On Denuclearization and North Korea

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

North Korean nuclear warhead

As we try to approach the issue of the politics of the Korean peninsula, including both talks between the North and the South, as well as the pending Kim-Trump summit, we need to think about what is, and what is not, going on here.

Let’s consider the word “denuclearization.”  I get the impression that to the casual observer of this ongoing drama that it means “North Korea gives up their nuclear weapons, and the US and South Korea make some concessions.”  I am not trying to straw man here, I am describing what the discussion often sounds like to me–the focus tends to be on the idea that NK will give up its nukes, and there is a lot less discussion of what the US will have to do to make that happen.  In the past, the North has typically demanded that the US withdraw its troops from the peninsula, although at the moment they have withdrawn that as a precondition for talks. Indeed, it less that I think random observers don’t understand the nature of the North’s view of “denuclearization,” it is that I am not convinced Trump understands it.

I would recommend the following CNN piece on this topic:  What US and North Korea mean when they talk about denuclearization.

Over the past decade, denuclearization in North Korea has only ever meant one thing for the United States and South Korea.

“It’s called CVID — complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean program,” said Josh Pollack, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

The language has been used consistently by the United Nations Security Council in its resolutions condemning North Korea as far back as October 2006.

“Irreversible,” in the practical sense, aims to ensure the current facilities cannot be reactivated after they’ve been dismantled, Pollack said.

Any denuclearization deal would need to include a series of “verifiable” steps for dismantling North Korea’s program, carried out under the eyes of independent observers, former Australian Prime Minister and diplomat Kevin Rudd told CNN in March.

“Unless there is independent monitoring … any unilateral undertakings by the North Koreans will probably not be worth the paper they’re written on,” he said.

BTW, this is not just a CNN analyst’s view on the subject.  I attended a talk at the Alabama World Affairs Council earlier this month, where the guest speaker was Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and CIA, and a retired Air Force General.  He said essentially the same thing that the CNN article noted: that “denuclearization” has long meant different things to the US and to NK (and it likely still does).

Hayden also noted a key element of this entire situation that should not be forgotten:  the North Koreans have long had a goal of high-level talks between the leader of the US and the leader of North Korea.  In that past, the US has treated such a meeting as a bargaining chip.  Now, however, with no concessions whatsoever, the US has capitulated to this demand (at least in principle).  Now, as I have noted, I am in favor of talks as a general matter.  I do, however, question the haphazard way by which we have come to this point and remain highly skeptical about likely outcomes.

Indeed, I think it is wholly possible that the whole end-game for the North is having the talks, and nothing else.  When Kim states ”The nuclear test site has done its job,” I think he means that a) it produced nuclear weapons, and b) it got us treated like a major power.  I do not think it is some concession to bellicose tweets.

Two fundamental facts that have to be remembered in all of this:

First, the nuclear weapons are the main reason that the North is being treated as it is at the moment, and its leadership fully understands that fact. It also understands that its various missile attacks (that lead the President of the United States to sit up and take notice with his “Little Rocket Man” tweets) accomplished their primary goal:  garnering attention for the regime in the international community.

Along the lines of the importance of nuclear weapons, note that Kim is fully aware that Iraq did not have nukes when it was invaded and that Libya gave up its nuclear program, and its regime is no more.

Second, this latter observation comes to the main point that one can never forget in this process:  the fundamental goal of North Korea is regime survival.  Given this fact, it is difficult to envision an endgame in which NK really does give up its nukes, since the nukes clearly protect the regime, and give that regime legitimacy on the international stage.  Regime survival is the sine qua non of Kim’s goals, and any interpretation of these talks and actions has to recall that fact.

Back to the report that the North has not demanded withdrawal of US troops, let’s look at the exact language from the South Korean negotiator:

“The North Koreans did not present any conditions that the United States could not accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops in South Korea,” Mr. Moon told newspaper publishers in Seoul, before his own planned summit meeting with Mr. Kim next Friday.

“They only talk about an end to hostilities against their country and about getting security guarantees,” Mr. Moon said. “It’s safe to say that the plans for dialogue between the North and the United States could proceed because that has been made clear.”

When Mr. Moon’s special envoys met with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang last month, Mr. Kim said his country would no longer need nuclear weapons if it did not feel “threatened militarily” and was provided with “security guarantees.”

There are a ton of devils in those details.  It is difficult to envision a settlement in which the North feels unthreatened and secure that does not ultimately mean keeping nuclear weapons or that doe not include US withdrawal from the peninsula.

