International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

12 May 2016

North Korea’s latest activities show it is serious about becoming a nuclear power, even in the face of tougher sanctions, Sung-wook Nam writes. 

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on 6 January, which it claimed was the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb. A month later on 7 February it successfully put a satellite into space, even as diplomats were negotiating Resolution 2270. The nuclear claim, if true, signifies that Pyongyang’s isolated regime has made a major leap in its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Although Pyongyang conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, the country’s most recent test comes as a surprise because Kim didn’t make an explicit reference to the country’s nuclear weapons program in his annual New Year’s address. It’s not clear why it conducted the test, but it seems intended to solidify Pyongyang’s position as a de facto nuclear weapons state, and enhance its negotiating power with Seoul and other countries.

It came shortly after the US and China reached an agreement to impose tougher sanctions against North Korea in what appeared to be a diplomatic shift by Beijing regarding its intransigent ally. After previous nuclear tests were condemned by the Security Council, China agreed only to ban weapons transfers and limited sanctions against those linked to the nuclear program. Resolution 2270 is the strongest ever sanction against North Korea. The resolution puts a sectoral ban on the export of mineral resources and require mandatory inspection of all cargo leaving and entering North Korea, cutting major sources of hard currency to Pyongyang. But will these sanctions be enough?

It is time to call a spade a spade. North Korea has said it will become a nuclear state, and it has matched its words with action. If there was any doubt, its two latest provocations have proved otherwise through the testing of what it claimed was a small-scale H-bomb, and firing a rocket that can be converted to a long-range missile.

So far, South Korea has said it will help the North with economic cooperation and humanitarian aid if it gives up its nuclear development. That is nothing but wishful thinking. Now Seoul and Washington are trying to persuade Beijing to stop protecting its client state and join an effort at the United Nations to punish the North for its provocative acts.

More on this: North Korea’s global threat | John Carlson

The North has not budged and it will not, because it has no other choice. The ruling Kim dynasty knows well that nuclear weapons and missiles are the key to its survival. Without them, it would collapse. Kim Jong-un cannot afford to open up to the outside for full economic cooperation because it would cause the public to become disenchanted and rebel against him due to the renewed awareness of Pyongyang’s exclusive dictatorship. The third-generation heir would not have a chance of holding on to power in an “open” North Korea, and his strategy of nuclear development and economic development is unrealistic.

Therefore, North Korea’s survival strategy is to portray the US as public enemy number one and give North Koreans a target for hate. This is why the North claims its missiles and nuclear weapons target the US.

As the North will not give up its weapons of mass destruction, it is inevitable that Seoul will need to make a policy shift and seek regime change in Pyongyang. Or, if that is too controversial, Seoul at least should not rule it out.

Resolution 2270 may prove useful as leverage to persuade Pyongyang to return to the bargaining table. But no matter how tough on paper, the sanctions will be effective only if they are enforced, and there are good reasons to doubt that every country will follow through.

The burden falls heavily on China, the North’s chief ally in providing food, fuel and political cover. Chinese leaders have long opposed the North’s nuclear program. But although Beijing agreed to Resolution 2270, the country did so fearing that it could destabilise North Korea and send refugees fleeing to China. It took pressure from Washington and the South Korean government to get China to shift course, and Beijing’s cooperation is essential to implement a meaningful sanctions resolution, as it is one of five veto-holding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Although North Korea recently threatened the United States with a nuclear strike, in April it urged the US to prepare for diplomatic negotiations as an alternative to military pressure and unilateral sanctions. Denouncing the latest UN Security Council sanctions as “anachronistic and suicidal,” North Korea’s top military body requested that the US end sanctions and work instead toward stabilising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Ultimately, tougher sanctions alone will not end this long-term threat. At some point the six-party countries will have to find a way to revive negotiations with North Korea to shut down, or at least curb, its nuclear program.

There is a final chance for denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang should look at the Teheran model for denuclearisation in the Middle East. North Korea could also learn a lesson from Obama’s trip to Cuba — more specifically from the Cuban style of reconciliation. As the history of Cuba suggests, North Korea must realise that it can sustain its regime without nuclear weapons.

If Kim Jong-un gives up his nuclear program, he can be South Korea, USA, and Australia’s partner, but that seems unrealistic. The future of the Korean Peninsula is likely to see a new government in the North. South Korea can make a liberal, democratic and reunified Korea with a new government for 75 million people.

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Nam, S. (2016). North Korea, nuclear power and the future - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: