I Thought Groundhog Day was Last Week

So North Korea continues its streak as the only country that has tested a nuclear weapon in the past fifteen years.

The official English statement that was released by KCNA is interesting for two reasons. The first is that Pyongyang elegantly stated that the weapon that it tested yesterday was a smaller version (“miniaturized” per the Korean language version) of the weapons that were tested in 2006 and 2009. This of course is a thinly veiled statement directed towards those worried about the DPRK building a bomb that could fit snugly on top of a Taepodong rocket. Pyongyang’s answer is “si, su puede.”

The other interesting part of the statement is North Korea’s claim that its nuclear deterrent has become “diversified.” The most orthodox interpretation of this is that North Korea now possesses a bomb different from those that it tested earlier: namely, one of the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) variety. This would be alarming in many respects: it means that the DPRK has, despite the myriad of sanctions lodged against it, acquired this technology. It means that the DPRK, with this technology, can continue to produce HEU type weapons en masse: since if there’s anything that’s remotely abundant in North Korea, it’s uranium. It also means that there has been some sort of cooperation between the DPRK and someone, whether it be China, or Pakistan, or Iran.

Going past the statement, North Korea watchers the world over are looking with bated breath as to how China is going to react. There were some thinly veiled warnings in Chinese state-run media, but really, did anyone think that would really deter the North Korean regime? One has to wonder how much leverage Beijing really has over North Korean actions. Perhaps it may be because the Chinese have overinvested their card in North Korea; but the Chinese must be concerned with how much of the sanctions they really want to enforce. After all, if Pyongyang was willing to let starve to death a million of its own citizens during the famine, how much more would they care if the lights really went off in Pyongyang? In fact, with the fear that the North Koreans would simply cut off all access to Beijing (a fear that is prevalent among anyone who deals with the North Koreans directly, from travel agents to Evangelicals), I wouldn’t be surprised if the de facto Chinese reaction was de nada.

As Andrei Lankov keeps pointing out, at what point of time do we simply accept that the DPRK is not going to give up its nuclear weapons? There is certainly a lot of hemming and hawing in the media how North Korea is a land of bad options. But that’s assuming that you want the North Koreans to bargain away their nuclear deterrent. If you take out the nukes from the equation, then the balance tips dramatically away from the North Koreans.

Imagine a brigandish American negotiator suddenly asking her North Korean counterpart, “OK, you guys win. We’re not interested in your nukes anymore. You can keep them. Got anything else we can talk about?” The silence that you would hear coming from the North Korean negotiator is not only shock at the reversal of twenty years of American policy, but the fact that North Korea really doesn’t have anything else to offer. What can seriously be part of the discussion that would warrant serious, sustained engagement from attention deficit disorder afflicted American policymakers? Tourism? Food aid? Human rights? In fact, judging from the level of technical skills North Korean refugees port with them to South Korea (or the lack thereof), even the “we have cheap labour, we can build you another FoxConn” argument doesn’t hold up. President Obama would have daggers in his back if the American public learned he was outsourcing jobs to North Korea, of all countries.

So what are the costs of letting North Korea keep their nukes? One of the most realistic dangers is that it would increase belligerent behavior from Pyongyang. Some fear that North Korea could shell South Korean islands with impunity if North Korea had a nuclear deterrent – or worse. But it’s been more than six years since North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon. Yes, I realize the Cheon’an and Yeonpyung did happen; but those incidents seem to be more out of isolation. Furthermore, tensions quickly de-escalated shortly after these incidents, with most of the credit going to Lee Myung Bak for his amazing strategic restraint. (Imagine what would happen if Japanese artillery started raining down on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands!) The status quo may be uneasy, but we certainly haven’t seen Pyongyang go off and flaunt its newly found strategic muscle, despite six years of demonstrated nuclear capability.

Perhaps the next worst thing that could happen is that Pyongyang’s nukes will spark other countries to build their own deterrents, creating an arms race in East Asia. However, that too has not happened. Both South Korea and Japan are countries that have virtual deterrents: if they chose, both these countries could be nuclear powers in a matter of months. Yet six years since the first nuke test, neither of these countries have openly pursued this route. Perhaps it is because they still benefit from being under the American nuclear umbrella, but with such close proximity to North Korea, you have to wonder if they’re not worried. Certain quarters of South Korean certainly are; yet we haven’t seen anything remotely resembling an arms race.

