On August 8, President Donald Trump declared he would quickly seal a deal with North Korea to end the nuclear standoff if re-elected. The only thing holding back agreement, he said, was the uncertainty caused by the election.
Such optimistic claims, however, run counter to reality. North Korea has been able to develop nuclear weapons despite a formidable coalition of opposing countries, including not only the United States and its regional partners but also China, a vital ally.
Pyongyang has committed itself to the ‘complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’ but this has not happened, despite the coalition’s use of both carrot and stick. North Korea is likely to remain a nuclear state for the foreseeable future.
From 2006 to 2017, six nuclear tests were carried out by North Korea, while Kim Jong-un, who came to power in 2011, has overseen no fewer than 127 missile tests. The state now has a nuclear arsenal of an estimated 30 warheads with a potential deployment capability at an intercontinental level.
During the development of that nuclear programme, North Korea was involved in several negotiations at bilateral and multilateral levels, but the results have been limited. For example, the recent summits of Kim Jong-un with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, and Trump were politically significant but without useful breakthroughs. With negotiations failing to achieve their purpose, sanctions have piled up, based on a series of UN Security Council resolutions dating back to 2006.
North Korea has clearly sought to prevent denuclearization, and its strategy has been cyclical with four phases: crisis, negotiations, extraction and backtracking. It begins with a crisis, such as the one in 1993-1994, when Pyongyang test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan then removed fuel rods containing enough plutonium to make five or six bombs from its Yongbyon reactor. Other crises included the nuclear test of October 2006 and the launching of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental missile in July 2017.
The hostility engendered by the crisis leads to negotiations, such as the Agreed Framework of October 1994 between the US and North Korea, the Six-Party Talks’ Joint Statement of February 2007, or the North Korea-United States summit of June 2018 when Trump and Kim held talks in Singapore.
In the next phase, Pyongyang seeks to extract some of the agreed rewards, in exchange for concessions that do not fundamentally affect its military nuclear programme. An example would be the shut- down of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in 2007 in return for deliveries of heavy fuel oil.
Finally, North Korea backs away from the agreement by refusing to take concrete steps towards denuclearization, paving the way for a new crisis.
The North Korean tactic of securing concessions in this way has been less effective in recent years, especially after the US stopped responding to provocations under Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience. Pyongyang gained some political recognition from Trump and Moon Jae-in but no concrete benefits in the form of sanctions relief or aid packages.
North Korea has paid a price for its nuclear weapons, but the perceived benefits are higher.
Benefits of nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons offer at least four international and domestic advantages. First, nuclear weapons are the ultimate tool of military deterrence.
Second, the threat of nuclear Armageddon dissuades foreign powers from destabilizing the regime through covert operations.
Third, the weapons can be used to extract economic concessions. And nuclear weapons are a tool of domestic prestige in a totalitarian country, an essential demonstration of leadership for both the North Korean elite and masses.
Nuclear weapons on their own are not a sufficient condition to keep the regime alive, but they seem to be a necessary one.
In this context, one can argue that North Korean preferences for the outcome of the nuclear negotiations are, in diminishing order:
- To retain the nuclear weapons and be formally recognized as a nuclear power, alongside Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
- To keep the nuclear weapons and be informally recognized, a position similar to the US attitude towards Israel and India.
- To keep the nuclear weapons without recognition or sanctions, which is a short-term goal for North Korea.
- To keep the nuclear weapons without recognition and under sanctions, which is the status quo.
- To denuclearize in exchange for political, economic and security rewards, thus achieving the short-term goal of the United States and its allies while meeting North Korea’s own promise to forsake nuclear weapons.
- To denuclearize without security, political or economic rewards, possibly the worst outcome for the regime’s survival.
The first, second and sixth scenarios are unrealistic at this point. The grand nuclear strategy of North Korea aims to move from the fourth scenario to the third while avoiding the fifth and trying to extract as many benefits as possible during negotiations.
The extraction of economic rewards is particularly relevant because the North Korean economy remains extremely fragile. The country cannot reform its economy as China and Vietnam have done, since economic openness would most likely lead to the collapse of a regime that has relied heavily on the tools of totalitarian control that require a closed society.
In the end, the puzzle is not why North Korea wants nuclear weapons but rather why the opposing coalition, particularly the United States and China, is not able to force it to scrap its nuclear arsenal.
One would expect powerful regimes such as Washington and Beijing to be able to impose their will on a small country with a population of 25 million and an estimated gross domestic product of only £40 billion, yet they are not. The US and China have failed and arguably are likely to continue failing because their rewards and threats are not credible.
Neither the US nor China can give the same assurance of survival that nuclear weapons do. If Kim were to relinquish nuclear weapons, Washington would actively promote his gradual demise and would not protect him from a fate similar to that of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. As for China, despite their alliance and the short-term usefulness of Pyongyang, the survival of Kim’s regime is not essential to Beijing’s long-term ascendancy to regional hegemony.
In any case, American and Chinese threats are not likely to become a reality. For the US, the collapse of the Pyongyang regime is a risk, but with potential benefits. It may destabilize the region, and the process of Korean reunification would require tremendous financial resources, but it would mean the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear missile threat, provide strategic depth into the peninsula, and mark the disappearance of a Chinese ally.
The US prefers political and economic pressure over military action, which would be the ultimate tool of regime change. Despite its occasional aggressive rhetoric, however, the US has not been willing to risk war on the peninsula for the sake of reunification or denuclearization.
Pledge not credible
China is also risk-averse. Although Beijing has allowed sanctions against Pyongyang and has occasionally punished its ally, it now appears to prefer a nuclear North Korea to a collapsed one which would destabilize the regional economy, provoke a wave of refugees, allow American forces to reach the Chinese border and mean the end of a political ally. In this context, any political-economic pressure the US may exert will not be fully effective because China tends to protect North Korea.
Unfortunately, considering its particularly challenging position in the international system, North Korea’s denuclearization pledge is not credible. It could occur in the case of regime collapse or in an exceptionally messy scenario of political succession in which the new leadership requires Chinese support on the ground. Aside from such radical scenarios, nuclear weapons will probably remain in North Korea. In this sense, claims of imminent denuclearization such as Trump’s should be dismissed. North Korea is a rational actor seeking to increase its chances of survival, which in the present circumstances implies avoiding denuclearization.