Why North Korea’s full denuclearisation is a fantasy

Late September’s invigorated nuclear discussions shouldn’t cause optimism

Amy Shi

International relations | Asia, East Asia

18 September 2019

While this year’s US – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea diplomacy talks have spurred hopes, there’s little chance North Korea will reduce its arsenals, Amy Shi writes.

With high-level diplomacy occurring between the leaders of the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in recent years, North Korea’s denuclearisation has taken centre stage in the global arena.

Despite the stalemate in past negotiations, North Korea’s recently proposed invigoration of nuclear diplomacy for late September has resulted in a fresh wave of optimism. The world watches on, expectantly waiting to see if North Korea will finally take steps to give up their nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile programs.

However, evidence suggests that North Korea will never fully denuclearise.

That’s not to say that the high-stakes nuclear diplomacy is for nothing. Partial denuclearisation, or a nuclear deal similar to that reached between the Obama administration and Iran in 2015, are still possibilities.

But full denuclearisation as an endgame is unlikely, and bad policy often hinders confidence-building initiatives which would otherwise improve tense relations along the Korean Peninsula.

So why is North Korea’s full denuclearisation a fantasy?

Firstly, nuclear weapons are a symbol of DPRK national identity.

In much the same way that kangaroos invoke a sense of national identity and unity in Australians, nuclear weapons carry a similar sentiment to North Koreans; perhaps even more so, given DPRK’s isolation.

This is because North Korea’s nuclear capabilities bolster the North Korean doctrine, ‘juche’, of being radical in self-reliance and cultural superiority.

More than that, DPRK is known in the international sphere for being a nuclear power.

It can boast the successful testing of long-range missiles, including the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which has the capability to reach the United States.

That’s a pretty exclusive club for North Korea to be in and not something it is willing to give up easily.

More on this: North Korea's 'beautiful vision': blind to a lack of denuclearisation

Secondly, nuclear weapons are central to the country’s national security and military strategy.

As an isolated and otherwise weak nation, nuclear weapons are DPRK’s only means of protecting its national security.

North Korea first developed its nuclear programs in response to the Korean War. Despite the conflict ending in 1953 with the signing of an armistice, a peace agreement was never reached and the two Koreas remain in frozen conflict.

While South Korea’s security alliance with the United States has equipped them with a powerful military response, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, DPRK’s partner in the Cold War, means that North Korea has come to heavily rely on their nuclear arsenals.

North Korea still technically has China on its side; the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance states that China is obliged to come to DPRK’s defence against unprovoked aggression. However, China has some hesitancies surrounding this clause, and its military capabilities are far inferior to the United States.

Thus, without nuclear weapons, DPRK becomes more vulnerable than they already are.

Furthermore, nuclear weapons are DPRK’s leverage in negotiations.

The nation is determined to have a leg up when negotiating with foreign powers that are more capable by every other standard, with Kim strategically hanging the term ‘denuclearisation’ in the air or firing test missiles to push for his own objectives, however unreasonable they may be.

This was apparent in the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, where Kim was seeking total sanction relief in exchange for limited denuclearisation.

The leaders’ impending third negotiation also appears to carry this certain flavour, with North Korea stating that another failure may end their nuclear diplomacy once and for all. This is used as leverage as the threat of their nuclear capabilities to international peace and security is too big a risk for the world to ignore.

Denuclearisation negotiations legitimise Kim’s leadership domestically and globally.

Kim appears all too happy to reap the benefits of having nuclear weapons; denuclearisation negotiations included. His name is one that all recognise, thanks to the denuclearisation negotiations which have given North Korea global recognition. This also allows him to score political points domestically, validating his power and regime with DPRK citizens.

Given what we know about Kim, jeopardising his ‘God-like’ superiority by giving up his nuclear weapons is unimaginable.

Lastly, Nuclear weapons ensure their state sovereignty.

The survival of DPRK as we know it relies on the survival of the Kim dictatorship. Should North Korea give up its nuclear programs, the nation has no means to stop outside intervention and humanitarian support.

However, the hermit nation’s isolation from the world is deliberate to invoke a sense of national spirit and keep its people in line with the regime. Their views of the outside world are as obscure as the ones we hold towards them due to limited bilateral and multilateral exchange. Opening up a channel for critique would likely destroy the regime at all its levels, threatening their state sovereignty.

Given the value and broad scope of nuclear weapons to DPRK, denuclearisation will be no easy feat.

Although full denuclearisation is unlikely, the world should not give up. Diplomacy is beneficial and may be the first step in treating the root causes of their nuclear programs, such as isolation.

This may lead to some progress and where nuclear war is a probability; any progress is better than none.

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