The assumption that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, no matter the security guarantees or economic incentives, may finally be put to the test according to a report that the Trump administration is considering a groundbreaking diplomatic proposal to end its decades-long commitment to maximum pressure.
Based on comments from an unidentified source in the White House close to the diplomatic effort, Yeonhap News reported on July 11 that the Trump administration is considering an offer of 12-18 months of sanctions relief on critical coal and textile industries in return for North Korea dismantling its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon and a continued freeze on nuclear weapons development. The administration is also said to be considering a declaration ending the Korean War if Kim Jong-un’s government agrees to this proposal.
From Yeonhap (italics added): "‘The White House, when working-level talks begin, wants to set the conditions whereby they can [initiate] North Korea’s denuclearization,’ the source said, adding that the suspension of sanctions could be renewed if progress in denuclearization ‘moves at a good pace’ but snap back if the North cheats in any way. If it works … the model could also be applied to [other nuclear] facilities … and move in a step-by-step manner until the entire weapons of mass destruction program is fully closed and all sanctions are lifted. This is important, as it allows the US and the North to test their intentions and build trust, but in a way that furthers denuclearization and sanctions relief,’ the source said."
All off-the-record reports should be taken with a grain of salt, and there is some controversy about including the term "weapons of mass destruction" instead of simply "nuclear weapons" (poison pill alert). A State Department spokesperson also labeled the report "completely false" in a subsequent press briefing, though the administration doesn’t gain anything by publicly stating their negotiating position on the record. Still, this would be precisely the give-and-take approach proponents of peace and diplomacy have been advocating for decades, one that hasn’t been attempted since North Korea was forced into developing nuclear weapons by the US during the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. Regardless of its verity (and there is much reason for skepticism given the makeup of the US administration), the report offers the chance to consider whether or not North Korea would ever actually relinquish its nuclear weapons were such incentives – sanctions relief and a peace deal – sincerely applied.
There is widespread belief, after all, that North Korea is forever committed to its nuclear arsenal. This is based primarily on historical precedent. Just one country, South Africa, has ever given up nukes – and only after the fall of the apartheid regime that developed the weapons. We also know what happened to the likes of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, the Libyan and Iraqi leaders who were removed from power and killed after US invasions – presumably in large part because they gave up on developing a nuclear deterrent. John Bolton has even insultingly invoked the Libya model as an exemplar for North Korean denuclearization, despite Gaddafi’s sorry fate (and him never actually having a real nuclear program). It follows that North Korea would be crazy to even consider laying down its nuclear shield based the US history of destructive regime change wars throughout the Middle East.
Many who consider North Korea a permanent nuclear power still believe in the diplomatic initiative, though with a less ambitious objective. The venerable North Korean analyst Andrei Lankov, for example, argues the best-case scenario for these negotiations is a long-term nuclear weapons development freeze for some form of irrevocable, but limited sanctions removal.
Still, the idea that nuclear weapons are the sole guarantor of regime security (or at least that DPRK officials believe as much and cannot be convinced otherwise), fails to acknowledge how much has changed in Northeast Asia and the world since North Korea’s original drive to nukes. These factors, when viewed as a whole, call into question the supposed necessity of nuclear weapons as a unique security failsafe. On the contrary, from a security perspective it has never been a better time for North Korea to consider complete and fully verifiable denuclearization – provided the US ends the Korean War and offers credible and sufficient economic incentives.
Security Considerations Differ Greatly in a Multipolar World
North Korea in 2019 exists in a much different reality than when it truly began developing nuclear weapons during the first term of George W. Bush, or when Iraq and then Libya were destroyed by US invasions – or even when the US began funding extremist groups in an attempt to overthrow the Assad government in Syria. The invasions of Iraq and Libya were undertaken at the height of the unipolar interlude between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the China-Russia cooperative as a credible challenger of American imperialism – economically and militarily.
Syria might be considered the initial testing ground. Though Russia initially only provided material support, when the threat of Damascus falling at the hands al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups became real, Russia successfully intervened. In Ukraine as well, though a US-funded effort spearheaded by neo-Nazi extremist groups overthrew the elected government, the new regime failed to consolidate power in the eastern half of the country home to an ethnic Russian-majority or to retain the Crimean Peninsula. All of these cases have something in common – the existence of Russian military bases or contiguity with the Russian border. It is highly doubtful, therefore, that Russia would sit idly by and permit the United States to invade and occupy North Korea, a country directly connected with its eastern flank.
China is an even more compelling case. The Chinese military, of course, already intervened to prevent America from conquering North Korea during the Korean War. When the US was on the verge of taking the entire northern half of the Korean Peninsula, Chinese conscripts poured into North Korea and prevented the US from establishing what would have been a permanent military presence on the Chinese border. It goes without saying that China, now a global superpower economically and a regional superpower militarily, has every interest in guaranteeing the survival of Kim Jong-un’s government as well as the resources and military capability – nuclear and conventional – to prevent a war before it starts (and whatever misgivings North Korea might have about Chinese meddling in internal political affairs, nuclear weapons aren’t exactly pertinent).
