North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has given rise to much debate on the security challenges that it brings to the international system. Its deployment of ballistic missiles and testing of nuclear devices (2006, 2009, and 2013) have alarmed states around the world, and posed dangers and threats to the region. In fact, recent activity at North Korea’s nuclear facility has given rise to new concerns about the possibility of a fourth nuclear test.
The Defense Ministry of Korea stated in April that the North has acquired the capacity for making its nuclear warheads smaller in order for them to fit inside their missiles. Whether an actual fourth nuclear test will occur is uncertain, however, it may only be a matter of time before Pyongyang dashes all hopes for resuming the Six-Party Talks.
The international community has responded to North Korea’s previous tests with sanctions in order to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. This has weakened North Korea’s economy without successfully leading to denuclearization. However, an ever-weakening economy has put the DPRK at a crossroads, where they may finally be forced to make concessions or begin negotiations. Encouraging North Korea to rejoin the Six-Party Talks, a negotiating forum which was suspended in 2009, may be one way to start slowly rebuilding a dialogue on security in the region.
The Six-Party Talks between South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the United States began in 2003 after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The negotiations proved to be quite unsuccessful at working through main points of contention. This was seen when the six parties issued a joint statement in 2005 for denuclearizing the peninsula, later on, North Korea decided to test multiple missiles, and conduct its first nuclear test in 2006. This was, however, not the only scenario in which North Korea disrupted the Six-Party Talks; negotiations were suspended in 2009, after North Korea walked out of the talks and conducted yet another test, this time of “a modified Taepo Dong-2 three-stage rocket.” North Korea highlighted the lack of importance of the discussions, as well as the need to “bolster its nuclear deterrent.” The ongoing tests condemned the discussions, and were followed by a round of UN Security Council-approved sanctions.
Ever since sanctions were placed on the North in 2006, its economy has faced severe consequences. Isolation from the rest of the world has resulted in years of underinvestment (it is ranked as one of the least free economies in the world) and high levels of military spending have far surpassed other types of domestic spending. As if this were not enough, in 2011 about six million people in North Korea suffered from food shortages. Around one million of those were children younger than five years old. UNICEF stated: “[North Korea] is susceptible to food crises because of political and economic isolation, and climate change.”
Sanctions have thus far failed to prove to the North Korean leadership that they cannot survive as a nuclear weapon state. Yet, the benefits of denuclearizing would seem to outweigh those of having a nuclear program. If North Korea would commit to denuclearization and rejoin the Six-Party Talks, there could be significant benefits for inter-Korean trade, which reportedly hit an 8-year low in 2013. Currently about $2 billion per year would increase to almost “$11 to $16 billion per year by 2020,” according to a Council of Foreign Relations report. On the other hand, if North Korea continues on its current course, inter-Korean trade will lose out on $10 billion a year by 2020.
China can play a key role in getting North Korea back into the talks. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, accounting for roughly 67.2% of Pyongyang’s exports and 61.6% of its imports in 2011, according to the CIA world factbook. Their economic partnership means China should have a strong interest in bringing North Korea into negotiations for encouraging economic reform and political prosperity, though this would take further discussions. Chinese investors have already grown significantly dissatisfied with North Korea’s internal business administration, and the prospect of a further declining North Korean economy means China should be increasingly motivated to see changes sooner rather than later.
In March of this year, President of China, Xi Jinping stated the importance of reestablishing negotiations and for North Korea to implement the goals stipulated in the joint statement from 2005: namely the guarantee of leaving its nuclear weapons program, re-joining the NPT, and abiding by IAEA safeguards, among other steps. Xi also agreed to discuss measures to increase coordination and bring peace to the peninsula with the help of the United States, and other countries.
We know little about this very secretive nation, but we do understand that it has a deep psychological attachment to nuclear weapons as a symbol of power and positioning in the world. The country has risked alliances and prosperity in order to obtain the bomb. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely for Pyongyang to separate from its strong psychological attachment to its nuclear weapons program, which it views as providing not only security but also prestige. From Pyongyang’s perspective, if they were to give up their nuclear weapons program, then that would mean the West wins and they lose, and for them, losing is not an option. It all ends up being a zero-sum game.
This type of attachment to nuclear weapons can be the most dangerous and difficult to break, and anyone entering into talks with the nation will be up against a momentous challenge. Moreover, if North Korea tests a nuclear device for the fourth time, it could become nearly impossible to resuscitate the Six Party Talks - a warning that South Korean President Park Geun-hye echoed two days ago in an interview with The Wall Street Journal (published on May 29). President Park also said another test would provide greater impetus for more countries in the region to seek their own nuclear arsenals.
Even amidst the potential dangers and lost opportunities, with years of isolation, sanctions, a crippled economy, and substandard living for its people, North Korea has yet to be motivated sufficiently to step away from its nuclear program. Ideally, North Korea would rejoin the Six-Party Talks, which would open up channels of communication that have not existed in years. It could be the first step for rebuilding its economy, its credibility, and its relationship with international actors, but first Pyongyang needs to signal a clear interest in denuclearization in order to bring the five other states back to the negotiating table.
--These are the views of the author.
Image: "Table layout of Six-Party Talks" by Denelson83 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Table_layout_of_Six-Party_Talks....