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Why North Korea may become another Pakistan on nuke map

Pyongyang might seek to retain its short and medium range nuclear arsenal while dismantling its long-range nuclear capability.

 |  5-minute read |   16-06-2018
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With the Singapore summit yielding only a joint statement, US President Donald Trump has bet on what he called a “very special bond” and “terrific relationship” with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un to secure a real nuclear deal.

It is worth remembering, however, that Trump has said similar things about several other foreign leaders, only to ignore their interests or turn on them later. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, is still licking his wounds.

As Trump’s announcement to suspend US war games with South Korea underscored, he is seeking to narrowly advance American interests, including saving money. However, he has correctly described as “very provocative” the US-led war games, which, with live-fire drills, simulate every spring a full-scale invasion of North Korea. US critics are upset that he has lifted the pretence that these war games are routine “military exercises” and defensive in nature.

Trump’s gamble

When Trump last August threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea, his critics at home accused him of leading the US to war. But today, after he became the first sitting American president to meet a North Korean leader, they are charging him with moving too quickly to peace. The removal of the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula has come as a relief in East Asia and beyond.

Trump is right that, at this stage, fundamentally changing the US-North Korea relationship matters more than denuclearisation. If the West encourages Kim’s efforts to modernise the North Korean economy, it will help moderate his regime’s behaviour. Economic engagement can achieve a lot more than economic sanctions, which counterproductively accelerated North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances.

Trump has acknowledged the huge gamble he has taken on North Korea by telling reporters, “I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, 'Hey, I was wrong.’” He then paused and, with refreshing candour, said, “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

Kim may have emerged as the summit’s clear winner merely because the world’s most powerful leader met him virtually as an equal. But critics are wrong in claiming that Trump made “big concessions” in exchange for securing indefinable commitments from Kim. The only concession Trump made — suspension of war games as a gesture of good faith — is easily reversible if negotiations do not yield progress toward denuclearisation.

Progress, however, will be slow to come. Trump himself said before the summit that his meeting with Kim would mark just the beginning of a process. In fact, the joint statement implicitly links denuclearisation to “mutual confidence building,” thus setting in motion a complex, long process of bargaining, deal-making and, if all goes well, denuclearising.

No less important is the joint statement’s reference to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, not just North Korea. This goal, in effect, means a nuclear-weapons-free zone, whose creation demands not just North Korea’s denuclearisation but also important concessions by the US and South Korea (and also by the other two nuclear powers in the region, China and Russia). Yet this key outcome is being glossed over in the American debate.

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Nuclear umbrella

A nuclear-weapons-free zone can emerge only if South Korea steps out of the US nuclear umbrella and the US, China and Russia formally commit not to introduce, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Such a scenario will leave Japan as the sole country in Asia under the US nuclear umbrella. There can be no nuke-free Korean Peninsula if South Korea refuses to leave the nuclear umbrella.

One concern is that, as part of a deal, North Korea might seek to retain the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal while dismantling its long-range nuclear capability that threatens America. Japan, in particular, is worried that, just as the US has put up with Pakistan’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal, Washington could tolerate a similar North Korean capability as long as it does not threaten America.

This scenario is no longer implausible, especially with the Trump administration saying goodbye to the “Libya model” and seeking instead to apply the “South Africa model” to North Korea.

South African model

The administration’s early brinkmanship almost derailed the Singapore summit when Trump and his national security adviser spoke about the Libya model, suggesting that Kim follow a path that ultimately led to Muammar Gaddafi’s gruesome end. But now, recognising North Korean resistance to intrusive international inspections, US officials say their role model is white apartheid-era, South Africa.

Before transiting to black majority rule, South Africa secretly dismantled its six nuclear weapons, destroying all major documents relating to them but stashing weapons-grade enriched uranium. It then opened its sites to international inspection. Such voluntary denuclearisation without international monitoring could allow Kim to keep sub-regionally confined capability.

In any event, denuclearisation will be a long-drawn-out process. Nuclear weapons are the only assets North Korea can leverage to end its international pariah status. Kim is unlikely to give up his “crown jewels” without US security guarantees that go beyond symbolic steps. Nor will he unilaterally disarm without reciprocal steps by South Korea and America. If he gives up long-range capability but retains other atomic assets, North Korea will be like Pakistan on the global nuclear map.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

Brahma Chellaney Brahma Chellaney @chellaney

The writer is strategic thinker, author, commentator.

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