March 2018

Is North Korea Serious About De-Nuclearization?

No.

That's comforting.

That's comforting.

Well, that was easy. Of course we never want to make things too simple here, so let's dive into the details. North Korea has long been a big issue in the question for the security of eastern Asia. It's heavily guarded border with South Korea remains a focal point of these tensions, even as the question of border security has been somewhat replaced by that of nuclear security. Tensions have skyrocketed (get it?) since the election of Trump and his more combative rhetoric with Pyongyang. North Korean missile tests appear capable of reaching the United States, and at one point the United States had three aircraft carrier groups in the region stationed as a show of force. But with the sudden (and extremely unexpected) announcement of direct talks between North Korean president Kim Jong-un and Trump, it seems there may be a glimmer of hope in the question of de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

As we've mentioned numerous times before, nations do not get nuclear weapons to use them. Rather, the get them for regime security, to prevent no other nation from even trying to destroy them. North Korea is no different. Iran's stalled attempts to obtain nuclear weapons are no different as well. But unfortunately we can't expect to use the Iran deal as a guide for negotiations with North Korea. Since North Korea already possesses nukes, they have already passed the point of no return. Other powers can certainly put more military and economic pressure on North Korea to control its behavior, but it's nearly impossible to remove the nuclear threat once it's been unleashed.

Though I guess it worked for  South Africa .

Though I guess it worked for South Africa.

It's also very difficult to expect much out of North Korean negotiations this time around. Negotiations have occurred and deals have been struck with North Korea before, but the regime usually uses these as an opportunity to move their operations underground or buy more time to make further technological developments. North Korea may be genuine this time around, or they may be looking to distract the United States while gaining critical sanctions relief. The other big factor is the demands of North Korea. When president Kim Jong-un made a secret visit to China earlier this week, news organizations were quick to report that North Korea had announced its intent to disarm.  But many of them failed to mention the near-certainty that North Korea's demands would likely be entirely unreasonable. They usually announce demands like the complete removal of American troops from South Korea and Japan or the de-nuclearization of the United States. Even if those were feasible, such concessions would prove disastrous for American security guarantees abroad.

The other big question mark is China. China serves as the security guarantor for North Korea just like America does for South Korea. Two of the biggest reasons China continues to support such a brutal regime is because its collapse would mean a massive refugee problem in China, and because a unified Korea would likely place American troops directly on the border with China.  So, while China probably wants to see a calming of tensions in the region, it doesn't exactly want to see the capitulation of the North Korean regime either. Then of course, there is the involvement of South Korea, which has just as much (if not more) of a say in these discussions.  South Korea also knows that reunification is highly unlikely (and in some ways undesirable), so a general easing of tensions is likely the best that everyone can hope for.

Can't we all just get along?

Can't we all just get along?

So the most likely outcome (besides nothing) is probably some sort of a temporary freeze on new nuclear or missile development.  Perhaps this could lead to a future plan to roll back or give up some of the technology they currently posses.  This would certainly be better than the current situation. However, it should be stressed that a nuke-free North Korea is essentially impossible in the short term and probably the long term too.  If the current administration can pull off a successful negotiation here, it would provide a much-needed win for the prestige of the United States in global leadership and negotiations.  But that would be a tall hurdle for even the most stable and successful administration to pull off, let alone one marred by staff turnover and sudden policy reversals.