DPRK Briefing Book: Dynamics of Non Proliferation in Korea
Nautilus Institute Special Report:
Opening Gambits: The Dynamics of Nuclear (Non) Proliferation in Korea
Nautilus Institute for Security & Sustainability and Lawrence Livermore Lab, July 6, 1993.
The Korean nuclear proliferation dynamic is as complex as it is intractable. North Korea, it has been said, is a riddle wrapped in secrecy. In truth, no one but Kim Il Sung knows whether North Korea is committed to developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the bewildering gyrations in North Korea’s nuclear policies over the last few years suggests that not even he knows exactly what the North is trying to achieve by challenging the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Kim’s dilemma is that his regime is threatened with collapse due to the hardships endured by the northern population; by the technological obsolescence of the DPRK economy; and by the subversive impacts of information on stimulating desires for change aamong the ruling political, military, and bureaucratic elites. There may be no solution to Kim’s dilemmas; thus, his nuclear strategy is necessarily enigmatic because it may not promote the survival of his regime.
For its part, South Korea also has potential capabilities to arm itself with nuclear weapons that cannot escape notice. By the year 2000, I calculate that the South will have about 24 tonnes of plutonium stored in spent fuel, or recyling in metallic form. South Korea is producing its own plutonium overhang on the other side of the Demilitarised Zone.
The irony of the Korean nuclear standoff is that South Korea needs Kim Il Sung to survive in North Korea because the decision makers in Seoul know that they may be flooded by twenty million poor northern relatives heading south if Kim’s regime falls apart. In turn, Kim Il Sung needs a minimal level of South Korean aid to survive, especially of oil and rice. His price for keeping the lid on tightly in the North is that the South not challenge his continued rule directly.
In the medium term, the South expects to inherit whatever nuclear capabilities the North develops inside or outside of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty when the North eventually unifies with the South or collapses in a heap. Like the North, South Korea is greatly concerned about Japan’s plutonium stockpile, and is determined to match Japan’s capabilities and activities in the nuclear fuel cycle.
Assuming that Korea is reunified by the year 2000, it would still not be even a regional great power compared with the economic and military magnitudes of Japan, the United States, Russia and China. Only by obtaining nuclear weapons could the South “leapfrog” into regional great power status on an equal footing with Japan. Unfortunately, therefore, the medium term proliferation incentives facing a Korea reunified on Seoul’s terms (as is highly likely) are quite strong.
As I noted earlier, North Korea’s nuclear strategy remains relatively opaque and its behaviour is consistent with divergent interpretations. To be robust, therefore, policy options relating to North Korea must anticipate a very wide range of possible outcomes. Flexibility and acceptability rather than optimality will characterise successful policies aimed at affecting North Korean behavior.
It is obvious that a state armed with only a few nuclear weapons and without a retaliatory and secure second strike force cannot survive a confrontation with a nuclear superpower like the United States. Even deploying (let alone using) a few nuclear weapons will invite military preemption and would increase North Korea’s vulnerability to external attack–a fact that I can attest is well understood at top levels of North Korea’s military command.
In this ten part essay, I analyse the nuclear issue in terms of whether North Korea is committed to making and deploying nuclear weapons; the nature of the North Korean state and its decision-making process; the domestic politics of the North Korean challenge to the International Atomic Energy Agency; the outcome of the second round of US-North Korean high level talks which were the North’s opening gambit in a protracted dialogue over the forthcoming months; and the radically divergent closing gambits that North Korea may employ in cashing in their nuclear card.
I.North Korea Has Not Decided Yet To Go Nuclear
This thesis is controversial, to say the least. Many strategic analysts believe that North Korea is committed irrevocably to developing nuclear weapons. As a non governmental researcher, I have no access to classified information (although that has not stopped North Korean intelligence officials from trying to elicit all sorts of details about the American military, probably because they think that I am a spook disguised as a peacenik). Thus, I do not know if indicators exist in relation to North Korea which are unique to a nuclear weapons program such as pursuit of exotic materials, technology acquisition, or detonator testing.
