Stamping out nuclear proliferation

With every summit, the legitimacy of the North Korean regime is boosted

Alberto Mozqueira

International relations | East Asia

18 June 2019

North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons. However, forging a deal will still be vital for all parties, writes Alberto Mozqueira.

Global leaders have failed to stop North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Kim dynasty. Now the United States and its allies must adapt to the harsh reality of a rogue nuclear power.

As of June 2019, North Korea has now conducted six nuclear weapons tests. In late 2017, the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ stated that it had completed its ‘nuclear force’ and produced a standardised warhead to use on its intermediate-range missiles.

With that news, there’s now no bluff to call or sanction that will cripple such a determined regime. Especially one that equates its territorial integrity and regime survival with gaining a nuclear deterrent.

When dealing with North Korea, Western analysts underestimated the lingering after-effects of the United States’ previous strategy of democracy promotion and regime change. John Bolton even openly called for the Libya model, a bold allusion to the fact that Libya allowed British and American inspectors to defang its nuclear ambitions, and ended with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi being killed by rebels supported by the US.

States such as Syria, Libya, and Iraq have been invaded or beset by US-backed revolutionaries. All the while, North Korea and Iran have watched closely. To paraphrase Jeffrey Lewis: ‘Get rid of your nukes, get invaded, keep ‘em and you get a summit with the President of the United States.’

But what can be done about a rogue state that has a demonstrable nuclear capability and won’t give it up?

One thing policymakers must accept is that they will never get as good a deal as they would have 10, 15 or 20 years ago. A nuclear freeze is a fine goal, but the capability already exists. A better option would be to seek a deal that prevents North Korea from helping other nations gain the technical expertise that they have accrued in the critical areas of nuclear enrichment, missile technology, and bomb design.

A good example of this would be the 2015 Iran Deal. The agreement set out clear limitations on the Iranian nuclear program, gave international experts access to Iran’s nuclear sites and in return lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Recent actions by the Trump Administration have torpedoed the Iran Deal, but the agreement itself was a success for all parties.

While North Korea’s nuclear program is far more mature, and it is uncertain whether they would still be willing to agree to such a bargain, that shouldn’t stop the US from trying.

The United States and all other nuclear powers object each time another country gains nuclear capabilities. If they want to slow the rate of proliferation among states that are considering this avenue, they must address technology transfer from the mature North Korean nuclear program. North Korea’s ballistic missile program started with the purchase of a Soviet-era tactical ballistic missile. North Korea reverse engineered the missile, and from that sprung a variety of missiles which have steadily developed longer ranges and carried heavier payloads.

More on this: Pakistan’s nuclear black market

Iran and North Korea have previously shared missile technologies, and reports suggest Pakistan has assisted North Korean nuclear developments. These proliferation networks have yet to be fully stamped out, and stopping them is a far more achievable goal than trying to negotiate with North Korea for something that was never on the table to begin with.

So, what would the United States have to do to get a deal like this? It shouldn’t be anything that weakens the United States’ stabilising presence in Asia, so a peace treaty that removes American troops from South Korea is off the table. Diplomatic recognition will continue to be a major incentive for North Korea.

North Korea has asked for another summit. With every summit, the legitimacy of the regime is boosted and such summits have immense propaganda value. Potential bargaining options for the West include a resumption of aid and the lifting of economic sanctions. Another option is to try and pass another agreed framework deal, similar to the one in 1994 where the United States replaced the North Korean fissile material producing plants with light water reactors that made the creation of such material harder and longer to make.

Nuclear disarmament or regime change in North Korea isn’t going to happen in the short term, especially with China’s continued support for the state. Wishing it would only give North Korea time to keep building its nuclear arsenal or trade its nuclear expertise with other rogue states.

Reaching a sober compromise to stabilise the Korean Peninsula and cutting down on a dangerous proliferation network is going to be difficult but necessary work, as this particular nuclear genie is already out of the bottle.

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