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What Does North Korea Really Want?

Tags: North Korea , China , United States , Nuclear Weapons , Security

Saunders, Paul J.

December 25, 2012

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North Korea’s efforts to attract international attention seem to have become as regular and predictable—though thankfully not as frequent—as the changing of the seasons, suggesting that while its leaders may be content to preside over a Hermit Kingdom, they are almost desperate to avoid becoming a Forgotten Land. Most view Pyongyang’s periodic outbursts, including its recent satellite launch/missile test, as efforts to force dialogue and extract concessions from the United States and its allies, a view that seems plausible. But what is it that Kim Jong-un and his comrades really want? And what is Pyongyang prepared to offer?

Needless to say, an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program is of paramount importance to the United States—especially as North Korea moves closer to having the capability to strike America directly. Most analyses asserts that persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons will be extremely difficult if not impossible, which is probably true. Still, it is worth remembering that nations have given up not only weapons programs but actual nuclear weapons. The most significant such nation is Ukraine, which instantly inherited what became the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.

© Gilad Rom
© Gilad Rom
Steven Pifer, a former US arms control negotiator and ambassador to Ukraine, summarized Ukraine’s path to nonnuclear status in a useful paper last year <www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/5/trilateral%20process%20pifer/05_trilateral_process_pifer>. Needless to say, the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl was an important motive force in Ukraine—and something that no one would like to see repeated in North Korea or anywhere else. Ultimately, however, Pifer argues that Kiev determined that nuclear weapons offered little benefit and was looking for the right combination of security guarantees and financial compensation, something that eventually emerged from three-way negotiations between the United States, Ukraine, and Russia (to which Ukraine turned over its nuclear warheads). North Korea clearly also wants security and money, but how much and what kind? And would it really give up its nuclear weapons in the end?

The Search for Security

There are, of course, many differences between Ukraine and North Korea apart from Chernobyl—the most important being the leadership determination that nuclear weapons did little to improve Ukraine’s security. No less important, Kiev inherited not only a portion of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal but also a share of its foreign and defense ministry officials, including diplomats and experts with experience in US-Soviet arms talks and relationships in Moscow and Washington. This likely contributed to the remarkable speed of the process, as did the fact that the negotiations included only three parties rather than six.

Finally, Ukraine was content with security “assurances” in a joint memorandum (ultimately signed by four parties, including Britain) and did not insist upon security guarantees in a treaty ratified by the US Senate, though Kiev did become a party to the START I arms control treaty. Since a “grand bargain” with North Korea may require a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, it will likely be more difficult to negotiate and to implement.

Still, Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons does offer some useful considerations in thinking about North Korea. One is the fact that despite being a component of the former Soviet Union—and long opposite the United States in the Cold War—Ukraine wanted security assurances to protect it from Moscow, not from Washington. Ukraine in the 1990s was a new and fragile state, with little legitimacy as an independent state (particularly because of its large ethnically Russian population), and a long border with Russia, in addition to a deeply interconnected and somewhat dependent economic relationship.

With this in mind, North Korea’s attitudes toward China—and particularly toward China’s rise—seem underexplored. Most analysts seem to assume that Pyongyang essentially views Beijing as a reliable protector and economic lifeline that it can safely outmaneuver when necessary to pursue its own aims. Given North Korea’s limited options, this is a logical assessment. Still, smaller states that border major powers typically feel threatened—and even when they seek security through closer ties with their larger neighbors, they are not usually fully satisfied. This should lead us to ask whether North Korea is really comfortable with its relations with China.

Independence from Beijing

There is very little empirical evidence to answer a question like this, so the following is rather speculative. Still, taking a longer view of Chinese-Korean history, it would not be difficult to see how some North Korean leaders may not be thrilled with overwhelming economic dependence on China, particularly a rising China. From this perspective, nuclear weapons may in fact be the only way that Pyongyang can retain political independence from Beijing. After all, without nuclear weapons, it is difficult to see what other leverage North Korea would have in dealing with China, which has 50 times its population and over 250 times its wealth. Though this may not have been a consideration when Kim Il-sung first began the quest for a nuclear weapon, it may well have become one over the last two decades, as China has gained economic, political, and military power.

If this is true—rather than imaginative—it could offer a different explanation for North Korea’s frequent efforts to get Washington’s attention. A Pyongyang that is worried about Beijing would have strong reasons to prefer bilateral negotiations with the United States to the Six-Party Talks, where it could not dare to reveal such a view of China.

This is not to suggest that North Korean leaders aren’t worried about their country’s security vis-à-vis the United States, South Korea, and Japan—they probably are. At the same time, however, in today’s world no nation other than the United States could realistically offer North Korea security in its relations with China. If Burma’s military leaders could recognize this and act on it, who is to say that North Korea’s may not?

Ironically, and unfortunately, this line of thinking could make it even more difficult to persuade North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons as it would require a higher level of security guarantees from the United States to be delivered with a higher degree of credibility. Still, Washington has successfully managed tougher problems; 20 years ago, it helped the Soviet Union to come apart without large scale violence, persuaded Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to give up their nuclear weapons, and facilitated Germany’s reunification. The first and most important question today is what North Korea really wants.

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