Kim Jong-un and nuclear policy of North Korea
The last few weeks have seen numerous new interpretations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The media are practically portraying North Koreans as creatures from another planet. There is also a new flurry of speculation about the DPRK’s nuclear policies.
Of course the Korean Peninsula denuclearization problem will not go away. It was North Korea’s security concerns and its uncertainty as to whether China and the Soviet Union would give it a hand “under any circumstances” that prompted Pyongyang, in the early 1970s, to launch its own nuclear research program that in turn led to nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. At home, Kim Jong-il, the late leader, is praised precisely for having developed the country’s nuclear potential, which is described as one of his main achievements. The other side of the coin is that sensitive technology could spread from the DPRK to third countries. In the past, it missiles in the Middle East, to mention one destination that could not help but cause concern. According to some estimates, these sales were valued at as much as $400 million in some years.
There is a view that Kim Jong-il’s successor, Kim Jong-un, who must establish his credentials as the new leader in charge of a nuclear state and prove that he is committed to his father’s policies, may deem it necessary to demonstrate once again the North Korean nuclear deterrent. We cannot rule out this scenario.
Still, today’s realities could counter escalation in tensions revolving around North Korea’s nuclear program.
First, the current situation provides a window of opportunity for expanding international cooperation that could help Pyongyang solve at least some of its accumulated problems. For example, according to some sources, the country is facing its worst food shortage in years. If this is the case, Pyongyang obviously would not like to lose a chance to correct this.
Second, an escalation is not in the interests of the young leader, who is new to the job and lacks the sound administrative experience that would come in handy in a critical situation. Obviously, the system of rule has yet to be tuned for decision making under the new leader.
Third, it should be kept in mind that North Korea has only limited technological capabilities for the production of weapon-grade nuclear materials. Thus, its nuclear testing capacity is limited as well. According to most optimistic international estimates, the amount of plutonium produced by Pyongyang is barely enough to make ten nuclear explosive devices. Having held two tests, it is left with a quantity sufficient for only eight devices. This is a serious consideration against new testing, unless, of course, they need to test an improved nuclear device or its components.
Making predictions is a thankless job. This is particularly true regarding the DPRK. But keeping in mind the above factors, we can assume that Pyongyang is unlikely to make ill-considered moves in the nuclear arena during the coming weeks. This state of affairs must be exploited in order to restart talks with Pyongyang within all existing venues and formats, including the six-party talks.
However, this scenario is based on the expectation that North Korea’s neighbors and the U.S. will do nothing to provoke an escalation either. As is common knowledge, a number of countries in the region put their armed forces on alert in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death. Hopefully, neither South Korea, nor Japan, nor the United States will take further steps in that direction. Specifically, it would be highly provocative to hold naval exercises in the direct vicinity of the DPRK’s territorial waters.
It is too soon to speak about North Korea rejoining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The changing of the ruler in that country is no reason to believe that the situation will evolve. But we certainly must use this window of opportunity to make some progress toward reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In the past, for example, the six-party talks made it possible to achieve an understanding on the limits of North Korea’s nuclear program. Under certain conditions the DPRK froze its plutonium-producing facilities. This is why there is still a scope for creative diplomacy, all the more so now that North Korea has been sending signals during the last few days that it is willing to consider a resumption of talks. But we certainly should not expect any quick breakthroughs. The depth of this decades-old crisis is such that it brooks of no simple solutions.
It must not be forgotten either that the Arab spring and the developments in the Middle East and North Africa, and primarily in Libya, have taught the developing countries, including the DPRK, that any disarmament agreement or security arrangements could in some form or other be consigned to a wastepaper basket without a second thought, as it did with Muammar Gaddafi. There is no doubt that Pyongyang has been following these events closely and this will perceptibly complicate any likely advances in the direction of a nuclear settlement on the Korean Peninsula.
Anton Khlopkov is Director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS).
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.