Living with a nuclear North Korea

Engagement is the only viable strategy to bring North Korea into the international community.

North Korea has recently conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test. There are indications that Pyongyang has finally mastered the difficult stage of miniaturising a nuclear warhead.

This is significant, because it means they are on the verge of possessing an operational deterrent capability that can arm their strategic missile units. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s statement after the test declared its new “strategic position” as a “full-fledged nuclear weapons state.”

De-nuclearisation is no longer possible. For one, the DPRK does not trust China to maintain its posture as a perpetual security provider for the North Korean regime. Chinese analysts have actually admitted this: that DPRK’s nuclear expansion is linked to a fear of abandonment by Beijing. It is instructive that Kim Jong-un has never visited Beijing since his ascent to leadership five years ago.

Second, no other great power – and here Russia is the only credible alternative – has an incentive to underwrite the survi-val of the North Korean regime. Geopolitically, China remains the most important neighbour with a 1,300 km-long border, compared to a 14 km border between DPRK and Russia. Finally, Pyongyang is unlikely to seriously entertain a hypothetical quid pro quo whereby Washington offers a non-aggression pact in exchange for DPRK dismantling its weapons programme.

There is also very limited space to change DPRK’s incentives to roll back its nuclear programme through coercion and international pressure. Neither China nor Russia wish to escala-te the situation in Northeast Asia by collaborating with the US and Japan on imposing crippling sanctions. Besides, DPRK’s auta-rky and ability to endure previous rounds of economic pressu-re suggest there is little credible space to impose new costs that might alter Pyongyang’s choices.

The backdrop of Sino-American strategic mistrust makes it even more improbable that th-ese two big powers will come together in pressuring the DPRK. But this does not imply that they do not have any common interests in what occurs next. Nearly all the major players have a shar-ed interest in both ring-fencing DPRK’s nuclear and missile capabilities from being transferred to other potential state or non-state aspirants, and in mitigating ripple effects regarding nuclear choices across Northeast Asia.

The consequences of North Korean nuclearisation on strategic stability in Northeast Asia and the wider Asia Pacific can be evaluated by addressing several questions: Would nuclearisation buttress or diminish the insecurity of the North Korean regime? After all, the pursuit of nuclear weapons in this case is fundamentally linked to state insecurity and the resolve to preserve an independent identity.

Further, would nuclearisation embolden or pacify North Korea’s approach towards the South? Put more bluntly, would Pyongyang emulate Pakistan’s strategic behaviour where nuclear weapons have been leveraged as a shield to wage an offensive sub-conventional proxy war against a neighbour?

There is no reason to presuppose that such a reckless calculus drives Pyongyang. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) – dividing the Korean peninsula – is a hardened frontier, and most analysts opine that regime survival is the dominant motivation in the North Korean case.

Long-term dilemmas

Insofar as a spillover effect is concerned, possible scenarios of horizontal proliferation ensuing as a consequence of DPRK’s nuclearisation would involve an increase in nuclear aspirations in that sub-region. Specifically, would Japan and South Korea, who live under the protection of a nuclear umbrella remain confident in America’s extended deterrence? Such dilemmas cannot be completely discounted.

As long as America’s basic Asia Pacific posture remains stable and its commitment to uphold its East Asian alliance system (of which South Korea and Japan form the core) remains robust, it is unlikely that DPRK’s nuclear weapons development will prompt a radical shift in nuclear choices in Tokyo and Seoul.

A real game-changer could be a situation where Pyongyang acquires an intercontinental ballistic missile capability to deliver a nuclear warhead on the American homeland. That could provoke a serious nuclear rethink in Seoul and Tokyo. Staving off such a strategic future ought to be the focus of the great powers today. It is entirely possible to shape DPRK’s subsequent nuclear pathway and the quantum of capability development.

Perhaps, something akin to the Iran nuclear deal might work: a multilateral negotiation whereby DPRK's international isolation is finally ended. The Six-Party talks could serve as an already established framework of the directly effected regional stakeholders to commence such a broad diplomatic process. It could also occur under a parallel bilateral approach where the US-DPRK normalisation tempers the perceived insecurity of Pyongyang and brings it into the international community.

Arguably, a radical shift towards engagement and positive material incentives is the about only tool left in the US foreign policy quiver to constrain DPRK’s nuclear ambitions and influence the future size of Pyongyang’s arsenal.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement, however, does not lend much hope for a change in US strategy. He noted the US remains “open to credible and authentic talks aimed at full and verifiable denuclearisation of the DPRK.” But it is too late. North Korea has already presented its fait accompli.

(The writer is an Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies)

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