Meanwhile, it would be very difficult to stage a US war against the North without South Korea involved, yet the Korean peace process has already created a climate in which it is almost unthinkable that the South would serve as a staging ground for a preemptive war against the DPRK. This development may be the most powerful accomplishment of President Moon Jae-in’s peace campaign so far. He has also categorically stated that “[his] government, putting everything on the line, will block war by all means” if the US tries to attack without South Korean approval. An unjustified strike on North Korea by the US would almost certainly cause widespread dissent in the South and quite likely shatter the alliance, especially if Japan – the former imperial occupier of Korea – were involved.
Even if a more hostile South Korean government were to regain power in the future, a denuclearized North Korea would still retain its robust artillery capability, guaranteeing unacceptable levels of destruction south of the Demilitarized Zone. The damage that could be done to Seoul and its environs, one of the most highly developed and populated areas in the world, makes war on the peninsula prohibitive to all but the most crazed US politicians.
So it has never been a safer world for North Korea to consider complete nuclear disarmament in the event of a peace deal and sufficient economic incentives. Indeed, North Korea’s history leading up to nuclear weapons production suggests they are more of a trade chip to improve relations with the US and attract economic benefits than they are a non-negotiable security guarantee.
North Korea Has Relied on Other States for Nuclear Security Before
The idea that North Korea is loath to depend on other states for security is another form of conventional wisdom that falls apart with the slightest scrutiny. North Korea relied on the Soviet Union for nuclear deterrence after the Soviets included the DPRK under their nuclear umbrella in 1985 to prevent Kim Il-sung from developing his own nuclear weapons. The North Korean government at the time therefore considered its conventional military sufficient as long as they had Soviet nuclear backing.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the relative weakness of China in the early 1990s, and the continued threat of the US, North Korea was forced to explore nuclear weapons development once again. But its nascent nuclear capability (far from actually producing real weapons) was something they were willing to trade off if the US would normalize relations and, primarily, build two light water nuclear reactors that could only be used for energy production, never for fissile material. This was the crux of the Agreed Framework of 1994 negotiated under the Clinton administration that North Korea remained loyal to even though construction of these light water reactors, the core element of the deal, never began.
It was the Bush administration’s hostility and groundless accusations of secret North Korean nuclear weapons development that eventually pressured the DPRK to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Years of besieging North Korea militarily and economically (the same maximum pressure ongoing to this day) convinced a Kim Jong-il government trying to survive in a unipolar world to develop nuclear weapons and continue striving to improve its delivery capabilities.
So it was an unchecked American empire that pushed North Korea to nukes in the first place. But the United States’ unipolar moment – brief and destructive as it was – is now over. All governments, perhaps especially North Korea, are surely reconsidering long-standing assumptions on security. The recent freeze resulting from inter-Korean diplomacy and the relative thaw in relations with the US is already an indication North Korea has begun to shift its focus.
For Complete Denuclearization, the Issue is American Credibility on Sanctions Removal
The argument that North Korea will never give up nuclear weapons is akin to suggesting the government and its accompanying elites are incapable of making rational decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis regarding their own (likely material) interests. If security guarantees from China, Russia, and South Korea (to a lesser, but still very significant extent) are believable enough and the US is finally willing to sign a peace deal ending official hostility and provide adequate economic incentives, the North Korean government will surely at least consider complete nuclear disarmament.
This is less about North Korea’s addiction to nukes, than America’s addiction to militarism and sanctions. The onus should be put on the US, the imperial power that pushed North Korea to develop the weapons in the first place, until the DPRK is given a legitimate reason to disarm. The offer reported by Yeonhap News, if real, would be a very good first step.
But this too, is a matter of US credibility. When President Trump walked out of the multilateral Iran nuclear deal (simply to spite Barack Obama and placate Israel – Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program, and never has), he made it clear that promises to remove sanctions are cheap. Even during the Obama years few sanctions were effectively removed despite complete Iranian compliance. Though sanctions on Iran are unilateral (US-imposed, not UN), America’s dominance of the SWIFT system has made it risky for banks to finance transactions with Iranian businesses for fear of economic punishment. The real hurdle if the US does take a progressive approach to negotiations with North Korea is therefore convincing DPRK officials they will not be betrayed economically – say, when a hostile Democratic administration comes to power aiming to rollback all things Trump, just as Trump did Obama’s Iran deal.
It is therefore less a matter of security guarantees than whether the US can be trusted not to re-impose financial restrictions after North Korean nuclear disarmament – and whether the emerging powers in this multipolar world are yet robust enough to combat American economic imperialism to ensure lasting, meaningful trade regardless of US betrayal. There’s good news on the latter front as US heavy-handedness has led to increased focus on creating alternative trade systems avoiding the US dollar, especially to save the Iran deal.
The success of these endeavors may prove crucial: When it comes to the question of North Korea’s commitment to nuclear weapons, it is time to forget America’s model for regime change in Libya and Iraq and concentrate on its paradigm for waging crippling economic warfare on Iran, Venezuela and North Korea (for starters), and what the rest of the world is going to do to stop it. North Korea will never completely relinquish its nuclear trade chip until America’s grip on global finance can be convincingly challenged.
Stu Smallwood currently works as a Korean-English translator based out of Montreal, Canada. He lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has a (useless) MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. In addition to Antiwar.com, his writing has appeared at Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.