However, I believe that my working hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that American decision makers with access to all classified information have apparently concluded that North Korea may be persuaded to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program. I assume that if they had definitive intelligence to the contrary, then they would not pursue a diplomatic course which is premised on the notion that North Korea may yet fulfil its NPT obligations. Conversely, I also have the advantage of sustained and lengthy discussions with senior North Korean political and military leaders which avails me of “human intelligence” which is often the most valuable and least tangible information available to the analyst.
In my February 1992 paper “Moving Target,” I sketched six scenarios for North Korea’s nuclear trajectory that varied from “most optimistic” to “most pessimistic” (see Figure 1). The six outcomes represented by these trajectories were: 1) Fast Non Nuclear Nirvana; 2) Slow Non Nuclear Korea; 3) Non Nuclear Korea, North Retains Nuclear Option; 4) Live with Nuclear- Capable North Korea; 5) Lived with Nuclear-Armed and Stable North Korea; and 6) Live with Nuclear-Armed and Unstable North Korea. Since mid-1992, North Korea has oscillated between the “least optimistic” and “least pessimistic” trajectory shown in Figure 1.
In a more recent essay, I have described North Korea’s possible goals in challenging the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty; the irrelevance of economic sanctions; the US policy response; the content of high level talks between the United States and the North; and the incompatible choices faced by North Korea’s leaders.
These prior analyses are consistent with my continuing belief that as of mid-1993, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have not determined decisively whether to travel the proliferation path all the way to a deployed nuclear weapons capability; or to shoot instead for a minimalist, residual nuclear option in return for concessions on external and political relations from its major adversaries (especially the United States).
This judgement is based on insights into the North Korea’s decision making calculus and process obtained on my most recent trip (May 1993); and on the North’s actions leading up to the June 11th decision to suspend its NPT withdrawal. Let me address the former before moving onto a discussion of the North’s challenge to the NPT, and the future of US-DPRK talks.
II.Decision-Making In Pyongyang
I have not found that a unitary rational actor model of North Korean decision making helps one to understand its nuclear posture. This model conflates the unquestionable absolute power of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il (hereafter, I refer to them as Great Leader or GL and Dear Leader or DL, respectively) with the more dubious notion that they have achieved absolute control over the performance of the state apparatus in North Korea. The GL/DLs’ basic problem is that the extraordinarily centralised state system that they have created to preserve their absolute power virtually precludes absolute control. Indeed, the extreme centralisation of all aspects of decision making results in remarkable organisational pathologies that are evident in all aspects of North Korean life.
In addition, many North Korean bureaucrats sit on their hands while trying to look busier- than-thou in debating the fine points of the latest overarching slogan issued from above. They want to hide their true colors during the succession that is underway and that will follow the GL’s inevitable demise, whether by natural causes or violent eviction from power. Consequently, much of the bureaucracy is trapped in a kind of frantic stasis that has to be seen firsthand to be appreciated fully.
It is often said of North Korea that there are no circulating samizdat documents, no cautious dissenters, no alternative readings from inside or outside passing over the border. Many officials are true ideological clones, born and bred in the bosom of the party. Many have retreated into family and kin relations, and simply keep their head down. But as a complete portrayal of North Korea’s polity, this image is simply wrong at two levels. First, large numbers of North Koreans do not actively oppose the Kim regime but are undoubtedly alienated and apathetic toward its survival.
Second, lots of senior North Koreans travel; speak two or three languages; have short wave radios at home or in their pocket; read and interact with foreigners, often without their controller present; and are relatively openminded. Such persons are found sprinkled across the Party; and the economic and foreign affairs technocracy; probably least so in the military, and even in the ideological control apparatus who are the gatekeepers of the popular mind.
Under the GL and DL, there are about 10 people who really matter; and below them, about 1-200 in a third layer of top level officials. This crucial third layer is where a fracture in the elite could occur. People at this level know what’s going on, in North Korea and internationally. They are not as tightly tied in to kin relationships as the inner clique. And the younger ones don’t carry the cultural baggage of the War.
