Editor's Note: North Korea announced May 20 that it had successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads and are now capable of mounting them on short and long-range ballistic missiles. To provide context to this statement, we are republishing this tactical analysis from December 4, 2013.
North Korea's regime is often casually dismissed as "crazy." Indeed, the existence of a hermetically sealed state — a combination of communism and national fascism — so closed-off to the outside world that the Internet does not exist except for a privileged few, strikes outside observers as beyond belief. Many aspects of North Korean totalitarianism, especially the personality cult surrounding its leader, Kim Jong Un, and trade and agricultural policies that cause widespread shortages, may border on the insane. But in one key aspect, in particular, there is nothing insane about it: its nuclear weapons program. North Korea's nuclear program makes perfect sense.
North Korea would have to be crazy to give up its nuclear capability. Why? Because of one word: Libya. American behavior toward Libya over the past decade may have convinced North Korea's ruling elite never to negotiate away its nukes. And that is true no matter what the Iranians may do.
December 2003, nine months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a time when the invasion was still being viewed as a triumph of American power, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi announced that he was giving up his nuclear and chemical weapons programs — his entire weapons of mass destruction capacity, in fact — and would open up his territory to international inspections, in order to ascertain his compliance. True, the Libyan nuclear program was not exactly dynamic, not nearly to the degree of the Iranian one. Yet, it existed. In any case, Gadhafi kept his word and the United States went on to normalize relations with Libya following decades of the latter's partial diplomatic isolation. For good measure, Gadhafi ensured that his intelligence services helped the Americans where they could in the Greater Middle East.
Then in early 2011 the so-called Arab Spring toppled regimes in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. The moment anti-regime unrest surfaced in Libya, the United States deserted Gadhafi, encouraged his enemies, and, under pressure from humanitarians, intervened militarily along with NATO to aid the Libyan rebels. The intervention, by its choice of targets, had the undeclared aim of assassinating Gadhafi. As it happened, Gadhafi's grisly death was the upshot of a NATO attack on his convoy, leading him to be captured by rebels. Such was the thanks he received from Washington for voluntarily giving up his WMD. While Gadhafi's WMD program might not have posed a significant threat, its very existence was highly symbolic. Libya has since fallen into partial chaos — chaos that has further destabilized regimes in the nearby Sahel region.
The lesson in this story for Kim Jong Un is clear: that while his safety with nuclear weapons is clearly uncertain, he would be even less safe if he gave them up. After all, had Gadhafi kept building his WMD capacity throughout the years following the American invasion of Iraq, however slowly, the Americans might have hesitated a bit more before backing the Libyan rebels. There are just fewer risks to toppling a regime without WMD than trying to topple one with them. One of the reasons the Obama administration hesitated in trying to topple the Syrian regime was the fear of the regime's chemical weapons arsenal falling into rebel hands. And the Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in order to prevent it from acquiring what it thought might be nuclear weapons.
Washington policymakers might reply that if North Korea would truly negotiate in good faith, they could offer its regime guarantees for its survival. Nonsense. There are no such guarantees in an age of humanitarian military intervention and an international criminal court that thrive on account of a sympathetic global media. If unrest surfaces in North Korea, the West would simply be more hesitant about aiding dissenters if Pyongyang kept its nuclear program than if it didn't. And even that might be giving Washington policymakers too much credit. For, as Libya showed, the White House is not completely in control. It may intend to keep its promises to this dictator or that one, but once humanitarians demand action by way of a media drumbeat, the most realist-oriented officialdom can start to cave in.
But we'll give Kim Jong Un safe passage to a third country, policymakers may claim. Yet, sooner or later The Hague tribunal may upend such a promise. There is simply no escape path for someone like Kim Jong Un anymore, and even less for the other members of his regime, particularly those from earlier years when the North still engaged in international acts of terrorism. Keeping his nukes is admittedly no guarantee, but it will likely help them more than false promises from the West.
But we in the West will help Kim develop his economy and move away from communism. True, but that would likely make his regime even less stable, as many revolutions and uprisings occur when things are getting better, not worse, since revolts are caused less by back-breaking poverty than by rising expectations. The worst scenario for a leader like Kim — who rules through careful control of resources, information and a fear of being reported by a neighbor or relative — is to open up his system and give up his nuclear program. As Libya showed, no matter how compliant and contrite a dictator may be about a WMD program, the moment he is faced with unrest the West deserts him.
But isn't Iran contemplating doing just that — giving up its weapons-making capacity and retaining a nuclear capability only for peaceful purposes? Iran is not North Korea. The Iranian regime is not totalitarian. There are different power centers and different points of view inside Iran, where feisty philosophical and political debates go on. Iran has real institutions, and projects power from the Mediterranean to the Central Asian plateau. The Iranian regime may calculate that it can survive without necessarily enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. North Korean calculations are more fraught with risk.
And to top it off, Iran has oil. North Korea has a few mineral resources, but little in the way of viable internal infrastructure or a modernized workforce. The North Koreans are too needy when it comes to foreign investment and assistance, and fear that such a need would create too much dependency — a dependency that undermines their national cohesion and identity. Iran, in one form or another, has been around for centuries. North Korea as a divided half-state is a relatively recent invention. For the North Korean elite, the goal isn't necessarily a North Korea kept alive through Western investment — it is a unified Korea under the North's leadership. But opening up the regime would likely lead to the reverse: the collapse of the North's elite and the absorption by the South.
Well, can't China guarantee Kim's survival if he gave up his nukes? Maybe. Beijing could host Kim in exile were his defenseless regime ever toppled. In other words, it is only China that theoretically has an answer — if not a complete one — for the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons. And there is a lesson here: even assuming that China would see a benefit in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, the only reason for Kim to trust the Chinese is because, unlike the West, the Chinese don't care very much about humanitarianism or an international court. And by caring relatively little about human rights when framing foreign policy, Beijing would be — in this particular case — in a position to accomplish the greater good.