North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly has agreed to abandon his nuclear weapons program in return for a peace treaty with the United States and a pledge to not invade his country. The pledge, reported by The New York Times, marks the latest part of an apparent “peace offensive” by Kim against neighboring South Korea and its ally, the United States.
This sounds too good to be true, because it probably is. Despite the attractiveness of such an offer, it’s extremely unlikely the North Korean ruler actually would carry out his proposal. Even if he wanted to, the system Kim Jong-un inherited is too brutal to survive without its nuclear arms.
Kim’s Trump Card
After 9/11, when nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism became an even bigger deal, North Korea found itself alongside Iran and Iraq in President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” North Korea had in many ways earned the Axis distinction. The North regularly harassed South Korea through terrorist attacks and armed incidents on the border. It exported weapons, including ballistic missiles and chemical weapons equipment, kidnapped foreign citizens, and ran one of the world’s most repressive regimes at home.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, a significant justification being Baghdad’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein was captured and eventually hung by the new Iraqi government.
Among the remaining two members of the Axis, the lesson of the Iraq invasion was not to abolish their nuclear weapons programs, but rather to finish them and become fully nuclear-capable before their own regimes could be deposed. Saddam Hussein had let his nuclear program fall into ruin—and look what happened to him.
Kim could have drawn the same lesson from Libya, another country that had been developing nuclear weapons. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi voluntarily gave up his nuclear program, but when the Arab Spring swept into his country in 2011, he violently cracked down on resistance to his government. NATO forces including those of the United States bombed Libyan forces, hastening the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime. The man who had lead Libya for more than 40 years was captured on the run and killed.
Given all of this history, could North Korea give up its nukes? It’s difficult to see how. Kim Jong Un would be giving up the one thing that keeps him from being buried alive in a bunker by American airpower, all in exchange for a promise. A promise can be reversed overnight, while it would take years to restart North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The current U.S. presidential administration has frequently gone back on its promises—not exactly confidence-inspiring for an adversary looking to cut a deal.
It’s Not Just the Nukes
Another reason North Korea is unlikely to denuclearize: Simply, it is too objectionable a regime for the world to tolerate if it doesn’t have to. Unless Kim not only denuclearizes but also lets people out of gulags, reduces the size of his Army, liberalizes the political process, and otherwise opens up the country, North Korea will continue to be in conflict with South Korea, the United States, and the international community.
However, those are precisely the things that keep the Kim family in power. There are a lot of grievances for U.S. foreign policy hawks to hang their hats on, and unless North Korea gets rid of all of them, any could be a pretext for taking a hard line with Pyongyang. North Korea’s trump card against a hard line, particularly military action, is nuclear weapons. Remove that trump card and, as Iraq and Libya have made clear, the survival of the regime is up for grabs.
The current U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has suggested the “Libyan model” for denuclearizing North Korea. When Kim Jong-un hears about that model, he probably thinks about the part where Gadaffi was deposed and killed by his own people after NATO forces intervened and destroyed his military.
Today, North Korea justifies having nuclear weapons as a means of offsetting America’s massive advantage in conventional weapons and the implicit danger of invasion. Nuclear weapons allow North Korea a free hand to do what it wants, within limits, without risk that the U.S. will someday kick the door in. Unless North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has suddenly experienced a newfound level of trust in the administration of President Donald Trump, the current talks are likely to be nothing more than a ruse and a delaying tactic.