Or course, these well informed elements are not card carrying democrats. They cannot afford to be at this conjuncture whatever their personal leanings and leaving aside the fear of persecution. They know that Korean society in the North has been oppressed and compressed for too long to simply open up the lid. But many of them are Korean patriots; they know what is happening under the GL/DLs’ direction is often insane and dangerous, to the Korean nation as a whole as well as their own prospects for survival. They are biding their time, waiting for the right moment to support change from above. But given the right circumstances, these pragmatists are ready to support reforms and have their own networks based on generation, region, kin, and functional position which transect across all sectors and levels of the polity.
For all these reasons, rapid change in the faces at the top of the regime will almost certainly originate from a rupture within these top levels rather than being forced upon it from below. There is no evidence in North Korea of mass cynicism about privilege and corruption of the kind that led to the collapse of the Soviet system. Popular revulsion of the kind that led to the unravelling of the Romanian regime does not exist in North Korea. Many people still believe the mythic ideologies propagated by the regime. The theorists of catastrophic collapse of North Korea are wrong. Indeed, three years have elapsed already since Aidan Foster-Carter announced in 1991 that North Korea would not exist by 1995. Contrary to the collapsists, it seems much more likely that Kim Jong Il will last for a long time–as predicted by Byung Chul Koh.
Thus, the Kims’ personal control apparatus could unravel at the top very quickly. But the system itself is also immensely resilient because it can rearrange itself quickly around a new alignment of the tiny elite. Assuming that the GL passes from the scene soon, then a new regime in the North would likely keep on Kim Jong Il as a titular head of state for purposes of symbolic continuity with the populace at large. The likely leaders of such a takeover, whether by putsch or by the passage of time, have studied carefully the pros and cons of what happened to the Former Soviet Union and China. They will implement minimalist reforms by relaxing in one area while simultaneously contracting in another area (for example, by allowing some privately owned service industries to emerge but tighten controls over corruption). In short, there are politics in Pyongyang, but only at the very top. Moreover, there are line struggles in Pyongyang over many matters of state, including the nuclear issue.
I have dwelt on the nature of the decision making elite in order to stress a significant point: the North Korean elite intends to remain in power, for a long time. It has substantial untapped cultural, ideological, and organisational resources to achieve this goal. The fact that the state apparatus, while extremely oppressive, is not monolithic, endows the system (as against the Kim clique) with substantial elasticity and adaptability. Far from being rigid, ossified, and embattled, the ruling elite in North Korea is confident that they have the stamina and ability to exercise power for the foreseeable future and see many opportunities to enhance their survival prospects in the coming years. They expect to outlast this American presidency, as they have every presidency since 1948. It is a mistake to underestimate North Korea’s staying power even in the face of American resolve and international opinion over its nuclear stance.
III. The Dear Leader’s Nuclear Strategy
The GL/DL used the NPT issue in late 1992 as a way to unify the country in what North Koreans call the unity of leader-party-masses, the trinity that underlies Kim Il Sung’s nationalist philosophy of chuche. They did so to assert their clique’s decisive authority over conservatives spread throughout the party and bureaucracies, and to quell resistance to economic reform policies which they are said to favor at the margin (although this strategem required putting said reform on hold in the immediate future). As Koreans say, “If water goes uphill it goes even faster down the other side.” In short, the GL/DL used the nuclear whip to reassert their authority to implement a pragmatic reform program.
It is said that the DL lacks confidence on foreign policy issues (thus, he does not meet with foreign press); and is desperate for external support because North Korea’s implementation of its IAEA/NPT obligations have not realised anticipated gains on the external front. Indeed, North Koreans hold strongly that China betrayed them when it recognised the South without ensuring cross recognition of the North by the United States and Japan. The argument runs that the DL pulled the nuclear stunt to induce a domestic deep freeze in order to solidify his own authority.
However, throwing down the gauntlet to the whole international community is not exactly what one would expect from someone who lacks confidence. Rather, it seems a risky, even foolhardy but certainly decisive action designed to retrieve a desperate situation for the Kim clique. I conclude, therefore, that the GL’s vision is the rudder steering the North’s nuclear strategy, however unsteady the DL’s hand might be on the tiller.
