Ahead of the landmark inter-Korean summit, North Korea has offered to shutter its nuclear test site, suspend intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, and ultimately denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Although it was framed in ambiguous terms, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's announcement serves to set up both the impending meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae In and the subsequent proposed sit-down with U.S. President Donald Trump. A year ago, it appeared as if nothing would get North Korea to budge on its nuclear weapons program and its insistence on being recognized as a nuclear state. Now, it is making numerous public "concessions" even before it sits down with South Korean and U.S. leaders. It is little surprise, then, that there is quite a bit of confusion over just what North Korea wants, what it is willing to do, and whether the North Korean leadership can be trusted to stick to any deals that may be struck.
Stratfor's Second-Quarter Forecast laid out North Korea's efforts to break out of the cycle of tension by reaching out to the United States and South Korea. As summits with the two countries approach, North Korea's concessions raise the possibility that it may be willing to give up its nuclear program.
A few years back, Stratfor argued that North Korea's nuclear weapons program was no longer being treated as a bargaining chip to be traded away temporarily in return for economic and political benefits, but instead had become a strategic necessity to ensure the country's future. One of the key changes in the North's assessment was the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who despite giving up his weapons of mass destruction was nevertheless killed in a U.S.-supported overthrow of his government. Nonetheless, North Korea has said it is willing now to denuclearize, raising the question of whether the government is sincere. History may suggest no, but patterns of behavior can change. These developments raise several questions: Could North Korea give up its weapons program? How does the program fit into the North's grand strategy? And is the program its end goal, or a means to an end?
A Grand Strategy Informed by History
North Korea's grand strategy is centered on a single goal: the unification of the Korean Peninsula. This stems from the North's reading of Korean history. Although a unified Korea is vulnerable to its larger neighbors and was the pathway of invasion between maritime and continental Northeast Asia in the 13th, 16th and 20th centuries, a divided Korea is even more vulnerable.
Pyongyang ties its history to the Koguryo kingdom, which lasted from the first to seventh centuries. At its peak, it stretched from the Han River Valley well into modern-day northeastern China. An alliance between the southern Korean kingdom of Silla with Tang China led to the collapse of Koguryo. Much of its territory and population were left in China's hands, and Chinese influence and power were extended, at least loosely, over subsequent Korean kingdoms.
The division of Korea after World War II between the two Cold War camps only reinforced the message to North Korea. A divided Korea is weak, a Korea dependent upon foreign power is exploitable, and true independence and security come only from self-reliance and indigenous strength.
Nuclear Bargaining Chips
North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons dates back at least to the 1960s (a time when the South was also engaged in a nuclear weapons program), when it was building on a nascent nuclear power and research program facilitated by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. After then, North Korea took only gradual steps to finalize the program, and several times traded away testing and even facilities to gain economic and political benefits. It was only in the early 21st century that the North took more concerted efforts to complete the program, breaking a taboo on nuclear testing and accelerating its long-range missile programs. In 2008, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had a stroke, and after his recovery, the nuclear weapons program surged ahead as he sought to complete it before handing over power.
The North carried out several missile tests and a second nuclear test in 2009. In 2010, the North sank a South Korean military ship and shelled a South Korean island, and it revealed to a U.S. researcher that it had a uranium enrichment program in addition to its known plutonium program. The sense of heightened tensions led to a resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea in 2011, and to a deal on Feb. 29, 2012, a little more than two months after Kim Jong Il's death. The timing was an eerie reflection of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was struck after a crisis moment and finalized after the death of one leader and the transition to a new one. But the leap day agreement of 2012 was more limited than the 1994 deal, and just as in that earlier agreement, things began to break down after the new North Korean leader solidified his internal control through purges, executions and leadership shuffles.
Kim Jong Il's death and the ascension of Kim Jong Un was followed a few months later by Gadhafi's fall. The Libyan leader's slaying came just eight years after he had given up his WMD program in exchange for a return to the international community. The message to North Korea's new rulers was clear: Giving up a nuclear program would do little to end the sense of hostilities and only leave the North vulnerable to later U.S. political and military action. In 2013 the North resumed nuclear testing and accelerated its missile development program, which continued through 2017.
