Trump’s recent spate of belligerence follows on from China’s failure to impose regime shattering sanctions on its neighbour. After meeting with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April, and developing a ‘very, very great relationship’ with the Chinese leader, Trump had high hopes that Xi would cooperate in forcing Kim Jong Un to his knees through economic sanctions.
But while the idea of a North Korea armed to the teeth with long range ICBMs and miniaturized warheads doesn’t exactly appeal to Beijing, stability on the Korean peninsula is their overriding concern. As much as Kim’s brutal regime might embarrass China, they don’t want a collapsed state bleeding millions of refugees across the border, not to mention the hassle of guarding Kim Jong Un’s store of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons from opportunistic terrorists. Besides, North Korea also serves as an anti-Western buffer, and in geostrategic terms, Kim plays a useful role in causing trouble for the US.
But surely a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula isn’t good for stability either? Whilst the potential collapse of North Korea isn’t a palatable option, surely it is a sweeter one, compared to the alternative: allowing Kim to get hold of weapons that could hit Los Angeles?
Talking things through
Perhaps, although China doesn’t see the castration of North Korea as the only alternative, and the US can’t always insist that China does things its way.
China still believes in talking things through, an option that the US administration seems to claim is a non-starter. But it is only a non-starter as long as the US insists on the goal of denuclearisation as a precondition for talks.
North Korea has been emphatic that it will never give up its hard-won nukes, and their nuclear strategy thus far demonstrates that the regime sees possession of nuclear weapons as essential to survival (the fates of nuclear wannabes Suddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, don’t do much to persuade them otherwise).
The US wants denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. This is not something North Korea are willing to talk about, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to talk, and they have made plenty of signals that they would be willing to talk on more favourable terms. A “freeze” on North Korea’s nuclear programme is still a viable option, and who knows what might follow?
Convincing North Korea to give up its weapons
There is plenty of reason to be skeptical about the possibility of talking to North Korea. The administration has a “been there, done that” attitude based on decades of North Korea seemingly promising one thing and doing another.
To start with, North Korea dragged its feet massively over allowing weapons inspectors in after signing the Nonproliferation Treaty (the NPT, which requires states to forswear the development of nukes). During this time, it reprocessed a good deal of the plutonium required to build nuclear weapons.
Then, in 1994, faced with North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, the US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, which committed North Korea to freezing its plutonium programme in exchange for aid. This agreement broke down in 2002, when North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the NPT after all.
The Six Party Talks, involving China, Japan, Russia, the US, South Korea, and North Korea, reached a breakthrough in 2005, when North Korea pledged to abandon the pursuit of nukes. Then Kim went and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. Progress was then made in 2007 and North Korea began receiving aid again. Unfortunately, this deal broke down in 2009, when North Korea launched a rocket and withdrew from the talks.
This pattern of behaviour certainly suggests that North Korea isn’t worth talking to, but the picture is more two-sided than is often portrayed.
North Korea and the axis of evil
It is worth pointing out that the Agreed Framework was not the failure it is commonly thought to be. While it lasted, it worked. In the 1990s, according to CIA reports, North Korea’s plutonium industry was poised to produce dozens of weapons. After 1994, they weren’t. The agreement failed because North Korea was secretly producing weapons grade uranium, which is slightly less useful than plutonium in a nuke.
The fact that North Korea was willing to entirely gut an advanced plutonium production programme in return for aid and attention, suggests that their production of uranium was likely a kind of posturing negotiating tactic, designed to get the same kind of concessions that their withdrawal from the NPT had in the first place.
The North Koreans behaved very badly, of course, but the 1994 framework collapsed due to political pressure on Clinton at home. In short, it was shot down by hawkish Republicans, and the US never delivered the physical goods (light-water nuclear reactors) that it had promised.
Similarly, relations took a drastic turn for the worse after 9/11, when those who favoured guns and hard talk truly rose to power. George W. Bush Jr. and his war on terror destroyed all trust between the US and North Korea. As it turns out, describing the country you are trying to broker a deal with as part of an ‘axis of evil’ is not a good negotiating strategy, especially when that country is ruled by a sensitive, egomaniacal dictator.
America is public enemy number one
All this must be understood in the context of how North Korea perceives America. The US has never recognised North Korea as a state, and after the Korean war, the concerned parties never actually reached a peace deal, preferring a Cold War stalemate. In North Korea’s eyes, the US is public enemy number one, and for half a century, the Kims have effectively been preparing their population for an imminent invasion by the evil imperial aggressor (the US).
It is this, North Korea’s perception of the crisis and America’s part in it, that means China can never shoulder full responsibility for resolution of the problem. America is the country that is still at war with North Korea, not China.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid de-communisation of China, North Korea was left out in the cold, a failing Communist state facing the prospect of being dismantled by its arch enemy, which now effectively ruled the world.
In this context, the only successful strategy would have been to absolutely assure North Korea that the US didn’t seek to overthrow Kim’s regime. Negotiating a peace treaty would have been a start. But given George Bush’s posturing, you can appreciate how this humble, conciliatory approach was far from the minds of policy makers in Washington. Faced with a far from certain future in terms of its relationship with the world superpower, developing nukes was an attractive option.
North Korea has already won
And it has worked, so far. The Kim family is still here, whilst Gadaffi and Sadam are not. North Korea, a small, isolated, failing state from a defeated era, has successfully defied the greatest military and economic power the world has ever seen.
Whether or not US aggression is to blame for failing to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear state, it is one.
So what can be done? Despite the president’s fighting talk, there are no military options. Nukes aside, North Korea have enough conventional weapons pointed at Seoul to completely level the population centre of 25 million people. That being said, we can’t put nukes aside.
For numerous strategic reasons, the worst case scenario in even a limited preemptive strike by the US would be nuclear Armageddon, the best case scenario would be escalation and tens, probably hundreds of thousands dead, along with a humanitarian crisis (in war ravaged North Korea itself) unseen since the end of World War II.
There is no denying that allowing North Korea to develop nuclear weapons capable of hitting large US population centres would be a stunning defeat for America, and a terrible situation. But the US survived through decades of living in the cross hairs of many more Soviet nukes.
In the case of the North Korea-US cold war, it wouldn’t even be mutually assured destruction. If North Korea tried to blow up San Fransisco, it could pretty much guarantee its own annihilation. Given that the entire incentive for North Korea’s nuclear programme, was, and is survival, this scenario is unlikely.
North Korea is already capable of causing untold destruction. America has already been outmanoeuvred, and blowing the world up is not an option. The only (unpalatable) option, is to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, and to try and limit its arsenal as best as possible through diplomacy, with the goal of eventual denuclearisation in years to come.
This is obviously an almost impossible sell for whoever sits in the Oval office, but if Tokyo and Seoul are to survive the decade, some form of acceptance is the only way forward.
Perhaps economic sanctions will work their magic in time and the regime will collapse, but if not, it’s either WWIII or a continuation of the mini Cold War that already exists between North Korea and the US.
Words by Jacob Mardell