The GL/DL have already squeezed out of the nuclear issue most of what can be gained in terms of reasserting their domestic power and by engaging the United States. Indeed, the GL’s ten point program for reunification (issued in April 1992) was the philosophical framework in which he directed his subordinates to solve the nuclear issue. If their NPT challenge delivers significant external economic and political support, then the GL/DL may be able to set aside the nuclear whip. However, it seems unlikely that they will do so before they are certain that their external goals will be achieved.
I have described the North Korean state and the domestic politics of regime survival in relation to the nuclear issue in order to predict the North’s moves in the ongoing talks with the United States. Before appraising the prospects for progress in the North-South talks, I will review the outcome of the 2nd round of US-North Korean talks held in June 1993.
IV. The Us Response
American policy makers concerned with North Korea’s threat to pull out from the Non Proliferation Treaty share a basic consensus what North Korea must do to remove the threat of sanctions. They are divided, however, over the relative emphasis to put on different aspects of North Korea’s behaviour, both past and future.
Broadly, the intelligence analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency (part of the Pentagon), and the Intelligence and Research section of the Department of State, are more concerned with the nuances of interpreting North Korea’s possible motivations for making its dramatic move. By the same token, they believe that North Korea is highly committed to exiting the treaty, and have a realistic appraisal of the lack of credibility of economic sanctions against the North should it act on its threat.
This perspective is generally shared by the officials at State with geographic and representational responsibilities in relation to East Asia and Korea. These officials are greatly concerned with the psychology of North Korean decision making, and are concerned that this calculus may be immune to threats. Conversely, they are unsure as to what package of incentives–if any–might persuade the North to reverse its stance on the IAEA inspections and NPT membership. They were perplexed by the North’s response to American moves to prepare for the lifting of economic sanctions that were well underway late last year, until the nuclear inspections issue went awry in October.
They counsel great caution in handling the North and are anxious to avoid any absolute policies that would preclude further negotiations with Pyongyang.
The operational officials in Pentagon and the State Department who are concerned with the global nuclear non proliferation regime at a functional level approach the issue from a different angle. They are less sensitive to the internal, inter-Korean, and regional politics and complexities and more worried about maintaining the credibility of the Non Proliferation Treaty. They are particularly determined to ensure that the IAEA retains its authority over the issue, and that any negotiated outcome reflect this priority.
Thus, they primarily aim to strengthen the hand of Hans Blix in negotiating with Pyongyang rather than to bring North Koreans to the negotiating table with regional players such as China or even South Korea. Although they understand that economic sanctions will do little to affect North Korean policies and will only hurt ordinary North Koreans, they argue for punitive sanctions on the grounds that the next creeping proliferator such as Iran must be confronted with the likelihood that sanctions will be imposed, and will hurt. Some of the “regionalists” believe that the non proliferation functionaries have “hijacked” the policy formation process and are working to inject more regional concerns into the policy process. The higher one goes in the decision-making hierarchy in the various bureaucracies (eventually reaching the National Security Council), the more flexible the stance on North Korea.
The consensus bottom line that underlies all the positions is that North Korea must reactivate routine IAEA inspections and that whatever formula is adopted to inspect the disputed and undeclared sites must satisfy Hans Blix at the IAEA. The United States will not consider any settlement that gives positive rewards for negative behaviour. Should the DPRK meet these minimum and necessary conditions, however, the United States might be willing to respond positively in relation to a number of North Korean concerns such as ending Team Spirit, providing Pyongyang with negative security assurances, etc.
Relatedly, Washington will review whatever solutions are proposed as to its impact on its own national security, and will reserve its right to veto, or at least strongly influence, whatever resolutions are negotiated.
Most officials are pessimistic about the ability of North Korea’s rulers to change their stand on the NPT and worry that dialogue is simply a North Korean stalling tactic to allow the development of a nuclear weapons option. However, they also point out that various face saving options exist for North Korea, and believe that it still possible that the North will rescind its withdrawal.
