In Asia’s ever-shifting political landscape – even Burma seems finally to be moving forwards – North Korea remains the one fixture of changelessness.
Were it not for disturbing news about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, the United States and South Korea might be happy to leave the North to its torpor. However, officials in Seoul now fear that the North is preparing a third nuclear weapons test for later this year. Worse, there are growing concerns that Pyongyang is developing a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, a system that would be difficult to destroy, if deployed in sufficient numbers, before at least some missiles were launched, and whose range might extend thousands of miles beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang has a number of reasons to want to generate some nuclear fanfare right now. A fresh landmark in the country’s nuclear development would reinforce the self-reliance and great nation propaganda that will accompany national celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of regime architect Kim Il-sung’s birth next year. More pressingly, the country is in the grip of famine, and needs the food aid that the United States and South Korea have withheld since 2008. Third, with the US and South Korea reluctant to return to the table until Kim Jong-il shows some movement on his disarmament commitments, Kim will be eager to demonstrate that he can trump these objections by making demonstrable progress towards producing a viable nuclear strike capability.
The limbo of recent months is disappointing in light of the bilateral meeting held by the United States and North Korea in July. However, Pyongyang has a long track record of only making quid pro quo concessions, and if it feels that it’s the other side’s turn to make the next move, it won’t be the one to blink first.
With this in mind, the US and South Korea have two options. They can stick to the position that Pyongyang must earn any food aid it receives by fulfilling some of its denuclearisation commitments before the Six-Party Talks are resumed and aid is released. Allied to this policy, perhaps, would be the development and deployment in the South of tougher weaponry, such as the earth-penetrating nuclear weapon advocated by Jeffrey Lewis and Elbridge Colby, designed to convince the Kim regime that its underground bunkers can be targeted; or, even more drastic, the development of South Korea’s own nuclear forces. The alternative is to allow Kim to get away with it this time, and give him what he wants: the restarting of talks without conditions.
Morally, the United States and South Korea are of course right to insist that North Korea makes good on its promises. Unfortunately, the more time that passes, the closer Pyongyang inches towards achieving its goal of producing a useable nuclear weapon alongside those road-mobile ICBMs. Washington and Seoul must calculate, and quickly, which route can realistically lead to the realisation of a denuclearised North: a resumption of talks that Kim doesn’t really deserve, or a rebuttal backed up by (possibly nuclear) force.
Going back to the table would leave a bitter taste in the mouth. But with North Korea gearing up for Kim senior’s glorious centenary, it seems that while concessions might be coaxed out of the regime, they won’t be forced.