By Charissa Lee
“Happiness, for us, is security. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to be happy?” So said my North Korean guide during a conversation on the bus ride from Pyongyang to Wonsan.
North Korea, formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is known as a state that inflicts grievous abuse on its people and tortures prisoners in gulags, with leaders wont to bizarre behavior and displays of force they can hardly afford as the majority of their people starve.
North Korea is also a United Nations (UN) member, recognized as a sovereign state by other member states (save South Korea and Japan). It sees itself as a normal state that enjoys the right to pursue happiness by maximizing its security. For all intents and purposes, it is a normal state, albeit with serious political, economic and societal deficits.
However, when its happiness is derived from possessing nuclear weapons outside the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the international consensus seems to be that the Hermit Kingdom cannot be allowed to be happy.
North Korea’s neighbors and the U.S. are concerned about the prospect of a North Korea with operational nuclear weapons capabilities. Its demonstrated willingness to carry out nuclear and missile tests in defiance of international censure and in violation of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions has marked it as a threat to international peace and security. The intentions and rationale of North Korea’s leadership are difficult to assess given the state’s insularity; this heightens the uncertainty of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, and the risk of destabilization in the Northeast Asia (NEA) region. As long as nuclear weapons remain the ultimate deterrent (that is, until weapons that can neutralize or supersede the terrible lethality of nuclear weapons – and their fallout – are available), major players in the NEA region will continue to be held hostage by the possibility of black rain over the Korean Peninsula.
Resolving the North Korea nuclear issue is therefore a critical step in promoting positive change in the NEA region. For the U.S.-led international community, the key to resolving this issue is North Korea’s unilateral nuclear disarmament, which is inimical to the state’s sense of security.
North Korea’s high threat perception is influenced in part by the existence of two hostile nuclear-ready states sheltered by the U.S.’s security umbrella in its immediate proximity. Its concern is valid, especially since the international community has not been able to offer a security guarantee adequate enough to allay North Korea’s inherent and deeply rooted suspicion toward the outside world. From its perspective, international censure of its nuclear weapons program smacks of what Gavan McCormack calls “nuclear hypocrisy”
The U.S. is the leading voice for North Korea’s denuclearization, yet it is hardly a paragon of nuclear virtue. It retains an arsenal of more than 8,000 nuclear warheads, second only to Russia; ostensibly maintains the right to develop more sophisticated weaponry by not ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), putting it in the company of China, Iran and North Korea; and shields a key ally’s opaque nuclear weapons program against criticism while denouncing other states’ ‘illegitimate possession’ of such weapons.
Furthermore, the UNSC P5’s status as ‘authorized’ nuclear club members was virtually self-proclaimed following the Cuban Missile Crisis. De facto nuclear weapon states India and Pakistan are narrowly tolerated even though they rank barely above North Korea in nuclear security, and are not signatories to the NPT. Nonetheless, the international community, through the UNSC, has seen fit to impose punitive action on North Korea – short of use of force – for aspiring to the same status.
UNSC sanctions, Six Party Talks and other diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue have not made much headway in part because China’s and Russia’s relative tolerance for the isolated state dilutes the U.S.’s firmer attitude. North Korea has been resistant to the U.S.’s “strategic patience”, and to the efforts of China, its longsuffering last major ally, to bring it to the table. The main point of contention is the precondition of North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization: neither the U.S. nor North Korea is willing to budge from their respective positions.
North Korea continues to play the diplomatic game while advancing its nuclear weapons program. Its ballistic missile systems are thought to have the range to reach South Korea and soon Japan, and given time could conceivably be improved to reach the U.S. Current assessments gauge that North Korea is still a considerable distance from fully operationalizing nuclear weapons, but when both a miniaturized nuclear warhead and stable delivery system are in place, it would have the ability to do some serious damage.
The point now is not whether the international community should engage North Korea more actively, or if there are other means to make it fall in line. North Korea’s national security and survival are tied to nuclear weapons, which have become a panacea for the state, and it will not give up its nuclear capabilities easily. What this means is that the parties directly involved, while pressing for denuclearization, must also frame the problem in terms of managing a nuclear North Korea.
Charissa Lee is a Strategic Trust-Building Initiative intern at EWI’s New York office. She is working towards a Master of International Affairs at Columbia SIPA. Her interests include security on the Korean Peninsula, cybersecurity, and military applications of technology.