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How to Solve a Problem like North Korea


North Korea’s expanding nuclear capability and its peculiar status as the world’s sole Non-Proliferation Treaty defector state make it a matter of urgency to respond to the nuclear threat. However, unlike Iran, the failure of sanctions and the West’s limited leverage make denuclearisation particularly challenging. 

The normative anchor of the global nuclear orders on disarmament, non-proliferation, safety and security is the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea is the world’s only country that was a non-nuclear weapon state under the NPT to have withdrawn from the treaty in 2003 (having earlier temporarily “suspended” membership in 1993). Under Article 10 of the treaty, a State Party has the right to withdraw from the NPT if it decides that ‘extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of [the] Treaty, have jeopardised’ its ‘supreme interests’. Debating Pyongyang’s legal right to withdraw is a matter of academic interest only.

This makes North Korea unique in relation to the non-proliferation regime as the world’s sole NPT defector state. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons began in the 1960s, accelerated in the 1980s and led to overt weaponisation in the last decade with four nuclear tests (2006, 2009, 2013, 2016) and several rocket and missile launches, although its capacity to target and hit other countries is still limited. Last year Pyongyang boasted it had successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. On 6 January 2016 it claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb followed by a rocket launch. As its restarted plutonium separation and uranium enrichment programs ramp up to full production, it will soon have the capability to produce several nuclear bombs every year.

North Korea’s nuclear program has been enshrined in the constitution and embedded in party’s ideology, making reversal procedurally more challenging and politically more costly. To keep the scale and gravity of the threat in perspective, nevertheless, let us note that its nuclear tests have been on the small side, its claims are often exaggerated and many of its attempted missile tests are known flops. Thus Pyongyang is still some distance from acquiring a reliable deliverable nuclear weapon capability. But it does have a rudimentary capability and a few small bombs, and both are set to expand. Empirically, therefore, North Korea now belongs in the disarmament basket but its unique NPT-defector status imposes the straitjacket of having to deal with it still through the non-proliferation lens.

Heightening the urgency to respond but complicating the search for the best policy response to the problem of North Korea is that it is also a unique state in the family of nations. It is a communist dynastic dictatorship (the third generation is currently in control) that has committed acts of aggression and serial provocations against its more populous, prosperous and democratic southern kin state; acts of state criminality in kidnapping Japanese citizens in Japan and smuggling them into North Korea; and acts of terrorism.

Can the Iranian model for getting to a denuclearisation agreement be applied to the Northeast Asian pariah regime? Some key differences between the two situations are worth noting. Iran did not possess a single nuclear weapon. As argued elsewhere, the challenge was to cap its capability in order to prevent a potential breakout. By contrast, North Korea already has several and its delivery capability is also growing. In other words the train of non-proliferation left the Pyongyang station a decade ago and is now out of sight; it was stopped from ever arriving at a platform at Tehran station.

Second, North Korea is already deeply isolated and it is hard to see the incremental pain of still more sanctions tipping it into a search for compliance. Clearly the pain of sanctions is within the tolerance threshold for the regime. Nor is there a comparable middle class youth cohort exerting pressure on the regime to re-engage with the international community – or anything resembling the genuine political contestation in Iran with competing policy platforms.

Third, the key to any progress on the agenda lies in Beijing and China’s ability and willingness to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang. Because of North Korea’s isolation from the world economy, additional sanctions in effect are tantamount to sanctions on China’s commercial transactions. The West has very limited leverage with respect to North Korea. The only external actor with any meaningful, but not necessarily decisive, leverage is China. Instead of the P5 (China, France, Russia, UK, USA) +1 (Germany) formula that successfully contained Iran, therefore, it might have to be a case of P3 (China, Russia, USA) + EU2 (France, UK) + EA2 (Japan, South Korea).

That said, the lessons that are relevant from the Iran example are: first, the importance of an international coalition that brings together mutually reinforcing UN, US, EU and East Asian sanctions regimes; second, a new diplomatic framework that discards the dated Six Party Talks that may have passed their use-by date; and third, an agreed goal among East Asian and international partners on the final product.

For a mixed strategy of rewards and penalties to have any success, Pyongyang’s insecurity complex will have to be addressed, including fears of vulnerability to forcible regime change by Washington. Senior North Korean officials have said to Siegfried Hecker, former director of the US Los Alamos National Laboratory (1986–97) that “if Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics”.

John Carlson suggests it may be worth testing Pyongyang on a freeze in return for replacing the 1953 armistice by a peace treaty, as the prelude to difficult negotiations to culminate in a comprehensive peace settlement for the peninsula. Part of the challenge in the latter goal would be to reconcile the West’s call for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula aimed at terminating the North’s nuclear weapons program with Pyongyang’s insistence that denuclearisation must include removal of the US nuclear umbrella.

Moreover, because of the deep trust deficit in the region, any agreement will have to be underpinned by a robust and credible verification and monitoring system. A verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea would also be the most effective bulwark against recent signs of the growth of pro-nuclear weapons sentiments in South Korea and Japan.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution. 

Published June 1, 2016

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