Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
It seems that we will soon be watching the final few episodes in another season of that seemingly-endless and repetitive political soap opera known as the “North Korean Nuclear Crisis.”
The current season began around two years ago in early 2018, amid great, if unfounded, hopes and expectations.
But it is now clear that the so-called “North Korean denuclearization process” is stuck once again, and that all the hopes of spring 2018 were stillborn.
There is no reason to be surprised about this: like it or not, but North Korea is a nuclear country and will remain so for the foreseeable future, and nothing short of a full-scale war is going to change that.
North Korean leaders have a lot of very valid reasons to keep their nuclear deterrent, and very few, if any, reasons to abandon it.
Such views have been expressed consistently and loudly since 2005 by yours truly. Some 15 years ago, my views were usually considered to be excessively pessimistic. But as time went by, in the early 2010s I found that my old ideas were becoming mainstream, and had become mainstream by 2016.
Now, when one consults professional North Korea experts, one would struggle to find anyone who would seriously suggest that North Korea’s denuclearization is going to happen.
However, the problem is that the harsh reality of a “forever nuclear” North Korea, while understood by experts, is not understood by the political classes in the concerned countries — the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. And Korea experts do not constitute a noticeable political force.
Nuclear issues are deadly serious, so decisions on such matters are usually made by people who are two or three tiers above your average career diplomat or intelligence analyst.
Yet these high-flyers usually do not share the realistic (or, if you prefer, pessimistic) views of the expert community. They still believe or, at the very least, pretend to believe, that the Holy Grail of denuclearization is somehow achievable.
METHOD BEHIND THE MADNESS
There are manifold reasons behind this real or professed belief.
The U.S. political class can somehow accept the idea of living under the possible threat of Chinese or Russian missiles, but it’s much more difficult to swallow the idea that a poor third world nation is theoretically capable of turning downtown New York City into a wasteland.
At the same time, the patent economic weakness and small size of the problematic country create the false impression that there must be some easy solution to the situation.
Of course, it does not help that North Korean leaders are widely, and not always fairly, seen as unpredictable and irrational, and therefore especially dangerous.
In South Korea, the North Korean issue, to a surprisingly large extent, has been incorporated into the never-ending domestic political and ideological feud between so-called “conservatives” and the self-styled “progressives.”
Within this feud, each side advances its own purported “solution” for the North Korean nuclear issue.
The harsh reality of a “forever nuclear” North Korea, while understood by Korea experts, is not understood by the political classes in the concerned countries
A faithful supporter of the “progressive camp” is required to believe that the North Korean nuclear issue is solvable through negotiations, while his or her compatriots in the “conservative camp” must profess the equally unwavering belief in the power of sanctions and a hardline stance.
In Korea, if one says that denuclearization is not achievable and that we should learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, they will find themselves placed outside of both camps, challenging the official lines of both the conservative and progressive sides.
The situation has recently become even murkier: the Moon Jae-in administration has valid diplomatic reasons to pretend that the denuclearization process has a future.
Irrespective of what is actually happening, the Blue House will maintain its broad smile and demonstrate a relentlessly optimistic response to all imaginable developments.
This might occasionally look bizarre or comical, but, given the peculiarities of the South Korean position, such fake optimism is likely the best available option. Open acceptance of the hard truth is way too likely to trigger an uncontrolled escalation of the North Korean crisis.
We, therefore, find ourselves in a peculiar situation: while the majority of experts have no illusions about the chances of the North Korean issue being solved in the foreseeable future, the political class obviously still entertains a great deal of hope.
To make things worse, the American general public also tends to think unrealistically about the issue, when they worry about North Korea at all.
If any U.S. administration signs an agreement with North Korea which explicitly or implicitly accepts it as a nuclear state, it will face a massive barrage of criticism, launched by both the opposition party and those previously neutral.
This is widely understood. So, even if some top decision-makers finally decide to listen to professional advice and come to the realization that North Korea’s nuclearization is irreversible, they will still be unwilling to take appropriate action — initiating, say, arms control talks.
Such actions, in a modern democratic state, would likely backfire, seriously damaging their own political prospects. They will immediately be described by their opponents as “appeasers” who surrendered to a small and presumably pathetic opponent.
This means we are likely to remain locked in a situation where top decision-makers will keep pretending that the “North Korean nuclear issue” can somehow be solved, either through sanctions and pressure or by negotiations and economic rewards.
This unshakable commitment to an unachievable goal is creating additional obstacles towards the realistic goal of nuclear management and arms control
But such a view is potentially dangerous. It has been argued many times that country experts will be willing to engage in so-called denuclearization talks, despite the reality of the situation being pretty clear, because they understand that such talks are the best way to manage the issue.
They may be right to assume this. Right now (and for the last 15 years or so) the task which diplomats and strategists should work to solve is not the denuclearization of North Korea but rather managing the nuclear issue so that it’s less of a danger to the rest of the world.
However, the official line remains unchanged: “denuclearization or nothing!”
Due to the reasons outlined above, public figures, at least in Seoul and Washington, will have no choice but to insist that the only acceptable final outcome of the North Korean nuclear crisis is what once used to be called CVID, or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
Acronyms, of course, can change — CVID has already changed to FFVD (final, fully verified denuclearization), but it’s essentially going to remain the same thing.
This unshakable commitment to an unachievable goal is creating additional obstacles on the already difficult road towards the realistic goal of nuclear management and arms control.
The problem is that any meaningful agreement dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue will be immediately interpreted by media, opposition parties, and the public as recognizing, explicitly or implicitly, North Korea’s standing as a nuclear power — triggering righteous outrage and demands to do “something” in order to achieve the unachievable.
There’s little chance that a compromise would survive such an attack. It’s much more likely that it will be jettisoned by the administration, or probably by its immediate successors — pretty much like what happened to the deal with Iran, painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration and immediately discarded by President Trump.
More likely though is, simply, that no such deal will be made at all. This is a rather sad situation. Nuclear arms management is being blocked now not only by the North Koreans’ predictable stubbornness but also by the peculiarities of domestic and ideological politics of the other side.
This all means that the North Korean nuclear issue is even less likely to be managed, let alone solved.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News. It seems that we will soon be watching the final few episodes in another season of that seemingly-endless and repetitive political soap opera known as the "North Korean Nuclear Crisis."The current season began around two years ago in early 2018, amid great, if unfounded, hopes
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.