And note:  withdrawal from the peninsula means a degradation of US military power in a key region of the world.  Regardless of one’s views on the deployment of that power, it would be no small thing for the US government to give it up.   It should not be forgotten that US military bases in Korea and Japan place the US directly in the Chinese sphere of influence in a way that China does not have a reciprocal chance at parity.  And while the Chinese are rivals, not enemies, a great power, such as the US, would be hard-pressed to want to retreat from that arena just to placate the North Koreans.

Let me reiterate:  the nukes have done their job, the North is being treated with respect and the regime’s survival seems assured for the moment.  What more could Kim want or expect?  As such, I expect a lot of sound and fury that will ultimately leave us pretty much where we are.

To conclude, we have been in this general arena before:

Since the 1990s, however, North Korean officials have occasionally told the Americans and South Koreans that they could live with an American military presence if Washington signed a peace treaty and normalized ties with the North. Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, sent a party secretary to the United States in 1992 to deliver that message.

Again:  the devil is very much in the details.

FILED UNDER: Asia, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    I’m not so sure that regime survival is the priority from the perspective of the North Korean leadership. It’s relatively easy to envision an outcome where the regime falls and the leadership wins, because that’s exactly what happened with the fall of the Soviet Bloc. The Communist Party bosses gained ownership of nearly everything and found that being private capitalists was little different from their previous roles as Red Bureaucrats, except the personal rewards were vastly greater.




    4



    0
  2. michael reynolds says:

    Let me reiterate: the nukes have done their job, the North is being treated with respect and the regime’s survival seems assured for the moment. What more could Kim want or expect?

    Yep. The most likely outcome here is a clear win for Kim. Any conceivable deal would involve an American and South Korean treaty recognizing NK and dropping sanctions. Any possible deal leaves Kim stronger, more secure and richer. He’ll be able to buy his own townhouse in some posh part of London and open an account with Deutsche Bank.

    What have both this Kim and the previous Kim wanted? Recognition, regime survival, an end to sanctions. They’ll likely get all of that. What do we get in return? Potentially the removal of NK nukes which would, as you point out, have accomplished their purpose. But Trump will be able to present this as a ‘win’ because, unlike Kim, we tend to lose track of our goal.

    You’re walking down a dark alleyway. A crook comes up and points a gun at you and demands your wallet. You negotiate: drop your gun and I’ll give you the wallet. The bad guy drops his gun and you give him your wallet. Guess what: you’re not the winner in that exchange.




    2



    0
  3. @Ben Wolf: This strikes me as unlikely result of chance in NK. Kim’s models are Saddam and Qaddafi, not the Russian oligarchs.

    The only guarantee for Kim is regime survival.




    3



    0
  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Is Kim modeling Hussein and Qaddafi, or is he simply trying to draw a lesson from their fates? Saddam was too unreliable to be integrated into the global order and Qaddafi was ideologically opposed to it, but I don’t think it’s yet been established that Kim is unwilling to play ball. It might not take much for the NK leadership to exchange their uniforms for business suits and tuxedos.




    1



    1
  5. Andy says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    The people in power when the USSR fell are not the oligarchs or leaders today. If this model played out in North Korea (and I don’t think it would), then the 2nd and 3rd tier leadership would the North Korean equivalents, not Kim and his family. If the regime falls, Kim and his family, if they are lucky, might get to live in exile – most likely they’ll be killed.




    1



    0
  6. Andy says:

    In my estimation, the regime is almost completely focused on the survival and legitimacy of the regime. Nuclear weapons are an important strategic component for protecting the regime from foreign invasion, and they also buttress the regime internally, which is just as important.

    The strategic balance on the peninsula has changed considerably over the past several decades. North Korea used to hold an advantage or at least parity against US and ROK forces in the South and they were a real threat to reunite the peninsula by force.

    Those days are long gone – the conventional balance of power is decisively in favor of the US and South Korea and North Korea knows it – hence their desire for a strategic deterrent.

    These fundamentals haven’t changed. The big question is what can the US offer North Korea to satisfy its need for regime security in a way that nuclear weapons cannot, especially after Iraq, Libya rhetoric on Syria, etc.?

    I personally don’t see it at this point. The only way it could be achieved, IMO, is through Chinese guarantees to extend its nuclear umbrella over North Korea in exchange for North Korean denuclearization – an option that’s never been seriously floated or even discussed, probably because neither the DPRK or China are interested. The North and Chinese don’t trust each other that much.

    It’s more likely this is an attempt to get some favorable concessions and exploit useful idiots in the West by making the regime appear reasonable. The DPRK may have enough nuclear test data to build and field a reliable, operational nuclear force, so closing the test site may give away nothing. Their ultimate goal could, therefore, be limited – to give away something they don’t need anymore (nuclear testing) for some material concession. That’s obviously not something the US and South Korea is likely to accept, so it will probably go nowhere.