V. What North Korea Wants
An invitation to this writer to visit Pyongyang between May 8-11, 1993 was a unique opportunity to obtain a first hand impression of North Korean views on the nucear issue from one of North Korea’s most powerful politicians and influential figures on foreign policy, Kim Yong Sun.
In nearly eight hours of wide-ranging discussions, he explained what North Korea hopes to achieve by high level talks with the United States.
According to Kim, two issues are of supreme importance.
First, the North wants to upgrade its relations with the United States and thereafter, with Japan. Until it is confident that the United States is willing to coexist with the North Korean regime, the North is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons program. To that end, the North seeks some normalisation of economic relations including American investment in North Korea, and a lifting of trade sanctions.
“It is possible and probable to solve the nuclear issue by direct dialogue between the DPRK and the United States,” he said.
The North’s second overarching goal is to end to the nuclear threat it perceives to be posed by US nuclear weapons to its national survival.
Kim Yong Sun was explicit that merely ending the Team Spirit exercise, inspecting US bases in South Korea, a US nuclear no-first-use declaration to North Korea, and even a US exception to the nuclear “neither-confirm-nor-deny policy” in Korea would not end the nuclear threat to North Korea.
Noting that the United States does not perceive a nuclear threat from its nuclear-armed allies such as the UK or France, he asked: “What would remove the nuclear threat? Here, the most important issue is building confidence.”
“That is why,” he continued, “that I insist that confidence is the most important thing to denuclearise Korea and to settle the nuclear issue. Because even with inspections, if we have no confidence, it’s worthless.”
“It is not simply the nuclear issue,” he declared, “but a matter of also improving relations. If we have confidence, the issues will be settled quickly for all sides. I repeat, there are no forever enemies and no forever friends.”
Unless the United States is willing to upgrade its relations to some extent with the DPRK, he implied, then North Korea will hold that it continues to pose a nuclear threat and will exit from the Non Proliferation Treaty. In short, the success of high level talks with the United States are North Korea’s last chance to cash in its nuclear card for something that might contribute to the survival prospects of the North Korean political elite.
VI. What If The Talks Fail?
Should high level talks fail to result in significant progress toward resolve the nuclear issue with the North by September, it is likely that the United States will seek to apply sanctions. The first would be to impress upon the Chinese the seriousness of the situation, and to revive the issue in the UN Security Council. If the UN Security Council fails to act (which seems likely given China’s continuing support to North Korea, the G7 group could tighten the COCOM net on technology transfer to the North.
Some American officials advocate imposing economic sanctions on North Korea to either coerce it to comply, or to punish it for non compliance with the IAEA. Undoubtedly, North Korea’s economy is crippled by bottlenecks, lagging productivity, an aging workforce, and a command economy. Superficially, this plight makes North Korea vulnerable to sanctions.
The United States already has economic sanctions on North Korea. It has little hope of expanding them to include North Korea’s few trading partners. China will not allow North Korea to collapse on its doorstep as this development could severely affect South Korea, its new found economic partner in trade and investment. Iran, the North’s second largest oil supplier, is unlikely to observe US-led sanctions.
Even if the United States could impose an oil-tight embargo on North Korea, a threat to do so is not very credible to North Korea’s rulers, for two reasons.
On the one hand, if economic sanctions are meant to threaten the North Korean regime, then the United States would place the South at risk of a flood of economic refugees –precisely the scenario feared most in Seoul.
Having witnessed the difficulties that gripped Romania after the collapse of the Ceaceascu regime, and Germany after the disintegration of the East, South Korea fears greatly the economic costs that would follow from such an outcome in North Korea. Ironically, therefore, the North’s economic crisis is a political asset in its negotiations with South Korea and other great powers on the nuclear issue.
If, on the other hand, the North Korean population will endure immense economic burdens for an indeterminate time–as many analysts believe to be the case–then it is relatively immune to sanctions. All sanctions will do is force ordinary North Koreans to tighten their belts another notch or two.
