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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

16 July 2005

Nuclear Hermits

As America restarts negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program, it should ask one question: how badly does North Korea want nuclear weapons? Any country’s appetite for nuclear weapons depends on their centrality in its grand strategy; and for North Korea, nuclear weapons might not be as important.

For America and the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were integral to their global strategy—the claim to be a superpower wouldn’t be the same without them. China, France, and Britain needed a nuclear capability to avoid becoming second-tier powers. India could not assume the position dictated by geopolitics and demography and could never rival China without nuclear weapons; for its part, Pakistan could not claim to be India’s equal without nuclear weapons. Israel too understood that to remain a Middle Eastern country, a nuclear deterrent was necessary.

Even countries that did not develop nuclear weapons did so for the same reason. South Africa’s leadership in sub-Saharan Africa was unquestionable and having nuclear weapons was immaterial. Libya just decided that the isolation that would naturally result from pursuing nuclear weapons would hinder its ambitions in the Middle East and Africa. And it is Japan’s self-perception as a non-military power which keeps it from developing nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s enigmatic leadership and the country’s isolation make any guesses about North Korea just that—guesses. So here are some educated guesses about what North Korea knows.

First, North Korea knows that China will never let it collapse because it fears the consequences. Second, regardless of Pyongyang’s nuclear status, China will act as the ultimate deterrent for any American attack (save, perhaps, responding to a provocation by North Korea). Third, a war with South Korea and America cannot be won—all that North Korea can do is inflict damage. Last, East Asia is not a neighborhood where nuclear weapons can buy power and influence—Pyongyang cannot dominate East Asia in the way that, say, a nuclear Iran can dominate the Middle East.

These facts sketch an odd picture—North Korea’s nuclear weapons can neither serve as the regime’s survival mechanism nor can they promote any expansionist ambitions. To be sure, having nukes is probably better than not having them, but North Korea can protect itself better without them since its chief threat (an American invasion) is more likely to come if it has nukes than if it does not.

To this must be added the extreme ambiguity about the nature of North Korea’s programs. American policymakers are still unsure of what materials North Korea has purchased, nor are they sure whether the facilities they have detected to point the finger at North Korea can produce weapons grade, high-enrichment uranium (1). Given that North Korea has a “neither confirm, nor deny policy,” American policymakers will have to negotiate without full knowledge of Pyongyang’s programs.

At the same time, America needs to resist connecting the intelligence dots too creatively or pessimistically. As Selig S. Harrison noted, “The [Bush] administration’s underlying mistake—in the case of the North Korean uranium mystery, as in Iraq—has been treating a worse case scenario as revealed truth” (1). There is no doubt that Pyongyang’s expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors on December 2002, and its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003 are discouraging and suspicious signs.

But it worth remembering that North Korea changed course only after America and its allies halted shipments of fuel oil, thus ending the 1994 Agreed Framework between America and North Korea (this came after North Korea was confronted with ambiguous intelligence about its program). And it is worth keeping in mind that this ambiguity is a source of strength for Kim Jong Il; in Iraq, the West perceived a hesitancy to allow inspections as an automatic admission of wrong doing, while the truth proved to be more complex.

As America restarts talks with North Korea it should remember that North Korea was not the only one who reneged on the 1994 agreement—the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), charged with implementing the Western end of the 1994 deal, was consistently off target. The initial delivery date for the two light water reactors to be built in North Korea under the 1994 agreement was 2003, but the latest estimates, in May 2003, put the scheduled completion for December 2008 and December 2009 for the two reactors respectively (2). Additionally, the shipments of fuel oil were also consistently behind schedule (2).

It is important to admit that North Korea is not the only one to blame for the failed 1994 accord, primarily because from that admission comes an encouraging conclusion—that North Korea might be willing, under the right circumstances, to suspend its nuclear program.

But what are those circumstances? There is credence in the hypothesis that nuclear technology is North Korea’s comparative advantage—what it can produce relatively cheaply to earn what it wants abroad. In other words, nuclear weapons are a substitute economic strategy. In fact, Pyongyang has experimented with capitalism; starting in July 2002, North Korea undertook a series of liberalization measures that included the readjustment of some prices and wages, the devaluation of the won, the partial devolution of economic decision-making, and a limitation on some government subsidies (3). What is more, North Korea has been trying to create Special Economic Zones (SEZs) since 1991 (Rajin-Sonbong), while its latest zone in Kaesong is attracting investment and shows promise (though initially stifled by American opposition). Pyongyang’s obstacles to liberalization are primarily the lack of expertise, implying that nuclear weapons are substitutes for a market knowledge that it does not possess.

The broader image is that North Korea is a country that has turn inward out of fear. It does not have ambitions that would require it to possess nuclear weapons, and it knows that it can survive without them. North Korea is aware that its survival depends on its neighbors (especially China) and that this places limits to how provocative it can be with its nuclear program; and it also knows that trading nuclear technology for money is unsustainable because Pyongyang cannot count on an ever accommodating America. Although its isolation has been given an ideological bent in the philosophy of “Juche” (self-reliance), its experiments with SEZs support the hypothesis that North Korea might be willing to trade its nuclear program for food, money, energy, and security.

In the end, a successful negotiation strategy need not abandon its skepticism of Pyongyang; nor does it require that the West turn soft on North Korea. Giving up nuclear weapons would require that North Korea confront the internal logic and rationale of its own regime—that won’t come about easily. But in the underlying question of whether North Korea could ever surrender its weapons, the answer could be yes.

References: (1) Selig S. Harrison, “Did North Korea Cheat?” Foreign Affairs, January 2005; (2) “North Korea: A Phased Negotiation Strategy,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report No 61, 1 August 2003; (3) “North Korea: Can the Iron Fist Accept the Invisible Hand?” International Crisis Group, Asia Report No 96, 25 April 2005.



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