International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

19 January 2018

North Korea’s sudden willingness to negotiate with the South is not a sign of a change of heart, but rather a tried-and-tested strategy to buy time for Kim’s nuclear ambitions, Francis Grice writes.

While fighting against the Americans in the Second Indochina War, the North Vietnamese adopted an approach they referred to as ‘fighting while talking, talking while fighting’. This strategy consisted of dangling the possibility of a negotiated peace in front of the Americans to dilute their commitment to the war and to encourage internal divisions at home. The North Vietnamese had no intention of seeking a negotiated end to the conflict, but saw diplomatic talks as just another weapon in their arsenal.

Kim Jong-un is playing a similar game today, with the goal of acquiring a full-scale nuclear deterrent. Tempting though it might be to accept North Korea’s recent overtures to the South as the start of something bigger, the international community should remain sceptical: sadly, this is probably just a ruse.

Kim’s reasons for desperately craving a nuclear deterrent to deter outside intervention and buttress his domestic prestige are well known. Yet, after several years of breakneck ballistic missile and nuclear warhead testing, Kim seems to have mysteriously taken his foot off the accelerator by announcing that he has finished his proliferation program and is pursuing talks with South Korea.

This is likely because North Korea has found itself backed into a corner of late. Heavy sanctions, abandonment by China and Russia, and the threat of American military intervention have taken their toll. Despite possessing a handful of nuclear warheads and a few ballistic missiles of dubious quality on which to affix them, Kim still lacks a credible nuclear deterrent.

More on this: Three strategic dilemmas on the Korean Peninsula

This has placed him in a bind: the cost and risks of overtly pushing forward with his nuclear program in the short term would be exorbitant, but he has not yet secured his nuclear desire either.

Kim is trying to wrangle his way out of this predicament by using diplomatic talks as a weapon. By acting conciliatorily, he hopes to split apart the international coalition arrayed against him, increase pressure for a reduction in sanctions, reduce the risk of an American military strike, squeeze concessions from the international community, and let the norm of a nuclear North Korea internalise within that community. Kim’s reconciliation will also allow his scientists to regroup after an ambitious year and ready themselves for the next stages of his nuclear program.

Already, we can see the fruits of Kim’s labour paying off, with South Korea immediately embracing North Korea at the diplomacy table, Donald Trump pledging not to undertake military action while the talks are taking place, and South Korea considering a temporary lifting of sanctions to facilitate North Korea’s participation in the Olympics.

It is clear, however, that Kim is not really serious about these talks and will soon abandon his placating posture.

We can be fairly certain about this, because using talks as a fig-leaf through which to temporarily ease pressure while repositioning for new nuclear advancements is a stratagem that North Korea has used repeatedly before. Since first becoming interested in nuclear weapons decades ago, the regime has engaged in talks, made promises, and even signed nuclear treaties on multiple occasions. Each time, it has secured in exchange a lessening of tensions, aid, and even technical assistance. Yet, the regime has always subsequently renounced or ignored its commitments as soon as the climate was conducive.

More on this: North Korea is the litmus test for a nuclear weapons ban

For the most part, this strategy has been successful, with North Korea being able to build and hold onto a small, but nevertheless functional nuclear weapons arsenal. This is no mean feat when compared with the fate of other rogue states who reached for nuclear status, or were thought to be reaching for nuclear status, only to face forceful intervention from other countries.

This list includes Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the American-led intervention into Iraq in 2003, Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear program under considerable British and American pressure, and the 2007 Israeli bombing of Syria’s fledgling nuclear facilities. North Korea has not been so unlucky, in part because its periodic pauses and feigned reconciliation efforts have allowed its regime to defuse the threat of outside interference whenever it reached critical levels. Once tension levels decreased, it has continued on as before.

Despite the excited relief that has met Kim’s suddenly peaceful demeanour, this is all probably just a North Korean case of ‘fighting while talking’. Once Kim has extracted as many benefits out of the process as he can, and once his nuclear scientists are ready, he will revert to nuclear and ballistic missile testing again.

Yes, the possibility of nuclear war has been temporarily reduced. Unhappily, however, we are looking at a mere postponement of the problem, and not the first steps towards a solution.

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