Comment

Why would North Korea give up its nuclear weapons?

As the world reacts with universal condemnation to the bomb test conducted by North Korea last week, the South, China, the United States and the United Nations echo the same line of condemnation and bluff: North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons program. Sanctions will be aggressively pursued. China calls for the resumption of the stalled six-party talks, which are based on the notion that North Korea will trade away its nuclear weapons in return for other benefits.

Up Next

Trump’s 'thank you' tour hits Michigan

null
Video duration
01:18

More World News Videos

UN slams North Korea nuke test

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemns North Korea's fourth nuclear test as 'profoundly destabilizing for regional security.'

There is an obvious question no one seems to want to answer. Why would North Korea give up its nukes?

It is a leap of imagination – even the closest observers of North Korea are using some guesswork – but try this: you are the leader of a paranoid, isolated, military regime, preoccupied in the main with regime self-preservation and not particularly troubled by the suffering of the people over whom you have power. You have a closed economy, your country suffers continual food shortages, your regime's central mythology is built on the notion of eternal war, enemies on all sides – are you going to let go of the nuclear option?

Why would you? (And it's not as if the other nuclear powers, declared or undeclared, have been rushing to disarm, either.)

There is no doubt the January 6 bomb test – even if it was a less powerful weapon than the claimed hydrogen bomb – makes the world a more dangerous place.

Advertisement

It is a pickle of a problem. A nuclear-armed North Korea is such a bad idea that it's something even China and Russia can agree with the US on. But the world is in denial. North Korea is a nuclear state. Wishing won't make it otherwise.

It's easy from this far away to dismiss North Korea as a punchline, given the imagery of totalitarian kitsch and the bizarre and baroque stories that trickle out of the secluded country.

And it's true that as an international actor, North Korea can seem insane. Irrational, at least. Why seek constantly to provoke everyone, from nuclear-armed enemies like the US to client-protector state China, with hostile acts? The North Koreans act capriciously and unpredictably in their dealings with other countries, seemingly against their own interests. Already they suffer under harsh sanctions. Are they mad? Why do it?

Two reasons: for the domestic audience and for international leverage.

In the surprising words of a senior diplomat in Seoul when I visited last year, they are entirely rational. In other words, the provocations are calculated, the responses are expected, the flurry of global attention and the superpowers' displeasure are all part of the plan. Silly as Kim Jong-un looks, the leadership knows what it is doing when it tests a bomb.

Internally, it serves to shore up hardliners in the regime who might question the young leader's authority, and to remind the subjugated population that it can protect them from the real threat: the South Koreans and the US.

Internationally, it means attention and some discomfort for China; but it means much more. It means North Korea gets to bargain with a trump card. Pyongyang has form on using the nuke program to extract money, energy and food aid, economic and diplomatic concessions, and merrily string along the superpowers.

North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests, all since the 2003 start of the six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia, which collapsed in 2009. Clearly, the regime has made the calculation that nuclear weapons are more valuable than anything these powers have offered it.

And it is difficult to see what the US can offer a regime that does not care if its people starve. Sanctions already apply, although perhaps more could be done to enforce them. But if it cannot convince Pyongyang that a more open stance towards the world will benefit it – and even modest market openings hold risks for a totalitarian state's control over its people – then what can the world offer North Korea in exchange for its nukes?

The key is China, which has the most sway over North Korea. It could make things very difficult for Pyongyang, but destabilisation is the last thing China wants. It doesn't want a refugee crisis sparked by a collapse in North Korea, and it doesn't much want to share a border with a US-aligned united Korea either.

Beijing has apparently made the calculation that a nuclear-armed North, however undesirable, is a better option than regime collapse. So the flow of energy and food and trade continues.

Pragmatic observers of Korean politics point out that the western powers' denuclearisation plans have failed, repeatedly. US President Barack Obama's "strategic patience" hasn't worked. Western leaders should face up to reality and formulate a way of dealing with North Korea as a nuclear state, and press China for action.

North Korea has long sought from the US an explicit guarantee it won't seek regime change in North Korea, something that might also reassure the Chinese. Perhaps that might be a starting point in persuading a future regime to give up its nukes. But without decisive leadership from China, no one should bet on it.

Kelsey Munro is a Herald journalist. She was a participant in the 2015 Australia-Korea Journalist Exchange Program run by the Walkley Foundation and the Korean Press Foundation. 

Advertisement