It was shaping up to be a big week for the North Korean nuclear diplomacy.
The Washington Post reported today that sensitive negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang had resulted in an agreement whereby the US would provide substantial amounts of food aid in exchange for the DPRK halting its uranium enrichment program, suspending nuclear and missile testing, readmitting IAEA inspectors and resuming dialogue with South Korea. Both the food aid package and halting of uranium enrichment were to be announced this week. Another US-DPRK meeting this week was then expected to lay the groundwork for a rapid return to the Six-Party Talks.
This multi-stage diplomatic opera is unlikely to proceed as planned, as the DPRK settles into a period of mourning for its Dear Leader. But even if it did, the Six Parties would most likely have been heading for a repeat of the provocation-tension-rapprochement-negotiation cycle that has depressed disarmament and non-proliferation advocates for the past decade whenever the DPRK is mentioned.
Even now that regime succession is under way in the DPRK, the 'strategic patience' that many (including those in the US government) have exercised will not necessarily be rewarded with denuclearisation, especially if Kim Jong-Un (pictured), the youngest son and designated successor to Kim Jong-Il, holds on to the reins of power.
Why? Because nuclear weapons are deeply enmeshed in both DPRK politics and the political legacy of the Kim family. Jonathan Pollack's outstanding Adelphi paper, 'No Exit', is a potent antidote to any sure hopes of denuclearisation following Kim Jong-Un's succession.
Pollack argues that nuclear weapons have been central to DPRK national security policy since Kim Il-Sung's rein. Kim Il-Sung left Kim Jong-Il the nuclear infrastructure to build them and now Kim Jong-Il has bequeathed a nuclear weapons capability to his son, even if their operational utility is questionable.
Nuclear weapons also offer DPRK leaders a shield against coercion from other major powers, especially the US, and military and psychological advantages over their southern neighbours. And they are an exceptionally effective negotiating tool for extracting economic concessions from the outside world, shielding the DPRK from the political risks and economic pain of deep reform and opening up. At what promises to be a time of significant uncertainty, North Korea will likely lack the bold leadership that would be necessary to relinquish nuclear weapons along with all of these advantages.
Despite this, Kim Jong-Un's ability to take command of North Korea is not a given, and may well fall short of the degree of control exercised by his father. The young heir, believed to be 27, will likely look for ways to consolidate his authority, possibly within the nuclear program.
After rumblings about a third nuclear test this year, Kim Jong-Un could see a nuclear test in the near future as a means to burnish his national security credentials. He would likely have the support of North Korea's nuclear scientists, given that further nuclear testing is necessary for the DPRK to develop a warhead small enough to fit atop its ballistic missiles and thus a reliable nuclear deterrent.
The US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, who along with North Korea make up the Six Parties, should redouble their efforts to keep the nuclear negotiations on track. Even if a non-nuclear North Korea appears impossible, the Six-Party Talks are an important forum for creative thinking about the future of Northeast Asian security and to date North Korea has avoided provocations when busy at the negotiating table.
If Kim Il-Sung's legacy was nuclear infrastructure and Kim Jong-Il's legacy nuclear weapons, the Six Parties might yet be able to prevent Kim Jong-Un's legacy from being operational nuclear-tipped missiles, or worse.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Nuclear Reactions column is supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, as part of a wider partnership between the NSP and the Lowy Institute.