This analysis does not discount the possibility that lesser sanctions may have some impact on North Korea’s economy, or might be effective in conveying a clear statement of the international community’s resolve that North Korea not arm itself with nuclear weapons. The United States, for example, could tighten the net that already restricts the flow of technology to North Korea. It could increase the pressure by interdicting North Korean arms exports (especially missiles) which would be supported by much of the international community. Taking this step would communicate directly with the North Korean military that the United States intends to face down North Korea on the nuclear issue. But per se, these actions would not make North Korea recant its NPT membership withdrawal policy.
VI. Opening Gambits
It was consistent with North Korea’s negotiating style that they resumed the US-DPRK talks in June at the last moment. It was also typical that they began by reiterating their intent to withdraw from the NPT and denouncing the IAEA and had to be walked back from the brink by their American counterparts.
The joint US-DPRK statement on June 11, 1993 simply kicked the can into the future on all the hard issues relating to North Korea’s threatened withdrawal from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. This statement reaffirmed both the North Korean and US commitment to achieving full-scope safeguards, non use of force including nuclear weapons in Korea, and the peaceful reunification of Korea. Thus, the joint statement simply restated the issues and permitted the dialogue to continue. The most that the talks achieved was to define on an off-the- record set of mutually dependent “contingent concessions,” that is, a tentative list of what each party might do at some time in the future depending on the other’s actions. No commitments were made other than to continue to talk.
VII. Closing Gambits
Where the talks go from here depends on two crucial factors.
The first is how Washington reacts to the resumption of talks so ably negotiated by US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Galluci. Some conservatives have attacked the statement as giving away something for nothing in return, an erroneous reading of the result that is also widespread in South Korea. Indeed, in a unusual moment of bureaucratic consensus, the Administration subtly defused the North Korean threat to self-destruct and simply stared down the Dear Leader who blinked first. In short, the outcome is still so ambiguous that it does not present a clear target to attack. The Administration is unlikely to be hamstrung by right-wing critics in future dealings with North Korea.
The second critical issue is whether the North Koreans allow the core of the 5MW research reactor to be sampled before the fuel loading is changed. This step was due in February and has been delayed ever since by North Korea. However, the North Koreans have no in-principle objection to this inspection as they had agreed to it before they complained that the IAEA was not impartial in relation to North Korea.
Allowing the research reactor fuel to be sampled may cast light on the discrepancies between the North Korean operating records for the reactor given to the IAEA in 1992, and the nuclear waste samples taken by IAEA inspectors.
On the one hand, a sample may confirm the discrepancies and increase the resolve of the international community to get to the bottom of the issue. On the other hand, allowing sampling to proceed before the fuel change would also indicate North Korean intention to resolve the issue, thereby building confidence with respect to future behaviour, even if the analysis confirms past suspicions.
It is also faintly possible that the core sample would confirm the North Korean’s operating records and show the “discrepancies” to be a figment of the IAEA’s analytic methodology. If so, then allowing the sample to be taken would lead to a major resolution of the issue–and devalue North Korea’s implicit threat to withdraw from the NPT.
Thus, the reactor inspection encapsulates all the larger issues of cooperation or confrontation that are at stake in the NPT standoff. If the above analysis is correct, then the North will attempt to string out the reactor core issue as long as possible in order to maintain ambiguity with respect to their ultimate intentions, and to maximise their bargaining leverage with respect to both Washington and Seoul. Put simply, North Korea has almost no options today except delay which may provide some options in the future. Delay, therefore, is the North’s optimal strategy for the time being.
The reactor core issue accords with this strategy quite well. It will take at least a month, possibly two, for the United States, South Korea and the IAEA to negotiate access to the core for the IAEA inspectors. It will take some time for the core samples to be extracted; and between two and six months for definitive analysis to be conducted by the IAEA.
In all, the North Koreans may think that they have at least six months of breathing space due to the reactor core inspection. Until information from the sampling is available, they will expect the United States to sit on its hands and reserve its options.
VIII. North-South Channel
Based on North Korea’s stance at the 2nd round of high level talks in New York, it was logical to expect that the major action on resolving the special inspections issue would move to the North-South talks. Indeed, the North Koreans insisted in New York that the way to resolve the special inspections issue was in the context of the bilateral denuclearisation agreement and a related inspection arrangements–a stand which the United States could only applaud, albeit sceptically.
