North Korea: It Will Be Difficult To Persuade North Korea To Relinquish Its Nuclear Weapons

North Korea’s refusal to denuclearize continues to dominate news headlines around the world. The United Nations Security Council passed a new round of sanctions September 12th that aims to limit North Korea’s fuel imports and textile exports, and restrict the country’s ability to send workers abroad. The sanctions passed unanimously through the Security Council, including consent from North Korea’s nominal allies China and Russia. Despite increasingly tight sanctions, however, it is unlikely they will have a significant impact on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The nuclear weapons test September 3rd was North Korea’s sixth nuclear detonation since 2006. Since the first weapons test, North Korea’s nuclear weapons has grown in yield from barely two kilotons to more than 100 kilotons. In addition, it is now fairly certain that North Korea currently possesses intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. mainland. However, uncertainty surrounding North Korea’s nuclear arsenal remains, including the accuracy of its missiles, the missile’s ability to re-enter the atmosphere, and the weight of a warhead that the missiles can reliably carry. Despite these unknowns, it is certain that North Korea possesses sufficient understanding of the technology to be able to cause serious damages and diplomatically threaten the U.S.

Despite the unanimity of the United Nations Security Council resolution, it is evident that some of the most powerful states in the world will not be working together in pressuring North Korea. Both Russia and China have moved to tone down the sanctions. This involved scrapping the original American proposal of complete bans on fuel exports to North Korea and proposed immediate prohibition of  North Korean workers from working in other countries. Instead, North Korean petroleum imports will be cut by 55% and the provision regarding North Korean workers will be slowly phased in through non-renewal of their contracts, rather than outright removal of all North Korean workers in foreign countries.

Neither Russia nor China truly wants the North Korean regime to collapse. The potential collapse of the North Korean regime would undoubtedly generate massive humanitarian and political upheavals on their borders. Furthermore, both countries believe they have similarly been insulted by the United States. Thus, there are no reasons for either of these countries to assist in American efforts to pressure North Korea. If anything, North Korea collapsing would demonstrate a weakness of both countries to defend their friends and allies in the face of “Western aggression.” Furthermore, if South Korea proceeds to reunite the Korean Peninsula, the United States may decide to deploy military installations on their borders, an action both Russia and China will likely see as a threat to their national security. Security guarantees and promises by the United States to not undermine the existing regimes in the two countries are unlikely to mollify either Russian or Chinese leadership. And the U.S. is unlikely to make such promises, considering its track record of ignoring the wishes of states it sees as potential enemies.

However, even if Russia, China, and the United States wholeheartedly set aside their differences and use everything in their power to squeeze North Korea in order to force its leadership to abandon its nuclear program, North Korea is still unlikely to relinquish its nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal serves to preserve the Kim dynasty in power, whether it is by increasing the prestige of its leadership in the eyes of the North Korean people, or by deterring what the North Korean leadership believe is an imminent U.S. and South Korean attack. It is also apparent that North Korea does not trust Russia or China to be reliable allies in the event of war. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest North Korea’s recent nuclear tests are aimed to embarrass China’s president Xi Jinping by timing these tests when the Chinese leader will be at important international meetings. Whatever the case, nuclear weapons play an important role in legitimizing Kim Jong-un’s position as a force to be reckoned with both in the eyes of the North Korean people as well as on the international stage.

Given the current state of affairs, it is unlikely that further sanctions will likely to work. What is now needed is to devise containment procedures so that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will not fall into the hands of actors that are even less reliable than North Korea. North Korea has a history of selling its nuclear technology as well as conventional arms to countries with less than stellar records for stability, including Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar. And if North Korea implodes, there is every possibility that its vast arsenal of weapons and technical know-how will end up on the black market, ending up in the hands of militant groups and warlords around the world. North Korea demonstrated that nuclear weapons are a relatively cheap but powerful deterrent against foreign intervention, thus spurring nuclear arms races among the world’s authoritarian regimes. South Korea and Japan may also begin to clamour for their own nuclear arsenals given what may see as U.S. failure to guarantee their security, a development that is sure to further raise tensions in East Asia. All of these potential future developments should be alarming to anyone that wants a future world free from fear of accidental or deliberate nuclear apocalypse.

Given that the current sanctions are unlikely to prevent North Korea from its continued nuclear testing, a new strategy is recommended to “socialize” North Korea into the nuclear club so that it will not use its nuclear arsenal irresponsibly. Although it is impossible to know how to stop North Korea from its growing nuclear arsenal, it is certain that the current blustering and rhetoric being exchanged on the issue is not helpful to stability and denuclearization.

Hanyu Huang