John Everard, former UK Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Korea
For many years the principle obstacle to a Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NEA-NWFZ) has been the deep attachment by the North Korean leadership to its nuclear weapons programme. For many years too, however much the rest of the world hated it, development of nuclear weapons made some sense from their point of view.
But the world has changed, and there are now question marks over the usefulness to North Korea of its programme. Although there is no sign yet that their commitment to it is weakening, the changed balance of advantage in their nuclear programme might yet cause a policy re-think in Pyongyang. This would greatly improve the prospects for a NEA-NWFZ.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme probably started in the 1960s. It is rumoured that when the Chinese showed President Kim Il Sung their nuclear programme he decided that North Korea too must have one. At that time, when North Korea’s economy was still stronger than that of the ROK and the country’s international situation was secure, President Kim seems to have wanted nuclear weapons both for prestige and to boost North Korea’s position in the geopolitical triangle it formed with China and the USSR. But in the 1990s, when North Korea’s economy collapsed and its allies recognised South Korea, the objectives of the nuclear weapons programme changed. It became a tool of survival.
Specifically, North Korea seems to have hoped that its nuclear programme would protect it against three existential threats to the regime. Firstly, the economic threat. The collapse of the USSR, and especially the end of oil imports at “Friendship” prices, caused North Korea’s industrial and agricultural output – the latter depended heavily on oil-based fertilisers – to plunge, and senior leaders to fear that economic collapse followed by either domestic unrest or a South Korean takeover would end their rule. So in 1993 North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the first country to do so.
As the regime hoped, this led to negotiations with the USA that led in 1994 to the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea was to receive 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil a year while two light water reactors (LWRs) were built for it. The LWRs were never completed, but for the duration of the Agreed Framework – it ended in 20021 – this success in leveraging its nuclear programme for economic gain propped up what remained of North Korea’s economy. And without these oil deliveries North Korea’s famine would have been even worse than it was.
Secondly, the security threat. In the 1990s North Korea felt very vulnerable. Senior leaders watched the Gulf War and feared that the USA would attack their country next. But, they noted, no country that possessed nuclear weapons had ever been attacked. The possession of a nuclear deterrent thus became a key objective for North Korea’s national security.
Thirdly, the threat to the regime’s domestic legitimacy. Until the famine the regime had claimed, and most North Koreans seem to have believed, that its citizens were living in a paradise on earth and had nothing to envy. But the regime realised that the famine had rendered this claim simply not credible and that it risked losing the hearts and minds of its people. It, therefore, sought a different basis of legitimacy. Under Chairman Kim Jong Il the DPRK instead emphasised its military prowess and sought thereby to stir the patriotism of its citizens. The nuclear programme became a key part of this and acted as a focus of national pride. For a long time, this worked. The author remembers the patriotic pride of North Korean contacts after the first nuclear test on 9 October 2006 – under Chairman Kim Jong Il their small, poor country had joined the great powers! The enthusiasm in the street parties that followed that test was quite genuine and the regime’s domestic standing received a tremendous boost.
For many years after those difficult times, the nuclear weapons programme still met some of those objectives. As late as the Leap Day Deal of 2012 North Korea succeeded in leveraging its nuclear programme for economic advantage – the deal included large food aid deliveries (that never took place because it collapsed only weeks later). To this day nobody has attempted a military intervention in North Korea, and successive nuclear tests were celebrated by cheering crowds in Kim Il Sung Square (and usually by drunken parties along the banks of the Taedong River afterward).
But over time the law of diminishing returns set in. North Korea was no longer able to derive economic benefits from negotiations over its nuclear programme. Although the regime still claims that its possession of nuclear weapons has prevented a foreign invasion, the domestic political benefit it has gained from the later nuclear tests is almost certainly less than that from the earlier ones. The novelty has worn off. The programme gave the regime a last political bonus at the Singapore summit in June 2018 when Chairman Kim, having become the first North Korean leader to meet a sitting president of the USA, found his domestic prestige much enhanced. But Singapore now seems a long time ago. Also, as the benefits of the nuclear programme were diminishing, the costs were rising. Increasingly harsh economic sanctions imposed both by the UN Security Council and by individual states in response to the programme were damaging the North Korean economy, despite very uneven implementation.
Over the last year, three big changes in North Korea have speeded up the long-term trend of falling benefits to North Korea from its nuclear programme. Firstly, the DPRK now faces the threat of covid-19, although a very strict lockdown seems to have at least slowed the spread of the virus in the country. It has now quietly dropped its claim that it has no cases and Chairman Kim Jong Un has said that if the virus spreads his country would face “deadly and destructive disaster”2. The DPRK’s healthcare system, ramshackle at the best of times, would be quite unable to cope with the pandemic.
Secondly, the senior leadership appears to have become unstable. Chairman Kim Jong Un vanished from sight for several weeks in spring 2020, even missing the commemorations of his grandfather’s birthday on 15 April. Although he reappeared on 1 May to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of a fertiliser factory, between that date and late July he appeared only at events where his presence was essential, such as at senior political meetings. He no longer conducted his famous “on-the-spot guidance” tours. His younger sister Kim Yo Jong took a prominent role in relations with South Korea in July, condemning the South for continuing to launch propaganda balloons and probably ordering the destruction of the liaison office between the Koreas in Kaesong, and then vanished, not even attending politburo meetings. Senior aides to Chairman Kim vanished for weeks on end. It is not clear what is happening, but it is unlikely that this is business as usual. Something is wrong.