As of early July, the North has pulled back from opening this channel. However, this is likely a tactical manoeuvre. Once the US-North talks recommence, the North Koreans will propose a North-South inspectorate to South Korea that would involve the IAEA in a non- inspection capacity such as observers–as occurs in EURATOM, the European regional nuclear safeguards inspectorate. Thereafter, the North-South talks will be the main channel for resolving the issue, while North Korean-US talks continue on the side.
As head of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly Policy Committee on Reunification, Kim Yong Sun would negotiate the terms of the final solution to the nuclear issue, should one emerge, in the context of North-South relations. A pragmatic realist, Kim may be more amenable to practical arrangements that will satisfy all parties to the nuclear issue in Korea than the conservatives in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who have implemented Pyongyang’s NPT stratagem to date.
North Korea’s Closing Gambit
Thus, the high level talks with the United States are North Korea’s last chance to cash in its nuclear card for something that might contribute to the survival prospects of the North Korean political elite.
Given the range of views that exist in Pyongyang, North Korea could pursue one of the two following strategies in the forthcoming high level talks with the United States to salvage something from the debacle caused by its decision to withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty.
Strategy 1: If the pragmatists in Pyongyang are able to shape North Korea’s posture, then they would likely seek to rescind the suspended NPT withdrawal and allow limited IAEA routine inspections.
They may also delay the inspection of the research reactor core to maintain ambiguity about past extraction of plutonium while they negotiate on other issues. They would not change the reactor fuel without an inspection in order to revive some confidence as to North Korea’s intentions.
Finally, they will try to define a face saving formula to resolve the discrepancies and special inspections issue in a way that is acceptable to the IAEA and the United States. This approach would be along the lines of a North-South inspectorate referred to earlier. Strategy 2: If the conservatives and hardliners on the nuclear issue associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set the North Korean agenda, they will push to reactivate the NPT withdrawal to sustain the domestic deep freeze on pragmatic reform that is associated with the nuclear hardline stance.
At the same time, they may find it prudent to allow IAEA ad hoc inspections to continue, even to the extent of allowing the research reactor core to be inspected in order to fuel external suspicions and distrust of North Korea.
That North Korean workers began to work again at the reprocessing plant in May 1993 even as they allowed IAEA officials to check monitoring equipment indicates that North Korean hardliners are keeping open the nuclear option. The fact that the North-South channel has been put on hold may also indicate that conservatives have gained the upper hand over the pragmatist policy current. Alternatively, the GL/DL may not have decided which way to tilt, and find a conservative drift is the best way to keep everyone off balance for the moment.
Should they succeed in blocking in significant progress toward resolving the nuclear issue with the North by September, the United States will likely move to impose sanctions. The first likely step will be to impress upon the Chinese the seriousness of the situation, and to revive the issue in the UN Security Council. With or without UN Security Council support, the G7 group could tighten the COCOM net on technology transfer to the North.
If this step fails to move North Korea, then the United States might implement a naval blockade on North Korean arms exports, especially its missiles, thereby striking directly at the foreign exchange earnings of the North Korean military. This action would send an unmistakable message to a crucial segment of the North Korean elite as to United States resolve to force it to return to the Non Proliferation Treaty or suffer the consequences.
For its part, North Korea will not give up its nuclear option–which becomes more valuable with time as work on developing weapons becomes more advanced–without realising substantial and tangible gains, up front rather than later, in its political and economic relations with the United States.
These two sets of contrary imperatives mean that the nuclear issue cannot be solved quickly. Equally, the North cannot wait much longer to cash in its nuclear card. Although the military value of the North’s nuclear option increases with time, its value as a negotiating lever will diminish if the US-DPRK dialogue drags out interminably. Sooner rather than later, therefore, the two Kims who rule Pyongyang must determine which of two strategies they will adopt–that leading to nuclear arms and confrontation; or that ending with disarmament and reconciliation.
The way across the nuclear crossroad in Korea will be marked by numerous detours along arduous and time consuming negotiations between the world’s sole remaining superpower, and a small but nuclear capable state determined to wrest concessions from the United States.