Andrei Lankov on North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Diplomacy

"Due to nuclear weapons, North Korea need not worry about attacks from other countries, including the U.S."
April 10th, 2013

In light of recent saber rattling, Subin Kim recently caught up with renowned North Korea expert Dr. Andrei Lankov for an in-depth interview that looked at Pyongyang’s nuclear threat diplomacy and perpetual search for aid and donors, among other issues.

Filing the original interview in Korean with South Korean specialist outlet Defense 21, Kim was kind enough to share the full transcript with NK NEWS so that English speaking readers could benefit from Dr. Lankov’s timely insights.

Today we present the first excerpt from Kim’s extensive conversation with Lankov, providing a detailed look at North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and recent efforts to ratchet up tension.

andrei lankov

Picture: Defense 21

Interview conducted by Subin Kim, March 2013.
Translation by Yeseul Loaiza

Q: Do you think North Korea will ever give up their nuclear weapons?

Yes, they will never give up their nukes. There are two reasons. First, a nuclear weapon is the most important way to maintain their regime and the security of their nation. Due to nuclear weapons, North Korea need not worry about attacks from other countries, including the U.S..

Given the examples of Saddam Hussein’s death in Iraq and Qadhafi’s regime collapse in Libya, we cannot help but understanding North Korea’s worries. There is only one dictator in history who chose to trade a nuclear weapons program for economics support, and this dictator’s name is Qadhafi, who was killed by the revolutionaries last year. If Libya had developed nuclear weapons, then NATO or other external powers would have not been able to support a revolutionary movement. Kim Jong Un, of course, does not want to be the next Qadhafi, and his fears seem to be justified, if one considers this recent history.

Second, this nuclear weapons program is a major tool in North Korea’s blackmail diplomacy. Let’s objectively look at North Korea. Considering the population and GDP size, the most similar countries to North Korea are such African nations as Mozambique or Ghana. Both Mozambique and Ghana have little leverage in international politics. When they receive aid from other countries, they have no control over conditions. North Korea’s logic is that if they have a nuclear weapon, then they will be able to get much aid without too many conditions attached

According to the UN World Food Program database, North Korea has received about 11,800,000 tons of food aid through 1995-2011. Taking into account North Korea’s internal situation, it is vital for them to get aid without many strict conditions, an approach which would be impossible for countries like Mozambique or Ghana. So, they use promises to slow down the nuclear program as a way of extracting food and other aid without too many conditions attached. Whether you like this or not, international society cannot do much about it. Therefore, at the present stage, we have to admit that North Korea is a de facto nuclear weapon state. All we can do now is manage North Korea’s nuclear issue through negotiation.

Q: What is the difference between ‘de facto nuclear state’ and ‘de jure nuclear state’? And can the issue be resolved or only managed?

From a legal perspective, the world cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state because such an admission would deliver a deadly blow to the 1968 NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and more broadly, to the non-proliferation regime in general. We rather have to accept that North Korea ia a de facto nuclear weapon state, just like India, Pakistan, or Israel.

While we cannot ‘resolve’ the North Korean nuclear issue, we can at least try to ‘manage’ it. For example, North Korea could get support from the international community on the basis that they do not carry out nuclear tests anymore and allow international inspectors to visit their nuclear research facilities. In fact, this would be quite similar to the Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994. This solution is not that perfect, though. North Korea will remain a nuclear power, and it will continue to constitute a threat to global security. However, there is not much else we can do since neither restrictions nor engagement policy will help for now.

Q: If we look at the history of international efforts to deal with North Korea it seems that there were a couple of decisive opportunities to solve the North Korea issue, such as the Agreed Framework 1994 and the Albright-Kim Jong Il negotiations in 2000. However, the North Korea issue “successfully” lives on today , visible most recently in the third nuclear test. What was the biggest reason we missed out on those opportunities?  

The biggest reason is due to U.S. domestic politics. The second nuclear crisis in 2002 was unnecessary. However, the neoconservatives in George W. Bush’s administration believed that North Korea would collapse soon, and they rejected the idea of negotiations with North Korea.

In the 2000s, North Korea surely developed a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program, which was in violation of the Geneva Agreed Framework.

For North Korea, a nuclear weapon is useful in two ways. First, it is a major deterrent; second, it is a diplomatic tool, since by using the nuclear weapon program they can squeeze support from other countries. As such, they obviously intended to sell the HEU program back in the early 2000s.

According to the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, they should have received 500 thousand tons of heavy oil and had a light-water reactor built for them as a reward for promising to freeze the nuclear program. Developing an HEU program first and then selling it to the U.S. was thus obviously North Korea’s hope at the time. But the Americans refused to bargain. Had the nuclear crisis not happened in 2002, there would have been the possibility that North Korea would not have gone on to conduct a nuclear test.

However, things are different now. North Korea has a strong will to develop its nuclear weapon program. Now they will precede with the development of both missile and nuclear weapon programs regardless of outside pressures. The only hope left for us now is freezing the nuclear weapon program by offering a much more expensive price than the price agreed in 1994.

