When North Korea announced a couple of weeks ago that it’s putting a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American offer of 250,000 tons of food, the mainstream media called it a breakthrough. Some thought it a sign that the new North Korean leadership wants to return to the negotiation table again, or that the moderate factions are gaining the upper hand in Pyongyang. I think it was merely another ploy to gain short-term concessions.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the announcement as a “modest first step in the right direction.” She didn’t say where exactly this right direction leads to, but if she thinks it’s a negotiated denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, I’m afraid she’ll be very disappointed. The fact of the matter is that the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons. At least not through diplomacy.
For the North Korean leadership, nuclear weapons are a vital insurance. The regime in Pyongyang believes that the country would become vulnerable to aggression by the United States and its allies if it gives up these weapons, and it has at least two precedents as basis for its fear: Iraq and Libya. Both countries gave up their nuclear programs after a combination of intense sanctions and diplomacy. Later on, Iraq was invaded by the United States while the Americans helped topple the Qadaffi regime in Libya. For the North Koreans, these are not mere coincidences.
Moreover, nuclear weapons give Pyongyang the leverage to negotiate its way to get food, oil and other forms of assistance from the international community. So much for Juche. This is why the cycle of all negotiations between North Korea and the rest of the world has always been the same: Pyongyang rattles its nuclear sabre, the international community prods Pyongyang to give up its nukes through offers of aid, Pyongyang yields empty promises and token concessions, the international community gives aid, Pyongyang again rattles its nuclear sabre, and so on.
For years, the message that the international community has been sending to Pyongyang is that building more nuclear weapons is the surest way to be able to feed its citizens and maintain its million-man army. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations are guilty of sending this message when they appeased the late Kim Jong-il.
It would be naive to think then that the new leadership in Pyongyang is willing to compromise its nuclear deterrent through negotiations. The real reason why North Korea agreed on a moratorium is because the country is in the midst of preparations for a grand and pompous nation-wide celebration of the centenary birthday of the country’s Founder and Eternal President, Kim Il-sung; therefore, it needs vital resources. Moreover, since the regime had declared 2012 as the national Year of Prosperity, it can ill afford another famine. But, again, make no mistake: North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.
The United States, South Korea, Japan and other stakeholders must realize that spending too much political capital on denuclearization talks is not the best option. Indeed, zealously pursuing denuclearization in past negotiations have merely propped the regime in Pyongyang up. The inconvenient truth is that denuclearization will never happen unless through force. Unless the world is willing to use force, a nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay.
Meanwhile, the United States and its allies should re-examine their strategy in any future negotiation. While they must remain publicly committed to denuclearization, their real focus must shift from persuading the North Koreans to give up their nukes towards merely preserving the status quo and making sure they won’t share their nuclear technology with terrorist organizations and other rogue states. Such a shift in focus would make the parties less likely to give too much concessions to the regime in Pyongyang, but it requires policy-makers to be more creative in coming up with effective ways to contain the nuclear crisis within North Korea.