North Korea’s atomic test on Friday morning, its fifth, ought make clear to even the most diehard optimists that its regime has no intention of abandoning its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.
Experts estimate that the weapon had a yield of between 10 and 20 kilo-tonnes, North Korea’s largest so far, but in global terms of modest size, comparable with the 15 kilotonne bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Pyongyang has said the weapon design was “standardised to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets”—in other words, to be deliverable.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the test an act of “self-destruction”, which demonstrates the “maniacal recklessness” of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. For its part, the United States has warned of “serious consequences”.
This language, and the many other harsh words which are certain to follow, is fine but elide some unpleasant truths. First, no one wishes for a conflict with North Korea, because even its conventional weapons would inflict unacceptable damage on the South. Then, China will not countenance a regime change; unhappy as it is with Kim Jong-un’s bizarre regime, it prefers the status-quo to an enhanced United States presence on the Korean peninsula. Finally, years of Western sanctions have done nothing to dislodge the North Korean regime.
Perhaps the time has come to think the unthinkable, and ask how the world can learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.
For years now, the United States, along with most of the international community, has sought “complete, verifiable and irreversible de-nuclearisation” from North Korea. The reason for this is that North Korea was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), 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, and with it, the rest of West-Asia.
In theory, this is a perfectly reasonable argument—but, as with many perfectly reasonable arguments, the other side has one too.
From the point of view of North Korea’s ruling élite, a hereditary despotism surrounded by richer, more powerful neighbours, fear of internal and external aggression is an everyday reality. Kim Jong-un fears an East Germany style regime collapse with his citizens choosing to merge into the richer South. The dictator also fears that his neighbours might sponsor an internal insurrection, or that the United States might chose to launch an attack, aimed at bringing down his regime.
Nuclear weapons are, thus, both instruments of self-defence and tools for blackmail: they guarantee regime survival against all currently conceivable crisis. Kim, once he has nuclear weapons, is a creature all actors have an interest in ensuring remains stable.
Efforts to bribe the regime to give up its nuclear weapons, as the world did elsewhere, are plain silly. Ukraine agreed to surrender its warheads in 1994, after receiving guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—which have proved worthless. North Koreans know, too, that Muammar Qaddafi, who surrendered his nuclear-weapons ambitions in return for an end to sanctions, ended up being sodomised and murdered on video on a roadside in Libya.
Nor have efforts to bludgeon the regime through sanctions worked. The highly-criminalised regime has succeeded in cushioning the élite from hardships, while China has undermined the effort, fearing an unstable neighbour would send refugees flooding across the Yalu river.
Even more important, to use the words of the analyst Andrei Lankov, the élite might miss its Henessy cognac—but is willing to make that sacrifice to avoid an appointment with the lamp-post.
Is there an alternative? The heretical possibility is simply to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. The theorist Kenneth Waltz, writing in 1981, famously postulated that when it came to nuclear weapons, “more may be better”. Their very nature, he argued, meant “the measured spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared”.
This, he went on, was because in “a conventional world, deterrent threats are ineffective because the damage threatened is distant, limited, and problematic. Nuclear weapons make military miscalculations difficult and politically pertinent prediction easy”.
Put simply: “In a conventional world, one is uncertain about winning or losing. In a nuclear world, one is uncertain [only] about surviving or being annihilated”.
North Korea, thus, can use its nuclear weapons only in the complete certainty that it will invite utter annihilation in return—something a regime, no matter how crazed, is likely to do, given that it created a regime for the express purpose of, so to speak, enjoying its Hennessy.
Accepting that North Korea won’t give up its weapons opens the door to pragmatic negotiations that acknowledge the realities. For example, the North Korean government could be offered some economic incentives and diplomatic recognition in return for capping its arsenal.
The deal will be unfair—and will have consequences, in West Asia and elsewhere. But it will also acknowledge the realities of our world, not seek to impose on it a misplaced nuclear morality.