    1



    0
  7. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    A couple of weeks back while I was in Seoul, I was visiting with Korean friends there. One of them noted that the thing Kim is really short of is money (as in hard currency and capital leverage) and that any negotiations with the US are likely to involve lifting of sanctions and/or assistance in facilitating NK resource exploitation. Additionally, most of the people I encountered in my visit were skeptical of the idea that troop withdrawals by the US are on Kim’s radar–to the consternation of Kim’s greatest current benefactor, Xi Jinping. A current belief among some people I was talking to is that, in the same way that NK creates a buffer for China, the US presence creates a buffer for NK relative to greater Chinese influence, and maybe even occupation. It seems that Kim Il-sung used the “immanent danger” of the US crossing the DMZ as a lever to secure Chinese aid throughout his “term of office.”

    CVID has always seemed like nonsense to me. How do you go about “irreversibly” ending a nation’s access to intellectual property or knowledge at large? Fill underground test sites with concrete? Demand that North Koreans are no longer permitted to teach physics in school? Kill everyone with a reading level above grade 6? Demand that only Homer Simpson can work at Yongbyon? I don’t know how you achieve irreversible.

    In any event, it’s still likely that Trump will pull out at the last minute over CVID issues having gotten the requisite praise from Bunge and the other fan boys. I don’t think that will happen, but it’s still possible. More likely in my own mind is that the main discussion related to the meeting between Kim and Moon is how to throw Trump and Xi under the bus in the wake of the Kim/Trump meeting. Two bad faith partners entering into negotiations with each other seems to me to be a recipe for inconclusiveness. From that standpoint, the idea that the nukes have achieve their purpose (or at least one purpose) is spot on. NK is finally sitting at the adult table at this party.

    I don’t see this as a defeat of setback of any sort, however–just acknowledgement of reality.




    2



    0
  8. mattbernius says:

    @Andy:

    The DPRK may have enough nuclear test data to build and field a reliable, operational nuclear force, so closing the test site may give away nothing.

    I have read analysts speculating that it could also be that the accident that happened in October of 2017 may have done more damage to their nuclear weapons infrastructure than initially thought. So talk of stopping test could also serve as a way to hide any setbacks from that accident.

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/10/31/up-200-killed-north-koreas-nuclear-test-site-report/816276001/




    2



    0
  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @Andy: There’s no definition of who is and is not an oligarch, not to mention it’s been twenty-six years; many of them are dead. So it’s not really relevant that the current crop of Russian billionaires doesn’t match up precisely to the senior leadership of the Socialist Bloc countries circa 1989.




    0



    0
  10. Kit says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: the main point that one can never forget in this process: the fundamental goal of North Korea is regime survival… Regime survival is the sine qua non of Kim’s goals…

    It’s clearly one or the other, and I think you were right the second time. But this leads, I feel, to the real question…

    What more could Kim want or expect?

    What more would you want in his position? Not to pick on you, but most of what I’m reading on this issue strikes me as showing a great lack of imagination. I rather doubt that Kim sees himself as a thug, but rather as the latest of a great line of heroes leading a heroic people. Forever staying boxed in and dirt poor is unlikely to define his horizons. Understanding an enemy’s motivations would seem to be the sine qua non of entering into negotiations, unless…

    while the Chinese are rivals, not enemies, a great power, such as the US, would be hard-pressed to want to retreat from that arena just to placate the North Koreans.

    This rings true, but it does paint us as the adversaries of both Koreas as well as China. And such a strategy must effectually collapse.




    0



    0
  11. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Kit: It may be important to remember that the US presence on the peninsula is as the guarantor for the West of an armistice that the government of South Korea didn’t actually sign. Neither Kim Il-sung nor Syngman Rhee was actually amenable to the cease fire agreement (both preferring a fight to the finish). The difference was that on the side of the North, Stalin (and/or Mao, possibly) apparently suggested to Kim that if he was unwilling to sign, and alternate could be appointed who would sign. Kim, seeing his political (and probably his actual) future in jeopardy, relented.

    The reality is that the US is not likely to remove itself from such an arena as Korea, but it also is unable to until the cease fire is resolved into an actual peace. Additionally, “rival” and “enemy” may not actually be distinct ideas for Koreans, who see themselves to some degree as a people under siege for 4000 years.




    0



    0
  12. @Kit:

    Not to pick on you, but most of what I’m reading on this issue strikes me as showing a great lack of imagination. I rather doubt that Kim sees himself as a thug, but rather as the latest of a great line of heroes leading a heroic people. Forever staying boxed in and dirt poor is unlikely to define his horizons.

