If US President Donald Trump is to be believed, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un may be interested in giving up his nuclear arsenal.
“For years and through many administrations, everyone said the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was not even a small possibility,” Trump tweeted on March 28. “Now there is a good chance Kim Jong-un will do what is right for its people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!”
But what Trump believes Kim thinks is best for his people is likely very different from what the North Korean leader has in mind as the two leaders head towards highly anticipated “denuclearization” talks that could make the difference between war and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
It wouldn’t be the first time Pyongyang entered into talks to avoid potential military consequences over its nuclear ambitions. For decades, North Korea’s dynastic Kim clan has worked to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to deter an outside attack, a pursuit that is now deeply engrained in the nation’s DNA.
With the US invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the Western air strikes that brought down Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Kim would be taking a high stakes risk to give up the only insurance he has against a similar US-led attempt at regime change.
He can also look to his military ally Iran, which struck a nuclear deal with the US, UK, France, Russia, Germany and China in 2015 only to see Trump fail to recertify it last year. In recent years, Iran has purchased North Korean missiles and missile technology.
Kim Jong-un thus enters talks with Trump with little guarantee that any reached agreement on curtailing his nuclear program will be upheld after making concessions such as intrusive outside inspections that would likely weaken his hand.
Significantly, the North Korean public has not been officially informed that talks could take place, indication that Kim is playing to the international community and not domestic audiences.
So far, nearly all that is known about North Korea’s overtures to the US comes from South Korean intermediaries, mainly Chung Eui-yong, director of South Korea’s National Security Office.
So what is Kim Jong-un really up to? Following four costly nuclear tests since 2012 and dozens of missile launches that have been met with escalated international sanctions, the North Korean economy is clearly in dire straits and in desperate need of funds to prevent a full-blown collapse.
According to a July 2017 United Nations report, rainfall in North Korea has been ominously low, a sign of potential severe food shortages to come. International sanctions, meanwhile, have made it nearly impossible for North Korea to import enough fuel to meet basic needs.
North Korea’s negotiating stance at previous talks with the West was influenced by famine conditions.
In October 1994, the US and North Korea reached what was then termed as an “Agreed Framework” in which Pyongyang pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its existing nuclear program under enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
In exchange, North Korea was promised Western assistance with the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors for civilian use and 500,000 tons of heavy fuel per year and other assistance including food aid.
According to the US Congressional Research Service, a think tank, the US provided North Korea with over US$1.3 billion in assistance – 50% dedicated to food aid, 40% to energy assistance – between 1995 and 2008.
In the end, though, little came of the “Agreed Framework” as the promised light-water reactors were never built because of Western suspicions of North Korea’s intentions, the food aid program collapsed amid disagreements and Pyongyang secretly continued its nuclear research program.
In 2012, the US and North Korea announced a new accord known as the “Leap Day Agreement”, named in recognition of its signing on February 29 in a leap year.
In that deal, North Korea pledged to observe a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile testing, and allow international monitoring of key aspects of its nuclear program. In return, the US announced that it would provide North Korea with 240,000 tons of food aid.
The agreement, as with the failed “Agreed Framework”, did not last long. A few months later, the US suspended its food aid because North Korea had launched what it claimed was a satellite but others suspected was related to its missile program.
Aid for promises to freeze WMD tests has long been the card North Korea plays and later withdraws in its on-and-off negotiations with the US and wider West.
Trump acknowledged as much on October 9, when he tweeted “Our country has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years, giving billions of dollars and getting nothing. Policy did not work!”
North Korea’s obsession with WMD, especially nuclear weapons, goes beyond building deterrence to recent US interventions in Iraq and Libya. It is thus highly unlikely that the upcoming Trump-Kim talks will achieve the denuclearization breakthrough Trump seems to envision.
North Korea’s late “Great Leader”, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, was obsessed with nuclear weapons even before his communist regime was proclaimed in Pyongyang on September 9, 1948.
At the end of World War II, thousands of Korean workers were repatriated from Japan and ended up in the then Soviet-occupied northern part of the Korean peninsula.
Many of them had worked in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and had been there when American nuclear bombs fell on those cities in August 1945. They returned with stories of the ultimate “doomsday” weapon, which the Americans had used to devastating effect.
Kim’s fear of nuclear weapons grew during the Korean War, when the US contemplated launching nuclear strikes against the North. On December 9, 1950, the commander of the US forces, General Douglas MacArthur, even submitted a list of 26 atomic bomb targets to halt the advance of the North Korean army and its Chinese allies.
North Korea has ever since aspired to possess nuclear weapons to counter and deter a possible attack by the US and thus ensure the survival of its dynastic communist regime. Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung’s successor son and Kim Jong-un’s father, likewise viewed acquiring nuclear weapons as an important part of achieving national greatness.
That was given new urgency after America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq on the pretext of halting Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD program. Then US President George W Bush later referred to North Korea as part of an “axis of tyranny” whose very existence was seen as a threat to US security in particular and Western democracies broadly.
On October 3, 2006, in apparent reaction to US threats, North Korea’s foreign ministry announced plans to test a nuclear bomb, stating: “A people without a reliable war deterrent are bound to meet a tragic death and the sovereignty of their country is bound to be wantonly infringed upon. This is a bitter lesson taught by the bloodshed resulting from the law of the jungle in different parts of the world.”
Three days later, North Korea conducted its first ever nuclear test. It was the end of a long road that started soon after the nominal end of the Korean War.
In 1956, North Korea established the United Institute for Nuclear Research (UINR) in the city of Dubna near Moscow to serve as an international science and research center for socialist nations. The UINR developed laboratories and research institutes specializing in high-energy physics, neutron physics and nuclear issues.
In 1965, a basic nuclear research reactor became operational at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, marking the beginning of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Yongbyon center was established with Soviet assistance and apart from the research reactor included a radiochemical laboratory, a K-60,000 cobalt installation, and a B-25 betatron, a sophisticated apparatus for accelerating electrons in a circular path through magnetic induction.
The Soviets provided all the blueprints and soon Yongbyon was a sprawling complex of circular buildings housing reactor storage facilities, a boiler plant and a special laundry to decontaminate protective clothing and undergarments worn by scientists and workers.
Satellite images of the reactor taken over several years showed no attached power lines, which would have been the case if it were meant for electric power generation. In the 1960s and 70s, more than 300 North Korean nuclear scientists were trained at the Soviet’s Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, the Bauman Higher Technical School, and the Moscow Energy Institute.
This training ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but East German and Russian nuclear and missile scientists continued to work in North Korea throughout the 1990s, most probably in a private capacity. Now, all assistance — private or otherwise — from the former Soviet bloc appears to have stopped.
North Korea has since developed other WMD partners. While plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons could be extracted from the Yongbyon reactor, North Korea has developed the ability to enrich uranium with help from Pakistan.
For years Pakistan denied that its cooperation with North Korea included nuclear technology, but in late 2002 a US official stated that North Korea was using uranium enrichment technology with “‘Made in Pakistan’ stamped all over it.” That reportedly included gas centrifuges used to create weapons-grade uranium.
With that long history of international cooperation and support, North Korea has been able to carry out a series of nuclear tests, the most recent one on September 3 last year, which was claimed to successfully detonate a low grade hydrogen bomb.
Given North Korea’s long obsession with nuclear weapons, now spanning three generations of supreme leaders, and its range of clandestine allies that sustain its WMD programs, it seems unlikely that Kim Jong-un would give up the bomb in exchange for promises that Trump may or may not uphold.
As previously, the talks will likely focus on what North Korea needs here and now – money, food and time – but its long range nuclear vision will remain the same.