The message to the new North Korean rulers was clear: Giving up a nuclear program would do little to end the sense of hostilities and only leave the North vulnerable to U.S. political and military action later.
As 2018 dawned, there was every expectation that the North was preparing for an atmospheric nuclear test sometime within the year to demonstrate its full nuclear capacity. It also seemed apparent that the United States had grown more serious in its preparation for a military means to stop the North. Instead, in his New Year's address, Kim Jong Un offered to reach out to South Korea, and that move launched a diplomatic offensive that is now about to culminate not only in another inter-Korean summit, but also in the first summit between the sitting leaders of the United States and North Korea. The North has revealed the "concessions" it is willing to make, and it has reduced its demands on the United States and South Korea. Once again, the nuclear program appears to be more of a bargaining chip than a tool of regime survival.
A Goal or a Means?
So were nuclear weapons the goal all along? Were they the only way that the North could "ensure" the government's security in the face of a hostile United States? Or were they a means to achieve both regime security and a path toward unification? One could argue that, as in several past cases, the North has once again raised the stakes and likelihood of international conflict to the near-breaking point, then provided an opening for others to rush in to ease tensions and buy it more time. Another argument is that the North was unable to gain the assurances it wanted from its nascent nuclear program and that U.S. sanctions this time, backed by China, are actually forcing it back to the table. The reality may not be as stark or as simple.
North Korea's nuclear program was always a risk, perhaps more than it was a source of true security. The closer the North got to becoming a nuclear weapons state, the greater the perceived need of the United States to stop that progress — even if it meant using military force. The North took the Gadhafi case to heart, but many have argued that it was a false comparison to begin with, even if the North believed it. Unlike the Libyans, the North Koreans have had tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers within range of their conventional weapons — lives held "hostage" to U.S.-North Korean relations. Furthermore, the North has hundreds of artillery and rocket tubes aimed at Seoul, the capital of a key U.S. ally. Any U.S. attempt to overthrow the Kim government would be met with a war on the peninsula, a war that could quickly spread to include China, Japan and even Russia. The Libyan leader had little such ability to ensure mass casualties for America and its allies.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program has reached a critical moment. By most assessments, the North is now capable of placing a nuclear device atop a missile and delivering it to a target. South Korea, Japan and China are within range of the North's nascent capacity. The North has a lower probability of success in striking Hawaii and Guam, and even less proven capacity to reach the continental United States. But the theoretical capability is there. North Korea hasn't yet fully demonstrated re-entry technology capable of shielding a complex nuclear weapon and of delivering it to its target, but it has claimed through its media that such tests have been conclusive.
A full demonstration of that capability, the final "proof" of the North's nuclear capability, was expected to be an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific, perhaps as early as this year. The test was to have shown that the North was now a nuclear weapons state, one that could no longer be isolated into submission but required engagements and recognition on the international stage. The North's leadership had set 2020 as the goal for recognition.
Big Ambition, Small Steps
The upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit meeting appears to achieve some of these goals. It gives the North the global recognition it seeks, and it may break the diplomatic and economic box constraining the country's development. The inter-Korean summit will, at least temporarily, provide the North with small steps toward closer integration and cooperation with South Korea, as well as with a small move toward the strategic goal of unification. The North's conventional deterrence remains, and it has signaled it does not demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces — thus keeping them hostage on the peninsula and providing a layer of security for itself. Giving up a WMD program did not ensure the survival of Gadhafi, but neither did the possession of a massive nuclear weapons arsenal ensure the political survival or territorial integrity of the Soviet Union.
In the end, it fits within the North's grand strategy to give up its nuclear weapons program, assuming all other elements align to ensure its security, economic prosperity and national reunification. But that is a tall order, and even if the North commits to giving up the program, there are numerous steps to dismantling it, and none of these are truly irreversible. North Korean scientists will not simply forget what they have learned. A future unified Korea, squeezed between Japan and China and seeking independent national strength, may well revive a nuclear weapons program rather than rely on the interests of outside powers for its security. But in the meantime, it is not unbelievable that the North may trade away the public face of its nuclear weapons program — but it will not do so merely to ease sanctions pressure. It will demand a lot more from South Korea and the United States.