President Trump walked out on his meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un when the North Korean leader would only accept a very limited deal on nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of all US and international sanctions on North Korea. Trump tried to put a positive gloss on the negative outcome of the meeting, framing the Kim Jong-un offer as a negotiating ploy and that future meetings with Kim would be possible.
Subsequently, the North Koreans meanwhile started up “a rapid rebuilding of the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) Launch Facility at both the vertical engine test stand and the launch pad’s rail-mounted rocket transfer structure. This site has been used in the past for satellite launches, which employ ICBM technology banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
The Trump administration meanwhile indicated that it intended to strengthen sanctions on North Korea.
While this could be considered a card game between North Korea and the United States, the true bottom line is that a meaningful nuclear deal with North Korea is probably impossible.
States that pursue nuclear weapons hardly ever give them up. The only country known to have abandoned atomic weapons is South Africa, and even that raises many question marks since much of the bomb’s industrial infrastructure survives. South Africa agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons and convert the radioactive parts to civilian use and in 1994 the IAEA (not known for their reliability, to say the least) confirmed that South Africa had dismantled six nuclear bombs and one partially completed nuclear bomb. The big South African reprocessing station at Valindaba was shuttered but is still there and recently there has been talk of restarting it.
In addition to South Africa some former Soviet Republics including Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine either returned the weapons to Russia or in partnership with Russia destroyed them (in the case of Ukraine). In all these cases the weapons belonged to the former USSR and thereafter to Russia.
Iraq was on the road to nuclear weapons, but Saddam’s reactor and other material was destroyed by Israel first and the Coalition thereafter. Syria, in cahoots with Iran and North Korea was also building a Yongbyon type reactor. Israel destroyed it. The fact that Iran was doing this while allegedly agreeing to stop nuclear weapons development, if only for a fixed time, proves they were liars. More proof came after the Israeli secret services liberated a huge Iranian nuclear archive, stolen under the noses of the Iranian regime. Independent experts say it shows conclusively Iran’s attempt to conceal its program from exposure.
Libya under Qaddafi was working on nuclear weapon designs (although very far from having anything tangible) when the United States persuaded Qaddafi to make a deal and surrender them. He did, only to get killed by his own people with US connivance.
Now, after Trump’s second Summit with Kim Jong Un, the effort to bring a halt to North Korea’s nuclear program appears to have failed. Whether it remains in failure mode is open to question, but the reality is that North Korea is unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons.
Designing and building nuclear weapons is a massive and expensive undertaking, made easier these days by proliferator states that supply equipment and know-how. North Korea has benefited immensely from help coming from Pakistan, China and Russia but also from Western sources, especially Germany, France and Italy (the usual suspects).
Despite all sorts of sanctions and prohibitions, North Korea has been able to get the equipment it has needed and even to supply it to others (such as Iran and Syria). While current-day North Korean weapons probably are not yet missile or aircraft deliverable, the North Koreans are certainly working to make missile delivery possible.
President Trump’s decision to put the THAAD system in South Korea may help checkmate limited launches of North Korean missiles once they are nuclear capable, but in the longer term North Korea will build enough weapons and delivery systems to flood THAAD type defenses.
Ten reasons North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons:
1. Nuclear weapons are the only asset the North Koreans have that anyone will bargain over. Missiles are not even on the table
2. North Korean nuclear weapons give it a trump card over the US and its allies South Korea, Japan and Taiwan (no pun intended)
3. North Korea’s income depends on its nuclear and missile programs which gives it billions of dollars in secret revenues
4. North Korea’s nukes keeps the Chinese and Russians at bay as much as it keeps the Americans away
5. The notion that North Korea is ready to rapidly modernize its economy is mostly Western wishful thinking and is not a credible trade for its nuclear weapons
6. At best the North Koreans are willing to trade some pieces for lifting all sanctions (all of the sanctions for one concession)
7. The Kim regime has been threatened multiple times and has taken strict measures to deal with the threats (mainly executions, kidnappings and assassinations). Removing nuclear weapons would mean the Great Leader would lose face and the opposition to him would grow out of hand. He can’t take this risk
8. North Korea has always preferred salami tactics in arms negotiations, and after wait for an opportunity to break the deal (when they get maximum advantage)
9. North Korea does not think it needs to make important nuclear weapons concessions to keep wooing South Korea where the current government has a different agenda (economic cooperation, family reunification, national reunification)
10. It is at least credible to think that nuclear weapons help North Korea in deals with South Korea, mainly because the presence of such weapons on the Korean peninsula strengthens the overall leverage of both states toward the outside world (especially US and China).
Now the current negotiations with North Korea are stalled and likely in free fall, leaving the United States and its allies in a quandary on how to proceed. Curtailing military exercises with South Korea, for example does not appear to any longer serve the political and strategic interests of the United States or its allies. While South Korea is still a big strategic question mark as its current leadership badly wants some form of improved relationship with North Korea, the fact remains that North Korea will continue to build up nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and, most significantly continue to cooperate with rogue states such as Iran and Syria. Without North Korean missiles and secret nuclear cooperation, much of Iran’s offensive capability would be weakened and its future ability to generate improved missiles and small-sized nuclear weapons would be jeopardized.
The Trump administration and its allies need to come up with far stronger proactive measures to prevent North Korea from continuing its dangerous practices especially as they apply outside of the area; and the US, Japan, and South Korea have to seriously strengthen their missile defenses and offensive firepower to counter any of Kim Jong-un’s attempts to destabilize the region.
*A version of this commentary was posted on Bryen’s Blog, on February 28, 20219. March