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Alternatives to North Korea’s denuclearization

by Ramesh Thakur

This is the second of a two-part series on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear provocations.

Condemnations by the United Nations Security Council of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic programs have become so ritualized that they corrode the U.N.’s credibility as its demands are continually and serially defied.

Unilateral punitive measures are impractical because of China’s fault tolerance for Pyongyang. The path of still more punitive sanctions and isolation seems to lead nowhere.

The possible solutions would seem to be either a return of North Korea to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a nonnuclear-weapons state under full International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and inspections; or an acceptance of its nuclear weapons status subject to binding commitments to observe the same disciplines on export, transfer and disciplines as the other nuclear powers.

Why should a strategy of deterrence not work against North Korea (or Iran)?

It worked against the far more formidable and powerful Soviet threat in the Cold War. We managed to live with thousands of nuclear weapons being added to the Soviet arsenal year after year.

Why should the sky fall if a few more bombs are built by some additional countries?

Some answer by branding Iran and North Korea “rogue regimes.” Such demonization has two negative consequences. It adds to their paranoia and deepens their determination to strengthen nuclear weapons capability in order to complicate the calculus of anyone seeking regime change.

And it makes it difficult for us to craft political responses to the security dilemma or seek a reconciliation based on some compromise and mutual accommodation: The only acceptable goal is complete roll-back, not containment based on deterrence.

Japan and South Korea may not be willing to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea under any circumstances and would be tempted to get the bomb themselves under that scenario. Lawmakers from Seoul’s governing party began openly canvassing the possibility of redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons or even South Korea acquiring its own independent nuclear deterrent.

The Japan Times reported April 29 that in 2006, the Japanese government commissioned an internal confidential report on the possibility of producing its own nuclear weapons. Japan’s nuclear weaponization taboo may survive intact, but the threshold for debate about it has been progressively lowered with serial North Korean provocations and Chinese belligerence.

Internationally, the NPT constrains the weapons option and the U.S. nuclear extended deterrence bolsters Japan’s security confidence. Domestically, Japan’s three nonnuclear principles (no manufacture, possession or basing of nuclear weapons); the very strong nuclear allergy in public opinion; and the atomic energy basic law, which limits nuclear activity to peaceful purposes, are powerful constraints on the weapons option.

Few Japanese fear a North Korean nuclear attack. The public reaction is more of annoyance and exasperation at North Korean antics.

The key to any solution is Beijing. On the one hand, there are many costs and risks to China from the nuclear brinkmanship practiced periodically by Pyongyang. Misperceptions, miscalculations and mistakes could see a situation spin out of control and lead to a war that neither side wants, seeks or expects. That would destabilize the whole region and set back China’s development goals.

China frets that North Korea’s seemingly unstoppable provocations could strengthen sentiment in Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, thereby nuclearizing China’s neighborhood and increasing the prospects of a nuclear war along its borders.

It could provoke a preemptive strike against the North by a U.S. under pressure from Japan and South Korea. As a status quo NPT power holding permanent UNSC membership, China has a strategic stake in the NPT and does not want it to unravel. The export of nuclear and missile technologies and material by North Korea is unwelcome.

Even short of war, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula strengthen the military alliance between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington and could produce an increased U.S. military resident presence or deployments and joint exercises with its allies. That would encourage a strengthening of nationalist sentiment in both Japan and South Korea.

On the other hand, the worst possible outcome from Beijing’s point of view is a collapse or defeat of the North Korean regime. This would cause a flood of refugees to stream across the border into China and bring South Korean and U.S. forces right to China’s borders — precisely the prospect that provoked China to counter-intervene in the Korean War in the 1950s in the first place.

A collapse of North Korea could also risk its nuclear bombs falling into the hands of rogue groups or else being secured by South Korea. The presence of a communist regime in Pyongyang is critical to ensure a buffer state, no matter how unpredictable, independent-minded and exasperating it might be.

Besides, a nuclear North Korea might be a nuisance to China but it seriously complicates Washington’s military planning in East Asia.

In a report for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Lora Saalman noted that Beijing often believes Washington to hide behind the rhetoric of nonproliferation to engage in provocative and destabilizing acts of its own with a view to containing China both economically and militarily. Therefore, China seeks to strike a balance in its own policy between keeping the U.S. preoccupied but dissuading it from an extreme response.

There is also an acute moral hazard in making concessions in return for nuclear brinkmanship: a reward for serial provocations. The appetite for concessions has diminished with each new outburst of brinkmanship.

However reluctantly, sooner or later North Korea will have to be brought back to the negotiating table. Hence the interest in the alternative strategy of engagement that tries to moderate North Korea’s behavior as a nuclear-armed state instead of rewarding it for each test in return for no longer credible and unenforceable promises of no more tests.

Some experts have come round to the conclusion that denuclearization is now a pipe dream, and that arms control is the only realistic option. A “solution” would limit the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and put firm restrictions on its export and transfer policies.

Hold the line at four “Nos”: no addition to the nuclear arsenal; no more tests; no quality upgrades in sophistication of its bombs; and no export of nuclear or missile material, components or technology.

Ramesh Thakur is director for the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University, and is co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.”

  • phu

    It’s almost laughable that “control their arsenal” should be proposed as even a viable option with North Korea, let alone a potential solution. How many times have they been told “no” so far? How many times has it stopped them from doing anything?

    Yes, the current pattern is unsustainable (in addition to simply not working). But this proposition is exactly the same thing and will be exactly as ineffective, with the added bonus of tacitly endorsing nuclear empowerment of a family dynasty with absolutely no care for its own people, and downright loathing of many others (particularly the US).

    “Well, OK, but you HAVE to stop now” would be met in the North with snickers and jeers, cries of victory, a massive new propaganda tool, and unrestrained nuclear arms production.

    I’m not an international diplomat; I don’t have an answer. But it’s clear to anyone who’s following this at all that this is more of the same with too many concessions.