Is North Korea finally ready to rejoin the international community, give up testing nukes and open up for global business? Last year, the DPRK tested its most powerful nuclear warhead yet, a huge advance on previous capabilities; since reaching out to its southern counterpart over the new year, it has refused to acknowledge the possibility of denuclearization – until now. Ahead of this week’s inter-Korean summit and expected meetings with the U.S. in the near future, North Korea is making overtures toward nuclear concessions, even before talks have begun.
The regime will immediately cease nuclear testing and launches of intercontinental missiles, announced North Korea’s state news outlet and a testing site in the country’s north will be shut down in a show of transparency. This follows a recent announcement by South Korean president Moon Jae-In that the North would concede to “complete denuclearization” without the usual demand of U.S. troop withdrawal from the peninsula. The concession has come as a surprise as the matter was expected to be a major bargaining chip during talks or even an excuse for the DPRK to leave negotiations. North Korea has agreed to tone down efforts on nuclear testing before, but failures to follow through have eroded trust and caused many to question the regime’s motives.
Kim Jong Un has relied on nuclear weapons for legitimacy more than his predecessors, leaving observers torn between skepticism and optimism over this sudden about-face. Even so, the South Korean and U.S. presidents remain positive, with Donald Trump tweeting that the announcement means “big progress!”
What Will Denuclearization Mean?
According to President Moon, his northern neighbor “is only asking for an end to a hostile policy toward North Korea and for a security guarantee,” in exchange for denuclearization across the Korean peninsula. However, the troubled regime is unlikely to surrender its nuclear program easily and has yet to specify exactly what it means by “denuclearization.” While they have announced a freeze on testing and intercontinental missile launches, Japan was quick to point out that nothing has been said about the dismantling of North Korea’s existing nuclear arsenal. Japan and Washington may be hoping for the complete dismantling of Kim’s nuclear program, but this is not realistic when North Korea’s number one enemy – the U.S. – remains a nuclear power.
Danger of Nuclear Escalation on the Peninsula
Despite its status under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, there has been increasing internal talk of South Korea getting its own nuclear deterrent, sparking concerns over a potential arms race in the region. A Gallup poll conducted in the aftermath of North Korean missile testing last September found that 58% of South Koreans supported nuclear armament, while only 38% of South Koreans opposed the idea. This was a slight increase of 4% in favor since the previous January, indicating that increased nuclear activity north of the border was putting South Koreans on edge, with many looking for a proactive defense strategy.
It’s estimated that South Korea’s existing nuclear energy program could be translated into viable weapons within 18 months. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, sanctions would be a possibility if it withdrew; some have suggested bringing U.S. nuclear weapons into South Korea instead. President Moon has reiterated that South Korea will make no move to obtain nuclear weapons, though the nation’s media and population are heating up on the issue; something that China and North Korea have surely noticed.
Sanctions and Pressure from China
China has welcomed North Korea’s freeze of nuclear testing, saying it will “help ameliorate the situation on the peninsula.” Still North Korea’s biggest trade partner and source of aid, China has oft been criticized for its friendly relationship with the dictatorship. As a major power in the region, China has generally sought stability from its northern neighbor, unsuccessfully advocating for multilateral negotiations aimed at denuclearization.
Not only are the two countries from the same ideological roots, a North Korean collapse would result in a potential flood of refugees across the border that China is loathe to receive. But with Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program escalating to worrying levels, China evidently decided that sanctions were the only option. Relations between the two countries turned frosty during 2017 as China finally took a step back, expressing “grave concern and opposition,” after nuclear tests, which were felt as earth tremors in North-East China.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi last month likened the U.S. and North Korea to two speeding trains playing a game of chicken, neither one willing to put the brakes on to avert disaster. “China’s suggestion is, as a first step, for North Korea to suspend nuclear activity, and for the US and South Korea to also suspend large-scale military drills,” he said. Yet, even on that topic, Kim Jong Un is being surprisingly conciliatory, having told President Moon that he “understands” South Korea’s position on joint military exercises with the U.S.
During 2017, China restricted petroleum and coal trade with North Korea, and several banks (all of which are state-owned) limited the financial dealings of businesses and individuals. While trade may be down at the moment, economic relations between the two have steadily increased since 2000, making North Korea heavily reliant on Chinese business. It seems the pinch has made itself felt, forcing Kim Jong Un to make a personal visit to Beijing in his first international trip since taking power in 2011, where he likely received some respectful but firm persuasion.
Recent U.N. sanctions targeted 90% of acknowledged North Korean exports, including a ban on textiles, its second largest industry. Finding itself lonesome on the global stage, North Korea turned to Russia for relief, though the volume of trade from Russia is well below previous years – declared trade, anyway. Halting its nuclear activity would not only bring Chinese money back to the country but would open North Korea to a whole range of new business opportunities. President Moon has also said that it could lead to more financial aid from South Korea as well as the possibilities of business and tourism.
Japan and North Korea may be enemies, but Kim Jong Un has seemed remarkably “zen” of late. As outsiders, we have no real way to tell exactly what political forces are working within the North Korean regime itself. Kim Jong Un may be a “little rocket man” but perhaps he simply sees his current nuclear arsenal as sufficient. After a November 2017 Hwasong-15 test missile reached altitudes that meant it could reach U.S. soil, North Korea’s state media said that the regime had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” a statement Kim Jong Un reiterated:
“Under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission.”
Having achieved a weapon that can reach the United States, perhaps Kim finally feels secure in his regime’s defense and is now willing to move on. In 2013, he adopted a policy of “Byungjin,” the parallel development of the economy and nuclear weapons; now possessing weapons a match for his arch enemy, Kim’s priorities are simply shifting elsewhere – to building “close ties and dialogue” with neighbors and a “strong socialist economy” of his own. It makes sense to look at past behavior when predicting future outcomes and no one could blame a skeptic for distrusting North Korea’s slippery regime, but the game has changed, and President Trump is perfectly poised to make the most of it.
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