The situation on the Korean peninsula has returned to the headlines with the cancellation of talks between North and South Korea and a threat from Pyongyang to withdraw from the forthcoming talks between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang withdrew from this week’s talks due to a joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea, a regular fixture in the South’s calendar, and has threatened to withdraw from the summit in Singapore on June 12th due to denuclearisation being presented as a precondition. The best chance yet seen for North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons and pursue a peace treaty with the South is at risk of being thrown away.
There has been talk of the ‘Libya model’, which saw Muammar Gaddafi give up Libya’s nuclear program. This was a rare improvement in Gaddafi’s poor relationship with the West and was effectively a rehabilitation that saw an isolated country’s international relations improve and sanctions lifted. It involved independent inspection and verification, the ‘model’ to which the United States National Security Advisor, John Bolton, referred to in a recent interview. Pyongyang and Bolton’s own boss saw this in an entirely different light, with the regime of Kim Jong Un and the President equating the Libya model with Gaddafi’s toppling and bloody demise. That this kind of misunderstanding can occur at the highest level of politics and within the Trump administration is something that gives alarm and pause for thought. What should be made clear is that Bolton was referring explicitly to unfettered and open inspections of nuclear facilities and to equate this with regime change undermines the prospects of a deal being reached. Pyongyang sees nuclear weapons as a guarantee of security, assuming that possessing them prevents its own demise and has rejected an inspection program before, seeing the demise of Gaddafi as a harbinger of the fate of those who give up on the nuclear deterrent. They have rightly taken Trump’s comments as a threat.
The history of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and international efforts to stop it is one of peaks and troughs with commitments to non-proliferation and suspensions of nuclear weapons development being followed by nuclear tests and ballistic missile development. There is one major difference between North Korea’s nuclear program and that of Libya’s, namely that Libya had a nascent program that it gave up long before a bomb was a viable prospect whereas North Korea’s has produced nuclear bombs that work and the technology and expertise to go with it. Gaddafi bargained away next to nothing, Kim Jong Un actually has the bomb. There is also the matter of the two Koreas never having declared peace, with the border between the two countries an armistice line from a devastating war in which the United States dropped more munitions on North Korea than it did on either Japan or Germany in the Second World War. Bitterness towards the United States is real and it is not difficult for Pyongyang to portray the United States in a bad light, even before the state propaganda kicks in.
It is very likely that the recent attempts at rapprochement by Pyongyang relate to more to conditions within North Korea than to outside pressure from the United States. Looking back to last year, the North’s nuclear ambitions were clear to all and backed up with the characteristic bluster of the Pyongyang regime. While nuclear weapons continued to be tested, Pyongyang appeared to be focused on ballistic missiles, firing them over Japan and Hawaii in a demonstration of the effectiveness of its potential delivery systems for nuclear warheads. This caused alarm in South Korea, Japan and the United States and raised tensions between North Korea and the United States to new heights. President Trump responded with his own characteristic bluster, citing that his red button was bigger than that of Kim’s. This is unhelpful, and arguments that President Trump’s combative approach may work by accident are not reassuring in the slightest as the stakes are too high for this. While success in the talks between the United States and North Korea would be a commendable and worthy outcome, they would be building on efforts that stretch back years and involve many parties, with an influential China being but one. There is a strong argument that Pyongyang’s nuclear testing site is now unusable due to it collapsing as a result of the testing. Shutting it down allows Pyongyang to appear to make concessions while effectively trading nothing. North Korea is also undergoing an economic crisis that will only be resolved though the lifting of sanctions and provision of aid that its population desperately needs. The question is as to whether Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as a guarantee of its own survival or as something to be traded for a guarantee of its security and a means to alleviate the suffering of North Koreans. Threatening the regime and assuming a predetermined outcome to talks does little to ensure the end goal of denuclearisation.
There are some things that denuclearisation will not resolve, principally North Korea’s economic woes and an awful human rights record. Nor will it stop the country being a state that is ruled by a regime dominated by a family that has god-like status and ruthlessly culls any threat to its existence. This should not be forgotten amid the spectacle of the Trump-Kim dialogue or the potential of denuclearisation and better relations between the two Korea’s. These are important as they reduce the threat of a war on the Korean peninsula and would be a boon to international relations in the region and represent the removal of potential harm to North Korean’s. It does not ensure their human rights or change their current woes.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator