North Korea’s atomic test on Friday morning, its fifth, has led to the usual barrage of denunciation. South Korean President Park Geun-hye called it an act of “self-destruction”, which demonstrates the “maniacal recklessness” of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. For its part, the US has warned of “serious consequences”. This language elides over the unpleasant reality that years of global sanctions have done nothing to roll back North Korea’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. For years now, the US, along with most of the international community, as sought “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” from North Korea. The reason for this is that North Korea was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, from which it unilaterally withdrew when it first tested a nuclear weapon in 2003. Allow North Korea to get away with it, the argument goes, and Iran — painfully corralled into a nuclear deal last year — will go the same way. Then, so will a host of other states.
This is true — but it is not the only truth. From the point of view of North Korea’s ruling élite, a hereditary despotism surrounded by richer, more powerful neighbours, the threat of internal uprising and external aggression is an everyday reality. Kim Jong-un has learned, too, that those regimes bribed into giving up their nuclear weapons do not fare well. Ukraine agreed to surrender its warheads in 1994, after receiving guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia, the United Kingdom and the US. These have proved worthless. Muammar Qaddafi, who surrendered his nuclear-weapons ambitions, ended up being murdered on a roadside in Libya.
For movement forward, a good starting point is to accept reality. Though sanctions have hurt North Korea, its élite has hung together — preferring, in the words of the scholar Andrei Lankov, to sacrifice their cognac to avoid an appointment with the hangman. Then, there’s the fact that imposing change in North Korea is just too risky. Even its conventional weapons would inflict unacceptable damage on the South — and there’s no way that China would be willing, in any case, to countenance regime change. Perhaps the time has come to think the unthinkable, and ask how the world can learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. For example, the North Korean government could be offered some economic incentives and diplomatic recognition in return for capping its arsenal. This may be unfair — but the quest for the perfect should not sabotage the achievable.