The most sinister possible consequence of a continued North Korean nuclear deterrent is the sharing of nuclear technology with other entities. It’s not as if North Korean industry is prosperous; in fact North Korea is so starved for hard currency it seems to be putting their own doctors in harms way. Selling its nuclear technology for hard currency or other in-kind payments could be a way to bolster the old import-export exchequer. And certainly, there are rumours floating that indeed, there has been cooperation with Iran or Pakistan on WMD-related issues. But how much of a market is out there for clandestine nuclear technology?

Non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, would love to get their hands upon a nuclear weapon. But would North Korea seriously sell any part of their technological prowess, let alone precious fissile material, to terrorists who could very well blow up New York? If such a bomb did go off, it could easily be traced back to the North Koreans – and if that happened, no American president could stave off the demand to convert Pyongyang into a radioactive puddle.

That leaves states as the remaining customers, but even then, it seems the demand in the nuclear weapons market remains throttled. As the North Koreans learned a couple of years ago, selling technology anywhere near Israel may result only in a bombed out building housing a few dead North Koreans, while some of the other potential customers, such as Iran, already have their own deterrent-in-the-making. The fact of the matter is that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, with added reinforcement from the US nuclear umbrella, has done a pretty great job in checking governments’ craving for nukes. North Korea could certainly open the world’s first nuclear supermarket; how long they could stay open is the question.

The most dangerous scenario involving a nuclear North Korea is one of regime collapse. At that point of time, there is no telling who would control the nukes and what their intentions may be. With all actors within the DPRK under enormous stress in such a scenario, there is the possibility that the particular actor that possesses the proverbial launch codes acts in an irrational manner. If the regime suddenly fractured into various factions, this could mean the nukes faction using nukes against the nuke-less faction. If the scenario is similar to Tahrir Square, the regime, rather than face the music a-la Mubarak, could simply choose the Samson option and bring down the whole house – after all, if it weren’t for Albert Speer disobeying Hitler’s “scorched earth” orders, Germany would have been far more desolate than the Allies found it.

Now wait a gosh darn minute. If the only potential (major) liability that comes out of a nuclear North Korea is one involving regime collapse, what have we really got to lose acknowledging this? And if regime collapse is indeed our only major realistic concern, then why are we not using this opportunity to reach out to the very segment of North Korean society that could play a large role in stabilizing the situation: North Korean people? By setting aside the nuclear weapons issue (an issue that the North Koreans are not going to negotiate in good faith anyway), the DPRK and countries such as the United States can start talking with North Korea about turning the country into the next China, or Vietnam. There are a few steps before that can happen, of course. We have to start talking about alleviating the chronic hunger and malnutrition that has plagued (or been imposed on, if you would prefer) the country for the past twenty years. We can start talking about rebuilding the country and equipping the North Korean people to build a sustainable future. We can start talking about reform, and even some form of glasnost. And perhaps, at one point of time, we can start talking about the poor souls locked up in the kwanliso, and what can be done so that they exist no more. By doing all these things, the United States, and other countries too, can start building up leverage not with the North Korean regime (whose good faith intentions are always suspect), but with the North Korean people. The goodwill that emanates from basically calling North Korea’s bluff will in the long run not only keep North Korea from imploding, but slowly loosen the hold that the regime has over its people.

For those who may be muttering that this is simply a Sunshine Policy on steroids, you are absolutely correct. Such a strategy is doubling down on the fact that the original Sunshine Policy in its first iteration had two fatal flaws: a) that it only engaged with the regime, and b) that it didn’t do enough. Giving out piecemeal handouts to the North Korean regime gave Pyongyang the control it needed. On the other hand, flooding the country with South Koreans and South Koreans goods and most importantly, South Korean information, to the point that Pyongyang can’t handle the influx: that, in the words of our friends at Mastercard, may be priceless. The CIA estimates that North Korea’s GDP is somewhere between $28 – $40 billion. Even an initial investment of $4 billion (the pricetag of the two LWRs in the first Agreed Framework), or an instant 10% injection into the North Korean economy, would be a substantial shock to the North Korean framework.

I for one am tired of both hearing and telling everyone North Korea is the land of lousy options.  The past twenty years of policy towards North Korea have only resulted in larger provocations, more hunger, and expansion of one of the worst places on earth, the kwanliso. I wonder at what point we start thinking we’re living in the film, Groundhog Day. The DPRK provokes, we get outraged, we attempt to talk, everything falls apart, the DPRK provokes. The only way we’re going to get out of this is to step outside our own paradigm that both we and Pyongyang have created. Otherwise? Rinse, repeat.

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