The North Korean nuclear programme has been the focus of international attention over the last two decades because Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles cannot be separated from its bellicose behaviour, which has caused a great deal of tension in the region and the world. Since revelations of North Korean nuclear weapons development surfaced, the US and South Korea have tried unsuccessfully to bring the programme to a halt. Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula has been central to the foreign policy of both countries for decades, yet one presidential administration after another has left office without deterring North Korea’s steady progress in becoming a nuclear-armed state. In fact, just the opposite has occurred, with North Korea currently developing even more sophisticated nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.
US intelligence services have recently reported that North Korea has developed miniaturised nuclear weapons that can fit into the heads of a new class of ballistic missiles, which Pyongyang has successfully tested in the waters between Korea and Japan. These tests began a war of words between Washington and Pyongyang, with President Donald Trump promising “fire and fury” if North Korea attempts to threaten the US. North Korea retorted by threatening to conduct missile tests directed towards the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean, edging both states to the brink.
Although President Trump tried to adopt a fresh approach soon after taking office, ignoring a North Korean missile launched in February 2017 and saying he “would be honoured” to meet with the North’s leader Kim Jong-un, he soon reverted to the rhetoric of previous administrations, vowing to resolve the crisis through harsh sanctions and tough talk. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office this year, pledged to engage North Korea, although his pronouncement that a nuclear freeze would make possible the beginning of official talks, and that denuclearisation would be the final outcome of such talks, seems farfetched.
One of the problems in the approaches taken by South Korea and the US is that both countries want North Korea to accept their terms and conditions before they consider Pyongyang’s demands, which include a peace treaty, political normalisation, and a suspension of joint military exercises. They discount the fact that Pyongyang is pinning the survival of the regime on nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the advanced weaponry of the US and South Korea. Hence, North Korea is not likely to give up its nuclear weapons programme as long as it feels threatened and vulnerable to attack or invasion. Ironically, North Korea had agreed in the past to drop its nuclear programme but backed away after a number of events which might have forced it to reconsider, including the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US that saw Washington fail to live up to its own pledges to deliver fuel oil to North Korea, build two light water nuclear reactors in the country, and other promises. Then, there was the pronouncement by President George Bush Jr calling North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” and the failure of the Six Party Talks. North Korea has also been witness to what happened in Iraq and Libya, where regimes that were in confrontation with the US were destroyed after they gave up their nuclear weapons. With Iran, too, President Trump has pushed for new sanctions despite Tehran's adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Consequently, North Korea has every reason to distrust the US and hold onto technology it sees as levelling the playing field between itself and the world’s superpower. Even the former US Director of National Intelligence, James R Clapper Jr, has said that “the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearise is probably a lost cause.” North Korea will likely continue to develop its nuclear weapons until it gets a second strike capability, which would be a credible deterrent against attack by a more powerful opponent. Given the reckless rhetoric coming from the White House – including that the US has a military offensive for North Korea “locked and loaded” – the denuclearisation of the Korea peninsula may be an unrealistic goal for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it would be better to focus on a different goal, one of minimising the nuclear weapons North Korea is willing to possess, and sending tangible encouragement to get Pyongyang to observe a moratorium on launching more missiles in the region. Any proposals for talks that have pre-conditions of denuclearisation however, especially given the recent round of UN Security Council sanctions and the continuing joint South Korean-US military exercises, are likely to be a non-starter.
The time has come to accept the reality on the ground – North Korea is a nuclear-armed state – and find ways to dissuade Pyongyang from further nuclear and ballistic missile tests. More rhetoric of fire, fury, and war between the US and North Korea will only further escalate tensions and reinforces Pyongyang’s belief that it is only safe if it continues to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to countries within the region and eventually, the US.