If America and its allies believe Kim Jong-un will give up his nuclear arsenal, they are deluded
John Power says Pyongyang under the Kim family sees its weapons as a security guarantee and powerful negotiating tool, and the only way it will disarm is through a change of leadership
Much is made of the extraordinary lengths that North Korea goes to, to control the minds of its people – propagandised into the worship of the Kim family from almost their moment of birth.
Many of us see North Koreans as pitiful victims of state-level brainwashing. Less often do we reflect on how such a decrepit regime can so easily foment delusion among the supposedly free-thinking ranks of those concerned with North Korea policy.
“Delusion” is the only word to describe the fantastical yet persistent idea that North Korea will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Expecting as much from the regime is as realistic as coaxing a tiger into giving up its prey. Pyongyang has been on the path to nuclear armament since the 1950s and it isn’t about to change course now.
Its reasons are simple and entirely logical in terms of its self-interest. For a creaking dictatorship almost universally reviled and mocked abroad, the nuclear deterrent is the ultimate guarantee of security, all but ensuring against intervention by the US or any other foreign power. A nuclear arsenal is also a powerful tool to extort concessions from the US and South Korea, ranging from aid to the eventual withdrawal of US troops from the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
As repeatedly argued by North Korean propaganda expert B. R. Myers, this latter goal is the key to the regime’s ultimate prize: the reunification of the Koreas on its terms. In the state propaganda narrative, the Kim family fulfil their destiny as custodians of the Korean race after the Americans have been banished and their South Korean lackeys pacified.
But it doesn’t take scholarly insight to grasp that North Korea has no intention of disarming. One need only listen to what it has told the world over and over again. Just this month, following the North’s first successful intercontinental missile test, leader Kim Jong-un boasted that he wouldn’t “put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations” as long as the US maintained its “hostile policy” – code for its security alliance with South Korea.
In 2013, the state-run Korean Central News Agency made it similarly clear, declaring that Pyongyang’s weapons programmes were “neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings”.
Here is the KCNA in 2010: “Those who talk about an economic reward in return for the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons would be well advised to awake from their daydream.” Despite all this, Washington and other key players continue to act as though dialogue or pressure can bring Kim to his senses, as if the third-generation dictator isn’t resolute and absolutely clear about what he is doing.
Just last week, the US, South Korea and Japan jointly announced their resolve to continue exerting “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang until such time as it entered negotiations aimed at its denuclearisation.
But negotiations only work if each side can offer something the other wants. Even if officials won’t admit it, the reality is that the US and its allies have nothing that Pyongyang is interested in. No sweetener will be worth the trade, and no amount of discomfort from piecemeal sanctions will be too much to bear.
As long as the Kim dynasty remains in charge, North Korea will continue to expand its nuclear and missile arsenal. Simply put, the only way it will disarm is through a change of leadership. In which case, it’s worth asking why the US, South Korea and others continue to stress they are not seeking regime change.
While most observers rightfully baulk at military intervention based on the likelihood of catastrophic civilian causalities, there are other ways to undermine the state, namely, arming North Koreans with information about the outside world. Doing so would empower them to make an informed judgment about their oppressive system and its architects. In this age of technological possibility, flooding the isolated country with information would be well within the capabilities of a government with a clear sense of purpose.
If a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable, as the international community continually insists, the Kim regime must be considered unacceptable, too. Any policy not built on this premise is built on fantasy.
John Power is an Australia-based journalist who reported from South Korea between 2010 and March of this year