11.12.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Could the DPRK Abandon Its Nuclear Program?

5465323434I am frequently asked in interviews whether North Korea can abandon its nuclear program and what Russia thinks about it. Recently, these questions have become even more frequent for two reasons.

First, the South made the latest in a series of “ambitious proposals” at the G20 Summit in Antalya on November 15. Park Geun-hye announced that if Pyongyang abandoned its nuclear weapon and turned to openness and cooperation, large-scale funds up to 63 billion dollars would be invested in the infrastructure of North Korea. The South Korean President proposed establishing the Bank for North-East Asia Development and using the opportunities of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and recently established Asian Infrastructure Investments Bank (AIIB) as certain ways to provide for these major investments. Park Geun-hye urged the international community to support her initiative.

Second, South Korean political scientists tend to believe that at the forthcoming congress of the Korean Labour Party in May 2016, the DPRK may announce a nuclear-weapons freeze. In particular, such a report was delivered by an expert of the National Association Institute, Park Hyung Joon. According to him, North Korea will not abandon nuclear weapons in full, but “it can declare a soft line policy aimed at peace and diplomacy with the neighboring countries” in order to conciliate the United States and South Korea.

Well, that gives good reason to explain the situation briefly. It is no accident that Orientalists talk about the “nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula”, as the nuclear program is the result of a number of processes associated not only with the internal situation in North Korea, but with foreign policy as well.

The Russian Federation consistently supports the concept of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and opposes the spread of the nuclear weapons in general. First, it is related to the fact that Russia, as a country with nuclear weapons, is not interested in the expansion of the Nuclear Club. The current world order with a limited number of superpowers having nuclear weapon is advantageous for our country. Second, Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is obliged to support the policy of the United Nations Organization in nuclear nonproliferation.

This is our official position, which has never changed, and which is reflected in the country leaders’ statements and official documents. However, this “ideal” position is forcedly realigned by a number of factors related to the changes in the current world order.

The first factor is the fall of the authority of international organizations. The situation in Iraq and Libya demonstrated to Pyongyang that the availability of nuclear weapon guarantees protection from enemy aggression, while attempts at concessions and the hope for allies’ assistance are not guaranteed. Although the democratic media believe that Washington and Seoul have no plans to oust the regime, in fact such plans are constantly being amended and improved. The fact of the matter is that the probability of their implementation depends on the political environment.

The second factor is the revolution in military conduct, thanks to which nuclear weapons have ceased to be a “super-weapon”, yet remain an effective deterrent of next generation weapons. Its electromagnetic impulse is able to bring unmanned combat units out of operation, whose utilization will be typical in future military conflicts that set the industrial capacity of one country against the human potential of another.

In this context, the nuclear weapons of the DPRK are a consequence rather than a cause of tension. Therefore, the DPRK will only be able to disarm in exchange for guaranteed security. For that to happen, revolutionary political changes must take place in the region and the world. Otherwise, as soon as Pyongyang disarms, some kind of “necessary” reason will be found to attack. Pyongyang believes this situation is possible, and so do we. Moreover, the current world order does not ensure that the counter obligations of Pyongyang’s partners will be met. The demands on Pyongyang are irreversible, while those of its partners are quite reversible. A destroyed reactor cannot be recovered, but it is easy to violate an agreement or interrupt energy supplies. The fate of the Framework Agreement is an important experience, which demonstrates how business is done.

As for the “threat to peace”, even under the most fantastically optimistic estimates of the North Korean nuclear potential, no possible aggression of North Korea is observed as the current political context does not allow for it. The North Korean leaders do not intend to commit political suicide; and starting a war without any comprehensive offensive capability is pure fantasy. Moreover, in the situation of a military conflict, the hypothetic use of nuclear weapons will not allow Pyongyang to achieve any strategic goal, but it will certainly invite retaliation of greater power. A more realistic scenario is the use of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang in response to aggression of external forces, and in this case, the threat comes NOT from North Korea.

Therefore, there are reasons to believe that the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula includes American nuclear weapons potentially located in the territory of South Korea or targeted at DPRK. One can recall that even when North Korea was not a nuclear-weapon state; it was a target for American weapons in violation of the nuclear parity principle. South Korean attempts to prepare a base to obtain its own nuclear weapons raise certain concerns. Although its probability is low now, such a decision may be taken in certain political situations, and radical right-wing representatives of the Republic of Korea have already announced this idea.

If we speak about the nuclear program of the Republic of Korea, it should be noted that South Korea resorted to playing the nuclear card when the traditional system of regional blocs, under which each Korean state was found under the “nuclear umbrella” of its “suzerain”, was on the verge of collapse, and Seoul felt the need to find a way to confront Pyongyang alone.

In view of the foregoing, DPRK denuclearization is impossible in the current situation. The roots of the nuclear problem are outside the Korean Peninsula. However, an efficient set of measures to freeze the nuclear problem at the current level can be implemented to reduce the probability that North Korea will develop its nuclear missile complex. However, there is no alternative to the negotiation process, as it creates a platform for the rapid exchange of opinions and solutions of difficult issues. Therefore, Russia supports the desire of China to enhance the process of six-party talks seeking solution of the problem exclusively through political and diplomatic means.

At the same time, the limitation of the North’s opportunities in this issue should align with the elimination of the causes that compel the DPRK leadership to take appropriate policy decisions. Thus, Russia finds it flatly wrong to refuse any country’s right to peaceful nuclear energy or peaceful exploration of space. It should be noted that in fact “making a bomb” is easier than building a power plant. In addition, we must take into account how important nuclear energy is for the energy security of both North and South Korea.

Russia is certainly interested in the absence of “flash points” close to its borders. If their absence is related to the availability of nuclear deterrence forces in North Korea, it is not good, but it is better than a military conflict or political crisis provoked by Seoul or Washington.

As for the 63 billion of Park Geun-hye, the DPRK constantly emphasizes that Pyongyang does not intend to discuss the nuclear program with Seoul, perceiving this problem as an element of relations with the USA, where the positions of Pyongyang and Washington strongly differ. There are certain doubts that other countries and international financial institutions will approve of giant and risky investments in North Korea, while South Korea is not able to find these funds independently. Moreover, investment is pie in the sky, and we have already mentioned reversible and irreversible actions.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D in History, Leading Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.