Five Myths about NK Nuclear Weapons

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Five Myths About The North Korean Nuclear Weapons

Olly Terry, Peace Network Intern

October 21st, 2014.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Agreed Framework agreement between the United States and North Korea. The agreement aimed to freeze North Korea’s nuclear proliferation in exchange for Washington’s assistance in the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear power plants and delivery of oil, as the starting point in normalizing North Korea-US relations. Whilst the agreement eventually broke down in 2003, it did provide a near decade long period of stability and hope for the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and closer inter-Korean and US-North Korean ties.

1.) Sanctions and Pressure are the only Strategy for Dealing with North Korea

If there is one lesson to take away from the history of engagement with North Korea over its nuclear weapons development program, it is that dialogue and negotiation are far more effective than sanctions. While North Korea has undoubtedly often been a complicated counterpart for diplomatic relations, diplomacy has proven to be the best way of pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

There are numerous examples to support this theory; in 1993 high level talks allowed the Clinton administration to persuade North Korea to suspend its decision to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Similarly, the Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994, whilst often referenced by the US government as proof of the futility of negotiating with North Korea due to its eventual collapse in 2003, did facilitate more than 9 years of stability as the North discontinued development of their nuclear weapons. All this was possible with the US having to give the North relatively little in return. Likewise in 2007, it was direct dialogue with the North that allowed the Bush administration to turn the Banco Delta Asian sanctions into agreements that saw the North Korea disable all of its existing nuclear facilities. These are prime examples of the necessity and effectiveness of direct conversation when dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue.

The Banco Delta Asian sanctions are also an example of the failure of sanctions to achieve progress on the North Korean nuclear issue. It was whilst these sanctions were in place that North Korea started up hostile rhetoric and pushed forward towards a nuclear test. History has shown that sanctions and pressure only give legitimacy to North Korea’s claims for its need for nuclear weapons. Additionally, it is during periods of pressure and sanctions that North Korea has launched rockets; for example the Kwang-Myoung Song 1-3 rocket launches from 1998-2012, as well as other numerous launches since the imposing of the May 24th sanctions in 2010. Sanctions and pressure have only resulted in the improved nuclear capabilities of North Korea, rather than their abandonment.

2.) The Failure of Diplomacy?

The collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework is an oft-cited example of the failure of pursuing diplomatic resolutions when dealing with North Korea. Whilst, North Korea has proven itself to be an inconsistent partner in diplomatic negotiations and agreements, previous failures or breakdowns of negotiations and diplomatic talks are not down to the failure of diplomacy itself, but rather the conditions for diplomacy haven’t been right. Therefore, the route of diplomacy should not be dismissed as an option with a chance of yielding successful results when confronting North Korea over its nuclear weapons.

In order for diplomacy to work, certain conditions need to be created. Firstly, a precondition for any future open negotiations should be the Four-Parties (US, China and the two Koreas) declaration of an end to the Korean War and a pledge to transit to a permanent peace regime. Secondly, it is an unrealistic goal for the US to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons without itself giving up its own nuclear umbrella. Thirdly, inter-Korean relations, as well as North Korean-US relations need to be stabilized in order for any peace regime to be established. It is only after these conditions are met that denuclearizing the Korean peninsula through diplomacy will become a realistic goal.

3.) China’s Role

Due to its close relationship with North Korea, China is often seen as a key medium between the two sides of the US-South Korea and North Korea, with the US and South Korea often pushing China to get on side with sanctions and pressure against North Korea to work towards denuclearization. However, assigning this role to China is problematic as China’s key interests on the Korean peninsula are avoiding a repeat of the Korean War, ensuring stability and denuclearization. Asking China to enforce sanctions and pressure North Korea is contrary to their goals for the region. Additionally, whilst they remain officially remain allies, it is clear that the China and North Korea’s relationship is nothing like the communist brothers in arms that it once was, and is now something more like a normal state relationship. The cooling of relations between North Korea and China has been particularly pronounced since the North conducted a nuclear test in 2013. Despite the cooling of relations between the two states, the two remain allies in name, therefore asking China to get onside with the US and South Korea and apply sanctions on its ally puts China in a tough positions and is therefore unlikely to happen.

As a consequence, the role China should play in the nuclear situation in North Korea should be rethought. Asking China to participate in talks and negotiations towards peace and denuclearization through participating in the six-party talks is a far more realistic goal and one with a higher chance of successfully achieving a peaceful solution to North Korea’s nuclear program.

4.) Prejudices Regarding Crises on the Korean Peninsula

It is clear that North Korea has been a provocative, unpredictable and uncooperative actor over the last 20 years, however, the current aggravated situation is clearly not solely due to the unilateral actions of one party, but is rather the result of interactions between South Korea, North Korea and the US. Both sides have been guilty of breaking promises and failing to fulfill agreements; the US, for example, had no intention of fulfilling its obligations of the 1994 Agreed Framework as it anticipated the collapse of the North Korean regime was just around the corner. Similarly, under George W. Bush the US ignored the U.S.-DPRK Joint Communiqué by suspending all negotiations regarding North Korean missiles as well as condemning North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” and therefore a primary target for a preemptive attack. Additionally, South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs documents verify that South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s administration had a clear absorption unification policy toward North Korea. If peace and denuclearization are to be realized it will require both sides to live up to their commitments as well as maintaining realistic expectations and balanced perspectives.

Balanced perspectives have been conspicuously absent in the US and South Korean policies towards North Korea, and are therefore unlikely to yield any success if they continue to be filled with stereotypes and prejudices towards North Korea. Examples of this include the assumption that responding to North Korean provocation with dialogue rewards provocation, viewing sanctions as the way to achieve peace, and ultimately regarding negotiations with North Korea as a waste of time. Whilst there is some truth to all of these, allowing these prejudices to become an obstacle to peaceful dialogue is dangerous. Respecting agreements made through diplomatic dialogue and negotiation are the means to denuclearization. This requires compromise, realistic targets, balanced perspectives and serious commitments from BOTH sides.

5.) North Korea will Never Abandon Nuclear Weapons

Arguably the biggest challenge facing the US over negotiations with North Korea is trying to illustrate to North Korea that they don’t need nuclear weapons. In order to achieve this an analysis of the numerous reasons why North Korea wants to hold on to its nuclear weapons is necessary. Firstly, the North Korean military, while large in number, is vastly inferior to that of South Korea in terms of its conventional military weaponry, military drill performances and military spending (South Korea’s military spending is estimated to be ten time that of North Korea) ; nuclear weapons counter this inferiority and are therefore considered an essential deterrent. Secondly, since President Bush labeled North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil’ in 2002, the North was aware that it was a potential target for a preemptive military strike. Thirdly, international arms exportation significantly boosts North Korea’s economy (North Korea is well known to provide arms to Iran and groups such as Hamas). Lastly, the North believes its nuclear weapons offer them leverage that forces the US into negotiations. In order to achieve the ultimate goal of denuclearizing North Korea the US and South Korea need to come up with solutions to address the North’s motivations for continuing its nuclear program.

As mentioned above, sanctions and force only go to reinforce the North’s claims for their necessity/right to possess nuclear weapons to protect themselves. To calm North Korean doubts the US must make compromises if it expects to gain any headway with diplomatic dialogues; avoiding deploying nuclear carrying military ships and planes during the Eulchi Freedom Guardian drills with South Korea would be a start. Similarly, expecting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons whilst the US’ nuclear umbrella remains pointed at Pyongyang seems unrealistic.

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