However, the idea of such compromise is not selling, especially in the U.S. It is the same as submitting to a blackmailer. Also, there is a risk of making a dangerous precedent. These concerns are not unfounded. Nevertheless, if the U.S. keeps insisting on ‘full and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea’, it is not going to solve the problem. As long as Kim’s dynasty, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, rule North Korea, it will be impossible to make them accept denuclearization.

Q: North Korea has been increasing tensions recently by using more specific threats like ‘breaking the truce agreement’. In response, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense has been responding tit-for-tat using terminology like, ‘decisive punishment to any provocations ’. People are worried about the prospect of a second artillery shelling similar to that of Yeonpyeong Island incident in 2010. Even foreign observers forecast that there might be an incident  this year.

The threat to ‘rescind the truce agreement’ does not actually mean that much. North Korea has made similar threats a couple of times in the past – for example, in 2009. Last summer, North Korea explicitly threatened to attack headquarters of the leading newspapers in South Korea including the Chosun Ilbo. North Korea makes such threats once or twice every year.

What North Korea really wants now is to push South Korea into expanding aid to North Korea. Looking beyond this year, if there is no improvement in the relationship between South and North Korea, and especially if it seems the scale of aid to North Korea is not expanded; there is a relatively high chance that North Korea might provoke in some way. However, I do not think it will happen in the next few months. For now, sanctions by the United Nations Security Council have caused a stir, but this stir will hardly develop into anything more than verbal threats.

Q: When it comes to the enlargement of aid to North Korea, is this not related to internal political issues in South Korea?

For South Korea, it is actually cheaper to support North Korea than to not. When South Korea does not give any aid to North Korea, they have to consider the political and economic cost of tensions. Once the North Koreans stage a provocation, public sentiment towards the North gets worse for a while, but it eventually changes after 1-2 years, when South Korean voters get tired of friction, threats and instability. So, a worn out South Korean public starts demanding better relations which, of course, imply an increase in aid, since you cannot have better relations with North Korea for free. This is exactly what North Korean leaders hope for. However, if the South Korean government expands support for North Korea, North Korea will not provoke.

Q: Isn’t the opposite unavoidable when expanding aid to North Korea?

That’s true. North Korea is conscious of the fact that once they provoke, they will not get any aid right away. When the 2010 provocation happened it was a message meant for the next president, not for the then incumbent president Lee Myung-Bak. It is also could have been a message for voters in South Korea. North Korea is aware of the fact that if they stage a provocation, it is impossible for them to get any food aid during the next 1 or 2 years or perhaps until the end of the current president’s term. What they want is to ensure that the next South Korean president will approach the North-South issues more carefully and will support the engagement policy towards them.

Q: Is aid for North Korea really needed?

Many people may disagree with the following statement, but I believe we have to provide aid to North Korea. There are at least three reasons why this makes sense.

First, there are humanitarian reasons. Since the North Korean regime keeps resisting reform and opening, they cannot bring about economic growth need or build a society where the common North Korean can live and eat well. In this respect, we simply cannot let North Koreans continue to suffer from hunger.

Second, aid reduces the probability of provocations. Of course, there is still the chance that North Korea will provoke even when it gets aid, but the chances are not that high.

Third, aid and exchanges ferment change within North Korea. We should learn important lessons from history. What really brought about change in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was the engagement policy, and not a hard line, of the U.S. and other Western countries. Through aid and other exchanges, many North Koreans can learn more about ‘South Korea’. I have said a number of times that this snack called ‘Choco Pie’ from South Korea, which find its way to North Korean marketplaces, might be a much more powerful ‘weapon’ than the shells of the South Korean military.

Through these three reasons, North Koreans will be able to see South Korea’s true face. Through exchanges between South and North Korea, the North Koreans will discover that South Korea is neither a living hell nor an American colony. Furthermore, North Koreans will realize their state needs to change if they are have opportunities to compare their hard lives with the lives of Chinese and South Koreans. If they remain ignorant about life outside of North Korea, how they can be aware of this need for change? They will realize it only when they know there are alternatives.

The most preferable outcome would be, if under such pressure from below, North Korea takes a long-term gradualist change like its neighbor China. However, since such a possibility is low, the other way is via popular revolution. But either change or revolution both start from changes in the way of thinking. And to change their way of thinking, we have to show them alternatives. How do expect North Koreans to learn about South Korean life if they cannot see the Kaesong industrial complex, with all these Choco pies coming in?


Click here for part two of this extended interview with Dr. Andrei Lankov

Picture Credit: Subin Kim (interview) and KCTV

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About the Author

Subin Kim

Subin Kim (@SubinBKim) is Korea Director of NK News. He translated Lankov's The Real North Korea into Korean and is a reserve air defense artillery lieutenant in the Republic of Korea Air Force.