strategy is doomed to have collateral effects with the potential to jeopardize the entire balance of powers both in the area and the world. Even though Trump’s new strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ – better yet, coercive diplomacy –[viii] appears to have brought some results[ix], in terms of forcing Kim Jong-un to the negotiation table, it is important to keep in mind the hedging strategy played both by North Korea and China towards the US. The Korean supreme leader, contrary to most of the narrative both in the US and Europe – even coming from Trump himself [x]-, is no madman and, as his predecessors during the Cold War, Kim has been able to put himself in the middle of two superpowers, beneficiating from both. This does not mean a deal would be completely impossible to negotiate, it means that unrealistic expectations about the full abandon and denuclearization of North Korea should be left out, in favour of a more realistic, down to earth step-by-step approach, where, in order to obtain some more serious results, China’s sustain is fundamental.
[i] Chung-in Moon, Managing the North Korean Nuclear Quagmire: Capability, Impacts and Prospects.
[ii] SIPRI 2015 Yearbook: https://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2015/11
[iii] Andrei Lankov, Why the United States will have to accept a nuclear North Korea, 2009, Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Kookmin University, Seoul, Republic of Korea pp. 254-256
[iv] Idem, p. 258
[v] Denny Roy, Preparing for a North Korea Nuclear Missile, 2016, Surivival pp. 131-154.
[vi] Andrei Lankov, Why the United States will have to accept a nuclear North Korea, 2009, p. 257
[vii] Denny Roy, 2016 pp.138-142
[viii] Charles Knight, Reality Check on North Korea, Feb. 20, 2018, U.S.NEWS: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/world-report/articles/2018-02-20/donald-trump-must-concede-to-reality-to-stop-march-to-war-with-north-korea
[ix] The Guardian, 03 March 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/08/donald-trump-north-korea-kim-jong-un-meeting-may-letter-invite-talks-nuclear-weapons
[x] MSNBC, 27 Sep. 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC1nqDOgg2c