    I not 100% sure of your point, although I think you are suggesting that Kim might want NK to further develop. This may, or may not, be true. The history of sultanistic dictators such as Kim tends to suggest that they are primarily concerned with their power, wealth, and comfort and far less so for their people’s.

    When I ask “What more could Kim want or expect?” I mean from this process at this time.

    but it does paint us as the adversaries of both Koreas as well as China.

    You lost me here, as I am not sure how we would be adversaries of the South.




    0



    0
  13. Kit says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The history of sultanistic dictators such as Kim tends to suggest that they are primarily concerned with their power, wealth, and comfort and far less so for their people’s.

    Is this really a good description of the Kim family? While I claim no particular knowledge on the subject, I have the impression that most dictators tend to last a single generation, precisely for the reasons you mentioned. North Korea, on the other hand, seems to have displayed steely discipline in moving towards some goal. Mere comfort and safety could have been bought far sooner and more cheaply.

    You lost me here, as I am not sure how we would be adversaries of the South.

    I see a rather clear distinction between a foreign force that provides protection until the day a solution can be found, and one that would be “hard pressed” to leave due to other interests. South Korea appears eager to work towards an eventual rapprochement. Explaining that we find the current situation rather to our liking (even if a nuclear-armed North is a bit de trop) seems unrealistic. So that leaves us no option but to sabotage any change that might place our strategic perch in peril. At least that’s how I read a situation where our highest goal is not to protect an ally but to maintain a military presence. How would you refer to an ally who, under the guise of preserving the status quo, was secretly committed to thwarting your actual goals?

    In any case, in the highly unlikely event that South Korea asked us to leave, I hope that we would.




    0



    0
  14. @Kit:

    Is this really a good description of the Kim family? While I claim no particular knowledge on the subject, I have the impression that most dictators tend to last a single generation, precisely for the reasons you mentioned.

    I think it is a pretty accurate description. I think that comparisons would include the Somoza family in Nicaragua, the Duvalier’s in Haiti, as well as dictators like Trujillo in the DR and Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The support of the Chinese in the context of the Korean War and then the need to maintain stability on the peninsula helps to maintain the conditions necessary to keep the family in power. You cannot ignore the global conditions and context that allow the regime to exist and persist. China has strong incentives to keep the regime alive, not the least of which being it does not want a massive humanitarian crisis on its border (which would happen if the regime collapsed).

    At least that’s how I read a situation where our highest goal is not to protect an ally but to maintain a military presence. How would you refer to an ally who, under the guise of preserving the status quo, was secretly committed to thwarting your actual goals?

    In any case, in the highly unlikely event that South Korea asked us to leave, I hope that we would.

    I honestly have no doubt that we would leave if asked. That does not remove the fact that the US has multiple interests in those military bases that go beyond the direct context of the Korean conflict. We have a substantial military presence in Japan as well–and our reasons for being there are not just about Japanese interests. That does not make us adversaries (and we would leave if they asked).

    There is a difference between NK trying to get us to leave as part of a negotiation and SK asking us to leave.




    0



    0
  15. Kit says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think it is a pretty accurate description.

    Food for thought, even if I remain skeptical. In the unlikely event that the upcoming talks open the door to real change, I guess we will all be learning more about the region and its history.

    There is a difference between NK trying to get us to leave as part of a negotiation and SK asking us to leave.

    Certainly! I guess I was getting ahead of myself: I cannot see us leaving until both Koreas and (probably) China have hammered out the details. And that day seems impossibly far in the future.

    I pretty much agree with the rest of what you wrote.




    0



    0
  16. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Kit: Part of the durability of the Kim family relative to other more one-offish dictatorships may be related to the claim that the official name of North Korea within the country itself is Chosun or Joseon–the name of the nation during the last dynasty supplanted by the Japanese “Protectorate” in about 1910. The theory that I used to hear while I was living in Korea is that the Kim’s see their family as the rightful heirs to the Imperial throne of the last empire before the peasant revolt in 1895–after which the royal family retained power in the wake of granting reforms until the arrival of Imperial Japan in 1905.




    0



    0
  17. Kit says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: the Kim’s see their family as the rightful heirs to the Imperial throne

    You know this subject better than I ever will, but hearing such a theory certainly supports my feeling (and it’s no more than a feeling) that the Kim family are not running the country for simple personal gain. They appear to have a vision, and now that their nuclear program has borne fruit, I think we might start to learn Just where they are going to go.

    If you have any links helping to understand all this (appropriate to typically short attention spans), please send them along.




    0



    0