Politicians key to Korean denuclearization
By Joseph R DeTrani
North Korea will persist in its attempt to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. In fact, the leadership in Pyongyang apparently thought acceptance would be achievable with their successful December 2012 satellite launch, followed by a successful February 2013 test of a so-called small nuclear weapon and their subsequent animated indignation, with threats, when the UN Security Council passed another resolution condemning North Korea and imposing sanctions for their continued violation of ongoing Security Council resolutions.
This time, however, North Korea raised tension significantly by threatening the US with a preemptive nuclear strike and
threatening to make Seoul a sea of flames. Ensuring that their threats were taken seriously, North Korea then made overt preparations to launch their road-mobile, medium-range Musudan missile, capable of ranges exceeding 4,000 kilometers, thus capable of reaching Okinawa and Guam.
For some inexplicable reason, the hardliners encouraging Kim Jong-eun to pursue this reckless course thought the US and its allies and partners would buckle and eventually agree to unconditional talks to placate an "angry" North Korea. These hardliners, who apparently had Kim Jong-eun's attention, thought North Korea would prevail and eventually these "talks" would devolve into non-proliferation negotiations between nuclear weapons states, thus providing de jure recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
Some may think any type of negotiation with North Korea would be better than the current state of tension with an unpredictable North Korea building more nuclear weapons and missile-delivery systems. The reasoning is that unconditional talks could get North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs and eventually succeed in convincing Pyongyang to dismantle all its nuclear weapons for economic assistance and security assurances.
The reality, however, is that once North Korea is accepted as a nuclear weapons state they will never give up their nuclear weapons. Some would then argue that convincing North Korea not to build more nuclear weapons would be better than the current situation; that ensuring that North Korea doesn't proliferate the few nuclear weapons they retain is not an insurmountable counter-proliferation problem.
The international community could never, however, be confident that North Korea's once-clandestine uranium enrichment program had ceased enriching uranium for nuclear weapons, thus there would be no verifiable assurances that North Korea had ceased manufacturing nuclear weapons. Indeed, it's doubtful that North Korea would ever give the International Atomic Energy Agency or country monitors access to all its uranium enrichment facilities.
Additionally, ensuring that North Korea does not proliferate any nuclear weapons or nuclear technology would be another challenge, given North Korea's record, to include helping Syria construct, over a 10-year period, a 5-megawatt plutonium reactor, similar to the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, North Korea.
Another reason for pursuing a denuclearization agreement with North Korea is that a nuclear North Korea will encourage other countries in East Asia to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Countries like Japan, South Korea and others will pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a nuclear North Korea.
The prospect of non-state terrorist actors getting access to nuclear weapons, which we know they seek, is another compelling reason why a nuclear North Korea, with other regional countries likely to establish their own nuclear programs, should never be accepted. It would add appreciably to the amount of nuclear weapons and fissile material vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists and other groups. In short, a nuclear arms race in East Asia will negatively affect the region's peace and stability.
Can the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, members of the Six Party Talks, convince North Korea to enter into denuclearization negotiations? Kim Jong-eun appears to be listening to the military hardliners in Pyongyang who are opposed to returning to denuclearization talks, although his father, Kim Jong-il, was supportive of such negotiations.
It appears from some of Kim Jong-eun's recent appointments that he is trying to accommodate the military hardliners while still seeking the support of some of the more moderate party and military officials. The recent appointment - the third in one year - of General Jang Jong-Nam as Minister of Defense, potentially was a good move.
Jang is in his 50s and is not known to be a hardliner, as was his predecessor, General Kim Kyok-Sik who, in his 70s, was the commander responsible for the shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan Corvette naval vessel that killed 46 sailors in 2010. Interestingly, although removed as minister of defense, General Kim Kyok-Sik recently was appointed military chief of staff, with the reported appointment of General Kim Yong-Chol, Director of Military Reconnaissance Bureau, as the new vice chief of staff. Both generals have a reputation of being hardliners.
What was encouraging was the appointment of Vice Marshall Ch'oe Ryong-hae as the Military Chief of the General Political Department, the most senior military position. Vice Marshall Ch'oe is a senior party official with no military background; the first party official to oversee the military. It was Vice Marshall Ch'oe who last week visited China and delivered a letter from Kim Jong-eun to President Xi Jinping.
Although the visit was a signal from Pyongyang that it wants and need China's support, there was no indication from this visit that North Korea was prepared to enter into denuclearization negotiations, via the Six Party Talks. Rather, it appears that North Korea was only willing to return to talks, which probably meant non-proliferation talks, not denuclearization talks. China's view on this issue seems to be similar to the US position - insisting on denuclearization talks.
The last few months have been unfortunate - for North Korea and the world. Those who advised Kim Jong-eun to escalate tension exponentially have served North Korea and Kim Jong-eun poorly. Their continued hawkish approach to the nuclear issue will further isolate and impoverish North Korea.
Hopefully, Kim will cease taking advice from those military hardliners and reach out to officials like his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission; his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui; Minister of Defense Jang Jong-Nam; Vice Marshall Ch'oe Ryong-Hae, Premier Park Pong-Ju and the new generation of military and party leaders Kim Jong-eun is promoting, in what appears to be an effort on his part to cautiously remove the old hardliners and replace them with a younger generation of leaders who will move North Korea in a new direction. Now is the time to implement such a strategy.
Joseph R DeTrani, is president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit. He previously was the director of the National Counterproliferation Center, the ODNI mission manager for North Korea and the special envoy for six party talks with North Korea. These are the author's views and not the views of any government agency or department.