The recent news about North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction is hardly news at all. A senior US State Department official admitted to viewing with “great concern” reports that the North Koreans have begun (again) to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. And the director of the CIA called the North’s nuclear program one of the agency’s top “blinking-red” problems.
A long nuclear history
In 1994, when I wrote an opinion piece titled “A North Korean Bomb,” the prevailing opinion was that North Korea had just one bomb—or at least enough plutonium to make a small one. Now the American Federation of Scientists estimates as many as ten nuclear weapons, with Pyongyang developing the technology to put some of those weapons on ballistic missiles that will eventually target the United States.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program probably began in the mid-1980s, developing from a nuclear research program begun twenty years earlier. In 1993 that old prevaricator Kim Il-sung denied that his country had any interest in developing nuclear weapons. “Our country is a non-nuclear loving, pacifist nation. We have neither the motivation nor capability to make nuclear weapons.” The North Koreans even tried to prove they had no nuclear weapons program by signing a nuclear safeguards agreement and permitting IAEA inspections — after hiding as many of their nuclear facilities as they could.
The United States was so alarmed that in 1994 it agreed to sponsor the construction of two “proliferation-resistant” light-water reactors and provide the North Koreans with annual shipments of a half million tons of heavy fuel oil if they agreed to shut down their plutonium program. Unfortunately, this agreement failed to improve bilateral relations or dissuade the North Koreans from pursuing a bomb. By 2002 the US had strong suspicions that the North Koreans were taking the uranium-enrichment route to procure nuclear material, and the 1994 agreement was cancelled.
In 2003 North Korea came out of the nuclear closet and declared that they were “entitled to have nuclear weapons” and had “changed the use” of their plutonium “in the direction of strengthening the nuclear deterrent.” Today they define themselves as a nuclear state, and in 2016 even claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb.
Over the last quarter century we have learned a thing or two about North Korea and its nuclear program. We have learned, first, that no matter which Kim is leading the country, it is his country to do with as he likes. The 25 million other North Koreans are thoroughly cowed. Even the generals are under Kim’s thumb. When we negotiate with the North Koreans, we are negotiating with Kim.
Second, negotiation and dialogue may look like a promising way to change North Korea’s behavior, especially to people who are new to North Korean affairs, but the North Koreans use dialogue as a way of confusing and mollifying their adversaries. In North Korea, words are divorced from reality. This is why the Obama administration has refused to open a new dialogue with the North Koreans until they have made clear-cut efforts to denuclearize.
Third, Kim wants the bomb, both for its deterrent value and for the prestige it gives his regime in the absence of any other positive accomplishment. And in North Korea, what Kim wants, he gets.
Short of defeat in war or his early demise, Kim cannot be unseated as long as he is protected by China, which is not directly threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons, although it is concerned that these weapons will provoke other countries in the region to acquire their own. Asking China to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is not going to work. Unless North Korea pushes China too far, China will stand pat.
Time to do something
The North Korea warning lights have been blinking in Washington for several decades. Dialogue and agreements don’t solve the problem. So far, waiting for China to do something, has not worked either.
For years I have been one of the people recommending that the United States counteract the lies of the Kim regime by sending information directly to the North Korean people in the hope that they will eventually shake off the regime that has oppressed them for so many years. I’m not expecting a North Korean revolution because the people, including the top generals, have been systematically stripped of all power and taught to hate the United States more than they hate their own leaders.
Even so, a relentless form of information warfare may have two benefits. First, it will put pressure on the Kim regime, which has shown time and again that it fears outside information. No leader wants to be hated by his people. If the North Korean people become better informed, they may be harder for the regime to control, thus forcing the regime to devote more of its resources to pacifying them and defending itself against them. Second, a more informed North Korean population may more easily be reunified in the future with South Korea. Speaking to the North Korean people remains a positive and proactive path available to us, even if it doesn’t persuade the Kim regime to abandon its weapons of mass destruction in the near future.
Dr. Kongdan Oh is a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Her most recent book is Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, second edition.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.