Should We Believe North Korea Is Willing to Denuclearize?
Image Credit: Flickr / John Pavelka

Should We Believe North Korea Is Willing to Denuclearize?


Is this what we have all been waiting for? North Korea actually saying it may contemplate abandoning its nuclear weapons?

Let us cast our minds back to October 21, 1994, when North Korean and U.S. officials signed the Agreed Framework, a moment in time hailed as the possible catalyst for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and the start of possible inter-Korean, as well as U.S.-North Korea, reconciliation. Since that day, amidst the nuclear and missile tests, several milestones have been hailed as possible moments for some sign of change on the part of North Korea. The visit by Madeleine Albright to Kim Jong-il in 2000, the Six Party Talks (of which the first round commenced in 2003), and more recently, the PyeongChang Olympics and the so-called “handshake of history” between the North and South Korean delegations in the Opening Ceremony, were all heralded as possible catalysts of change, and the opening steps in the long march toward peace.

Earlier this week, a delegation of South Korean envoys, sent by President Moon Jae-in, arrived in Pyongyang for what many have hailed as the possible commencement of actual inter-Korean dialogue, for which the world has been waiting. Upon returning, the South Korean envoys stated that Pyongyang expressed a “will” to denuclearize, if the security of North Korea is guaranteed, saying that “there is no reason to pursue nuclear weapons so long as military threats are eliminated, and regime security is guaranteed.” Also mentioned was the North’s desire to normalize its relations with the United States, and an offer that nuclear and missile tests would be put on hold while dialogue continues.

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The global reaction to the recent talks has been nothing unexpected: undue focus has been placed on North Korea’s “willingness” to give up its nuclear program, with little attention paid to the somewhat vague conditions Pyongyang stipulates. Of course, were the military threat to the North eliminated, and the Kim regime’s security guaranteed, then Pyongyang may be more inclined to give up nuclear weapons. This is nothing remarkable: it is what policymakers have known for a long time, and what North Korea has always wanted. It wants the status quo to remain for itself, irrespective of changes in the foreign policy of its friends and enemies. We should not raise our hopes just yet.

Pyongyang has promised so much before, but cunningly evaded its obligations. This statement is no exception. North Korea’s call on the United States to guarantee its security raises a vital point: on whose terms? It does not seem unrealistic to assume that this refers to security guarantees and the elimination of “military threat” according to the North’s own terms.

This is nothing new for U.S.-North Korea relations: the proposal of a “freeze for a freeze” has been long on Pyongyang’s agenda – and also a key part of China’s attempt to call for peace on the peninsula – as the main means by which North Korea would bring itself to the negotiating table. The United States has proclaimed time and again that it is neither threatening North Korea – U.S. nuclear weapons have been long removed from the Korean Peninsula – nor seeking to exert regime change, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly mentioned. Such statements may seem to have fallen on deaf ears on the side of Pyongyang.

History has taught us that the Clinton administration’s security guarantees to North Korea were rebuffed. Back in 1994, North Korea’s refusal to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection procedures, while continuing its covert nuclear development at Yongbyon, should serve as a useful reminder to the world, as to the remarkable ability of Pyongyang to evade its promises. We only have to look at the North’s expertise at evading UN-imposed sanctions to see that Pyongyang is no stranger towards saying one thing in public, and reneging on its words by doing the complete opposite in private.

In this present climate, the optimists’ version of the story would make for an all-too-happy ending to what has seemed like an endless saga, and an endless menace to the international order. Such a story might proceed as follows. It is vital, however, that we treat North Korea’s rhetoric with a large grain of salt. These talks may have been constructive, and sowed the seeds for future dialogue, but as with any effort to analyze what North Korea really wants, it is merely speculative.

As the past has shown, including the collapse of the Six Party Talks, working with Pyongyang is far from predictable. In building upon future dialogue, two things must be emphasized. First, irrespective of the success of this short visit to Pyongyang, denuclearization cannot be the starting point of any talks with Pyongyang. It is the goal and target, but not the point of departure for dialogue. It seems to have taken the United States a fair while to realize this.

Second, to believe that North Korea will commit to “abandoning” all nuclear weapons, as it may have stated in the recent South-North talks, is somewhat optimistic: we must not focus overtly on this eventual aim. Rather, any dialogue with the North must focus on what Pyongyang wants in terms of its calls for elimination of the military threat to its nation-state, and importantly, whether this supposed “will” to abandon nuclear weapons can actually lead to any concrete improvements in its domestic policy toward its own citizens. Only by gaining a greater idea of these elements can we have a realistic view of what is on the table. After all, nuclear weapons are a problem for the world, but human rights and governance issues are also concerns.

President Donald Trump’s response on Twitter to an article about the recent visit to Pyongyang was: “We will see what happens!” Despite a somewhat inchoate foreign policy toward North Korea, and the lack of an ambassadorial presence in Seoul – itself shrouded in controversy – this tweet does offer a realistic outlook for the future. Indeed, we will see what happens, and the international community must remember that we cannot predict anything with North Korea. And as tempting as it may be, it is essential that North Korea not be viewed through rose-tinted lenses just because of the handshakes, talks, photographs, and utterances that may have happened in Pyongyang earlier this week.

Edward Howell is an Economic and Social Research Council Scholar in International Relations at the University of Oxford.

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