The June summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended with broad support from the American people, indicating optimism about North Korea’s potential denuclearization. Yet behind every ounce of optimism is a harsh reality.
North Korea is unlikely to denuclearize because of its economic status, regime control and historic insecurities about defense. Rather, the United States — especially the current Trump administration — should pursue realistic goals that recognize the near-impossibility of North Korea’s denuclearization.
The North Korean economy is dependent on sales of nuclear technology and long-range missiles. According to Trading Economics, a digital data research platform, North Korea’s average sales of weapons from 1974 to 2014 total approximately $70.62 million. The government has sold crucial weapons and nuclear technology to states hostile to the United States.
For example, the North Korean 1,000-km range No-Dong 1 missile provides basic infrastructure for Iran’s long-range Shahab missiles, according to the Congressional Research Service. North Korea uses nuclear weapons to create a favorable security dynamic for itself and to defend its potential friends and itself against the United States.
The apparent diplomatic success of June’s Trump-Kim summit has proven to be an illusion. On Aug. 24, 2018, Trump called off U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, due to insufficient progress toward denuclearization. Three days later, North Korea’s state media publicly denounced the United States for its “extremely provocative and dangerous military moves.”
Continuing down a path of coercive denuclearization will only lock the United States and North Korea in a cycle of provocation: North Korea will test its next intercontinental missile or nuclear weapon. The United States will react with new rounds of sanctions. Two sides escalate tension with political rhetoric, until both countries start diplomatic conversations only to get stuck on denuclearization again.
Apart from economic incentives, nuclear weapons are an essential icon of Kim’s totalitarian regime. Kim has repeatedly spoken of having a nuclear button on his office desk. He has also promulgated massive celebrations of technical achievements, promotions of nuclear scientists and media propaganda to promote domestic pride in North Korea’s military strength.
Recognizing realities inside North Korea, the Trump administration should address the root causes of North Korea’s desperation to cling to nuclear weapons as a mask of its own insecurities. One of North Korea’s insecurities comes from the Libyan precedent.
In 2003, after several rounds of secret negotiations with former U.S. President George W. Bush, then-Libyan Prime Minister Muammar al-Gaddafi agreed to voluntarily hand over sensitive nuclear material to the United States in exchange for increased integration with the West. Nearly a decade later, however, then-U.S. President Barack Obama joined European allies in a coalition to topple Libyan leadership in 2011. Gaddafi, who had been prime minister since 1969, was killed by anti-government rebels on Oct. 20, 2011. The Libyan experience exacerbates North Korean concerns about potential instability after denuclearization.
On May 16, Kim Kye-gwan, North Korean vice foreign minister, even threatened to pull out of the scheduled Trump-Kim summit. In Kim’s released statement, he revealed North Korea’s deep anger with U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s insinuation of the “Libyan mode of nuclear abandonment” as a potential solution for North Korea.
The vice foreign minister perceives the comment as “a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers,” Kim wrote in the statement. The “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fate.”
North Korea’s leaders are cautious about any U.S. insinuation regarding Libya. Nuclear weapons enable North Korea to have the leverage to potentially avoid Libya 2.0.
Going forward, the United States should demonstrate to North Korea that the Libyan model will not be repeated. More importantly, the Trump administration should change its policy priorities from coercive denuclearization to integration. Once a country enjoys the benefit of economic cooperation, that country will be reluctant to alienate itself again from the global community.
Possible ways of integration include initiating official industrial cooperation on mining and construction, opening up trade, and pouring investment into North Korea.
One precedent is the Sunshine Policy, a policy of detente and economic cooperation with North Korea administered by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in the early 2000s. Partial success of this policy not only allowed Kim Dae-jung to win a Nobel Peace prize, but also stabilized inter-Korean relations.
Results achieved under integration will be sustainable and long-lasting. Countries with economic ties to the global community are less likely to cause military conflicts, let alone nuclear threats. North Korea should be one of these countries.
Victoria Liu is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Globetrotting from D.C. appears online every other Monday.