CHENNAI: North Korean diplomats told a visiting South Korean delegation on Tuesday that the country is willing to hold peace talks with the US and may consider giving up its nuclear program in return for credible security guarantees. Much of the world is stunned. However, the Korea watchers around the globe are taking Pyongyang’s latest offer with a tinge of scepticism.
According to a statement released by Seoul, North Korea indicated “willingness to denuclearise” if the military threat to it was “eliminated” and its security assured. The US president Donald Trump responded saying, "I think that the statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive.”
Yes, it sounds positive. But it’s too early to say if the North is indeed contemplating giving up its nukes. Ask anyone who had been following the affairs on the Korean peninsula for long, and they would say we have been here before.
The familiar game
It’s not for the first time that North Korea is agreeing to put curbs on its nuclear program or scrap it altogether. More than once in the past, leadership in Pyongyang has promised to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for economic aid or sanctions relief only to renege on it.
For instance, in September 2005, it made a very similar offer to give up its nuclear program in return for “security and economic benefits”. Only a few months later, North Korea conducted its first ever nuclear weapons test, taking its tensions with the West to a new level.
In fact, since mid-1990s North Korea has used the nuclear card to get what it wants: aid. Its leaders would engage in brinkmanship, raise tensions (including talk of war and imminent strike on US allies) and then offer peace talks in return for concessions.
In the 1990s as evidence that North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons mounted, officials in Pyongyang did very little to allay the world’s suspicion. Instead, they vowed to turn the South Korean capital into a “sea of fire” (a threat they continue to make). Negotiations followed and it was agreed that North Korea would limit its nuclear effort in return for aid. It worked so long as the aid kept coming.
Tensions mounted again when George W Bush suspended aid and called North Korea a part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002, just four months after 9/11.
In 2012, yet again, Pyongyang made an offer to halt its nuclear program and allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into the country for the first time since they were thrown out in 2003 in the wake of Bush’s fulminations and the US invasion of Iraq. At the time, the international media, including the New York Times, called the offer “surprising” and “breakthrough” and voiced hopes that North Korea may chart a new course under the young leader Kim Jong-Un, who had ascended to thrown a year earlier. Washington pledged food aid in return. However, all hopes for a thaw were dashed when only a month later, the North, defying international warnings, launched a rocket into the outer space.
Are things any different now? The Korea watchers would know: tensions had been running high of late with Pyongyang carrying out multiple nuclear and missile tests in defiance of US warnings. Now is the time to cool down, if one goes by Kim’s established logic.
Why North Korea may not give up its nukes
Thanks to two decades of sustained efforts, unlike Iran, Iraq or Libya, North Korea has a credible nuclear capability. Why would Pyongyang want to give it up now, when it just got hold of something that it had been pursuing with such stubbornness for long?
Are the North Korean leaders serious? Given the North’s past behaviour, and more so, the nature of international relations, there is little hope for those expecting a positive outcome.
To understand why the North would not abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, one must examine the logic that drives a country, especially a weaker one, to developing nukes.
Since the Korean War ended in 1954, the North Korean regime has considered the United States and its allies -- South Korea and Japan as a mortal threat to its security.
After the Soviet Union – North Korea’s principal backer -- disintegrated in 1991, the leadership in Pyongyang has felt the need to do more to secure itself against its enemies. It was around the same time that it launched its nuclear weapons program. Given the situation it found itself in, this is understandable.
However, the western media have sought to portray the North’s leadership as a club of madmen led by a principal madman. However, “madman” is far from an accurate phrase to describe members of the Kim family. Rather, anyone who has studied international relations closely would call them realists. Koreans understand the international system well.
The system is “anarchic” by nature -- meaning there is no overarching authority to monitor the actions of individual states. This, in turn, means big and powerful states are free to pursue their whims and fancies even at the expense of weaker states. Whenever there is a conflict of interest between a superpower and a weaker state, it is almost always the former who gets their way.
Kim Jong-Un fears for his security and that of his country. This is a good starting point for those trying to make sense of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Since the international system is by nature anarchic, it is only natural for states that make up the system to feel insecure. However, for countries like North Korea and Iran, things are far worse. They are the prime enemies of the United States, currently the biggest player in the system. Their conventional military capabilities are far inferior to that of their enemy. So, for smaller states like North Korea, nuclear weapons act as an equaliser.
North Korea’s sense of insecurity only got worse when the former US president George Bush called North Korea one of the three states -- Iran and Iraq being the other two -- that forms the “axis of evil”. The leadership in Pyongyang is aware of what happened to Iraq’s Sadam Hussein. Had he had nuclear weapons, would the US have invaded Iraq? Even more striking is the macabre fate of Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi. In 2003, he offered to give up his nukes in return for assurances from Washington that the US would not invade his country. The assurance was forthcoming. So he went ahead and dismantled his nuclear project.
Gaddafi lacked a realist vision. But he can be forgiven for that. He saw what had happened to his Iraqi counterpart, and unlike present-day North Korea, in 2004 Gaddafi’s nuclear project was still in its infant stage. It would have taken him many more years to achieve a credible nuclear capability. But that was enough time for the US to mount an attack. Gadaffi may have felt that there’s no way he could make it. And unlike North Korea, which had China’s tacit backing around the same time, Libya was left alone – with no one to support.
Gaddafi’s logic may sound reasonable to many. But no matter what, the NATO’s assault on Gadaffi in 2011, offered North Korea a precious lesson: Don’t trust Uncle Sam.
Why Korea’s latest offer defies realist logic?
The North Korean government has offered to negotiate with the US. However, it is unclear what demands it would bring to the table. Seoul reported that the North is willing to give up nukes in return for security guarantees. Herein lies the problem. What does Kim Jong-Un mean by security guarantees? Does it mean a guarantee that the US won’t invade his country? That’s exactly what Gaddafi had sought and got until 2011.
For realists, it is absurd to think that Kim would really give up his best hope for survival in return for a non-binding pledge from the US that he and his country would be spared.
One of the key assumptions of the realist school of thought is that no country can be sure of other country’s intentions. Promises are not always honoured in international relations, and there is no one to punish the guilty. Being a realist, Kim knows better. So why offer to give up nukes? This brings us back to where we began: the usual game of brinkmanship followed by an offer of talks laced with promises of concessions.