Here’s a dose of unpleasant reality about North Korea: It’s extremely unlikely that it’s ever going to agree to get rid of its increasingly threatening nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.
Yes, I mean, ever.
While I’d be happy to be proven wrong about diplomatic possibilities, I’m not optimistic about North Korea coming to a negotiating table to freeze or end its nuclear and ballistic missile projects.
Despite the prospects of pariah status, further diplomatic isolation and more painful economic sanctions, Pyongyang has plenty of good reasons — in its thinking — to hold onto its weapons of mass destruction, or WMD.
For instance, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sees his advancing nuclear and missile capabilities as a life insurance policy for the Kim dynasty, the regime and North Korea — protecting him from his perceived enemies (including South Korea and the United States).
Kim would point to dictators such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as examples of those who gave up nukes and ended up on the dust heap of history. Russia’s recent wresting of Crimea from Ukraine — after Kiev gave up its (Soviet) nukes at the Cold War’s end — is another example.
There’s also the prestige, exclusivity and “social status” of developing and possessing long-range ballistic missiles topped with megaton-yielding thermonuclear warheads that likely appeals to the vanity of the Kim regime.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — the North’s official name — is one of only nine nuclear weapons states in a world of nearly 200 countries; even fewer states have intercontinental ballistic missiles.
For a country with little to show the world or its deeply suffering people in terms of economic, scientific or technological successes, especially in comparison to neighboring rival South Korea, these WMD programs are a source of significant pride.
On top of that, these city-busting bombs make big powers (the United States, China and Russia), middle powers (Japan and South Korea) and global institutions (the United Nations) sit up and pay attention to North Korea.
That makes Kim feel pretty darn powerful — and important.
Plus, having nukes also bolsters the somewhat far-fetched possibility of achieving the North’s ultimate goal of militarily reuniting the Korean Peninsula under its communist control — a to-do item still on the list from its invasion of South Korea in 1950.
There’s also the issue of the “freedom of action” that North Korea gets from having nukes. In other words, to what extent would others be willing to fight or oppose Pyongyang’s provocations at the risk of getting nuked?
Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea of a diplomatic solution.
I’d be thrilled if North Korea would come to the table to talk denuclearization, where we’d quibble over quid pro quos such as diplomatic recognition, economic modernization and a peace treaty to (finally) end the Korean conflict.
But, I don’t think there are any quids we can give for their nuclear/missile quos — short of vacating the Korean Peninsula and handing South Korea over to North Korea, which probably still isn’t enough to get the North to give up the bomb.
While always being open to talks and committed to the North’s denuclearization, from this unhappy conclusion about its plans, we must pragmatically build our North Korea policy.
This piece originally appeared in the Boston Herald