Thirdly, the DPRK is (again) in serious economic trouble. On 19 August Chairman Kim Jong Un admitted to the party Central Committee that the people’s livelihood had not improved and that the economy faced “unexpected and unavoidable” challenges. Indeed, some commentators have drawn parallels between the present dire situation in the DPRK and that on the eve of the famine of the 1990s3. The economic crisis has been caused by a toxic mixture of the DPRK’s underlying economic inefficiencies, international sanctions, the effects of the anti-covid lockdown, floods, and typhoons. Trade with China – by a wide margin the DPRK’s major trading partner – has fallen by over 60 percent and chronic food insecurity has been exacerbated by bad harvests. To make matters worse the World Food Programme has warned that its programmes are underfunded and that, far from being able to increase food aid in the event of a recurrence of hunger, it has had to close all its field offices outside Pyongyang.
In one of his first speeches to the North Korean people in 2011, Chairman Kim Jong Un promised that there would be no return to the hunger of the 1990s. All North Koreans seem to remember this. If hunger nevertheless returns he will have broken his word and will be in deep political trouble. So the regime again faces, as it did in the 1990s, three serious threats to its continued rule. But these threats are different from the ones that prompted it to move its nuclear programme to centre stage, and the nuclear programme is much less helpful in solving them. Against the threat of covid-19, the nuclear programme is clearly completely ineffective – nuclear weapons do not defend against viruses – and is probably complicating the DPRK’s efforts to secure aid to combat the pandemic, as donors are reluctant to give to countries that can find the resources for a nuclear weapons programme. Neither is the nuclear programme any help to the regime in this time of internal turmoil. If anything, arguments over the nuclear programme within the elite are likely to impede the search for the consensus that would allow the regime to move forward.
This leaves the economic problem. It would be open to the regime, as in the 1990s, to seek to leverage the nuclear programme to secure aid – especially as President Trump has made clear that substantial U.S. aid would be on the table as part of a denuclearisation programme. But repeated DPRK success in securing economic benefits in exchange for promises to scrap or reduce parts of the programme, followed by failure to honour those promises, has led to great wariness in Washington. The DPRK probably understands that, if it decides to again negotiate for economic benefits, this time it would need actually to surrender all or part of its programme rather than just promise to do so.
The threats that caused the regime to invest so heavily in the programme in the first place linger on but have been eclipsed by these new threats. Moreover, although the regime still needs legitimacy, it is unlikely that it can continue to gain this through further development of the programme. A population deeply fearful of covid-19 and of looming hunger is unlikely to be impressed with further nuclear or missile tests. It is likely that the regime still believes (though probably wrongly) that its possession of nuclear weapons protects it against the fate of Iraq or Libya. But it will have noted that the USA has not attempted armed intervention overseas for many years, and it is likely too that the regime is much less worried about this perceived threat now than about the new ones that have arisen.
Given all this, the rational next step by the North Korean leadership would be to recognise – even if only internally – that the nuclear weapons programme is now more of a problem than a benefit. It is expensive both financially and politically and the benefits that the DPRK once drew from it have faded. Once this is recognised the DPRK, learning lessons from the US rejection of their offer at the Hanoi summit could establish through informal contacts how much of it they would need to give up in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. Sanctions relief would not solve their covid-19 or internal leadership problems but it would both allow the economy to breathe and unlock the projects agreed with President Moon in 2018. It would also greatly boost Chairman Kim’s domestic position. Such recognition by the DPRK of how best to deal with the real threats to it would present a significant opportunity to move towards an NEA-NWFZ.
There is no sign yet that the DPRK has any intention of making any such policy changes. Instead, the DPRK leadership has continued to develop its delivery systems – it tested a submarine-launched missile as recently as July. Worse, it has tried to retreat into isolation, an instinctive response at times of instability. The reasons for this response are obscure and probably complex. They are likely to include internal political pressures (conservatives are deeply suspicious of any softening of the DPRK’s nuclear posture) and lack of trust in the USA. Perhaps too the regime, racked by internal discord, simply lacks the confidence to undertake such a major policy change at this point.
But the problems posed by the DPRK’s floundering economy, covid-19, and unstable leadership will grow over time. If this trajectory is maintained there will come a point at which the fears of unrest and loss of power that these problems threaten will outweigh objections to a review of the nuclear policy. If that point is reached, then the single largest obstacle to an NEA-NWFZ will have been swept aside.
- In fact, technically the Agreed Framework continued into 2003, but it became inoperative after Secretary Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang in October 2002 when he confronted the North Koreans with evidence of an undeclared uranium-based programme.
- Speech to the Politburo, 25 July 2020
- See eg James Fretwell https://www.nknews.org/2020/09/why-north-korea-may-be-on-the-brink-of-another-deadlyarduous-march-famine/