It is in the best interest of China to see a nuclear-free Korean peninsula; that’s what the Chinese government should want, has wanted and still wants. The reality, however, is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has already obtained nuclear weapons, as proven by its two tests, and has accumulated enough nuclear materials and facilities for building up a substantial arsenal. The challenge for China and its associates in the region, therefore, amounts to undoing what has been done. To have any hope of succeeding at that, one must first understand what, and who, one is dealing with.
Pyongyang has consistently proclaimed itself a nuclear-weapons state. As early as March 2005, well before its first nuclear explosion, the DPRK declared itself a “full-fledged nuclear weapons state” and demanded that the Six-Party Talks be negotiated on an “equal footing” as “disarmament talks.” In January 2009, a few months before its second nuclear test, Pyongyang asserted that “the DPRK’s status as a nuclear weapons state will remain unchanged as long as it is exposed even to the slightest U.S. nuclear threat.” In other words, North Korea would not consider slowing down, let alone ending, its nuclear weapons program until the United States and the whole world became free of all nuclear weapons.
The DPRK will keep going nuclear, period. There is no other endgame, at least from Pyongyang’s point of view. If other countries continue their games, that will please the North Koreans, because the fantasy that the current leadership in Pyongyang may someday change its mind will lead to rekindled hopes, more suspicions and cleavage among these “hopefuls.” That, in turn, will generate more diplomacy centered on North Korea, and with it additional offers of economic assistance, presumably to “buy off” its nuclear option.
It is almost impossible for outsiders to know whether there were any debates within the North Korean leadership about the pros and cons of going nuclear. Even had there been doubts and hesitations, recent developments have proved that the perseverance with nuclear weapons acquisition is serving the leaders’ interests very well. The pursuit of nuclear arms helps consolidate the leadership’s position at home and increases its diplomatic leverage abroad. Defiance of the will and joint efforts of other countries concerned, among them the strongest military and economic powers in the world, does not cost much—only North Korea’s continued international isolation, which the DPRK leadership probably does not view as a cost at all. Nor is the isolation complete. Humanitarian aid and economic assistance continue to flow into the North, and the North Koreans know how to keep it flowing: They take one step forward in nuclearization and then pause to show an ostensible readiness to negotiate over denuclearization, and in come the food, energy and other supplies.
By alternating between charm offensives and provocation, the North Koreans have been able to eat their cake and have it, too, for many years now. They may also co-opt or create incidents unrelated to the nuclear issue to distract the attention of the international community, leading to more dramas like Kim Jong-il shaking hands with Bill Clinton in front of the cameras in Pyongyang.
Despite this clear, oft-repeated pattern, many policymakers and observers either believe or pretend to believe that they can persuade Pyongyang to return to the negotiation table and enforce UN-sponsored sanctions. However, no country seems willing to shoulder a greater responsibility for actually making this happen. The Chinese point to the United States and the DPRK as the two protagonists in this game; both should be held responsible for failure. The Americans expect China to play the key role in influencing the DPRK. The South Koreans admit that they lack the means to change their northern compatriots’ behavior if the Americans and the Chinese are not ready to do more. The Japanese claim that they hold even less leverage to press Pyongyang than other parties concerned, and that all they can do is to improve their own defense capabilities. This combination of passivity and buck-passing is unlikely (to put it mildly) to encourage North Korea to change its behavior.
So much, therefore, depends on internal variables in the DPRK, which are not in a large measure susceptible to other players’ policies and attitudes (short of a military intervention). Today, no less than ten to 15 years ago, those concerned about nuclearization and proliferation rest their hopes on the possibility of fundamental political changes in North Korea. However, nobody can say how soon, how dramatically, in what fashion or with what effect such changes might happen.
At least in the short term, there are few signs that the political order in the DPRK is in jeopardy. In an unforeseeable future—fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s standpoint—there could be a relatively smooth transition from the current leadership to a new one. Since any new leaders would most likely come from the existing North Korean official hierarchy and the Kim Jong-il family, Pyongyang would probably inherit the current package of domestic and foreign policies, including the persistence in its current position on the nuclear issue. In that case, the “endgame” that China and presumably most others seek would remain out of reach.
The more desirable outcome, in my view, would be a gradual transformation in North Korea during which its leadership comes to believe that building nuclear arms is both unnecessary and costly. To be sure, prospects for such a transformation look dim under current circumstances. Given time, however, a younger, more moderate generation of leaders with a better understanding of the outside world might make a strategic recalculation in that direction, reasoning that some tradeoffs with their nuclear weapons might bring about economic benefits and international recognition without risking their grip on power. While maintaining the principle of denuclearization, the international community should engage North Korean officials and citizens though a variety of channels. The more they are exposed to the outside world, the more they are likely to ponder alternatives to the status quo. When this situation arises, the international community should try to pave the way for a soft landing, beginning with a freeze on the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. Once landed, and with a new DPRK leadership assured of its survival, rolling back the nuclear program may be possible.
We may not make it to a soft landing, however. Nobody outside of North Korea should exclude the possibility of a disastrous situation arising there, with or without a leadership transition. Various scenarios for coping with the ensuing turbulence have been suggested, ranging from a UN trusteeship to a South Korean occupation to U.S. forces taking control of nuclear facilities in the North. I will not discuss these or other scenarios here, but I do want to make four points on the Chinese perspective.
First, unlike some other partners, Beijing would look at a possible political implosion in North Korea in most negative terms, and would never try to destabilize the situation or join with others to do so.
Second, the DPRK is a United Nations member state and a sovereign country, and thus any international intervention into its territory would have to obtain its government’s consent or be put under UN auspices in accordance with international law. China would welcome a peaceful Korean national unification, but such a settlement must involve two sovereign states willing to be united. Unification cannot be coerced.
Third, not many Chinese observers see an imminent major threat to North Korea’s internal order. For this and other reasons, it is hard, if not impossible, to get the Chinese government to discuss contingent plans and future arrangements in North Korea. There is a reasonable concern that having such discussions would undermine China’s popularity in North Korea.
Fourth, China should not, and really cannot, stand idly by if other countries intervene in North Korea, taking political and military control, while asking China simply to provide humanitarian aid and participate in economic reconstruction.
The worst scenario that can be imagined is one in which the DPRK wants not only to eat its cake and have it, but to sell it, as well. The selling of its nuclear technology or materials would constitute an outright violation of international agreements, Pyongyang’s own commitments and international ethics. Should that happen, there would be no nonproliferation rules to talk about in the world. In this extreme case, the United States and its military allies might use forceful means to speed an endgame.
I am not in a position to speculate with any confidence which of the four possible outcomes discussed above—stalemate, soft landing, hard landing and military conflict—is more likely looking out into the future. Nor may these four possibilities turn out to be mutually exclusive. Certainly, my personal preference is for a soft landing that would result in peace, stability and better welfare for the Korean nation. That should be our ultimate objective. To prepare for it, all the parties should adamantly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of North Korea’s nuclear-state status and enforce the UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009). But, meanwhile, all doors should be kept open for the North Korean people to join the world. It took more than two decades for the DPRK to obtain nuclear weapons. It may take another two decades to eliminate them. To this end, both patience and resolve are needed above all else.