A VESTIGE of the Cold War, the North Korean crisis needs to be resolved using Asian precedents in mind. The other framework for resolution—the Libyan model—has been made untenable by the march of history.
In July 2007, North Korea halted operations of its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was the result of the February 2007 negotiations of the Six-Party Talks involving Russia, China, Japan, the United States, and the two Koreas. Yongbyon resumed operations in September 2015. What happened between 2007 and 2015? The tragic end of the Moammar Gadhafi regime.
Under Gadhafi, Libya voluntarily pursued nuclear disarmament in December 2003. Various theories explain why Gadhafi did it. Dr Norman Cigar, an expert on Middle East policy and security issues, summarized them in his monograph “Libya’s Nuclear Disarmament: Lessons and Implications for Nuclear Proliferation.”
Two reasons were identified as crucial: 1) the advice of Libya’s foreign minister Abd al-Rahman Shalgam that nukes would just be a liability for Libya; and 2) the secret 2001 threat by US President George W. Bush that he would destroy Libya’s weapons of mass destruction if Gadhafi did not do it himself.
American policymakers from the State Department to the US Congress touted the Libyan disarmament as an example for other nations to follow, including North Korea. Gadhafi himself even encouraged Iran to follow his example.
Soon after, disenchantment followed. Gadhafi himself was disappointed as he felt that “international help with the development of nuclear power for peaceful uses had not been as forthcoming as expected,” Cigar noted.
What finally made the Libyan example a path to be avoided by other nations was tragic fall of Gadhafi in 2011, enabled by the military intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Noting the reactions of pundits and politicians in the Middle East, Cigar concluded: “A clear consensus appears to have crystallized to the effect that foreign intervention is considerably more likely in a country that does not possess a credible nuclear deterrent…”
Believing that Libya’s disarmament midwifed a foreign invasion, an unidentified spokesman of the North Korean foreign ministry said in March 2011 that “[t]he Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson…” (Yonhap News Agency).
Certainly, the US dismissed North Korea’s assessment of what happened to Libya. But for North Korea the question remains: If Gadhafi still possessed his weapons of mass destruction, would NATO have dared to take the gamble of intervening? For North Korea, the “grave lesson” is simple: disarmament is the road to regime change.
After Gadhafi’s downfall, any call for North Korean disarmament will only heighten its insecurity, which in turn would only fuel its resolve to keep on building its arsenal of history’s ultimate deterrent.
Since the Libyan model is a source of trauma than inspiration for North Korea, the world must give Pyongyang a different option—an Asian option. Instead of pushing Kim Jong-un to follow what Gadhafi did, the world must find a way to accept North Korea as a nuclear power in the same way it accepted China, India and Pakistan.
It’s not realistic to pursue a nuclear-zero North Korea. A more worthwhile goal is the one suggested recently by policy analyst and Asia expert Michael Auslin in The Atlantic—help North Korea secure its nuclear assets.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but the US needs to worry less about the risk of a North Korean nuclear war than about a nuclear accident,” Auslin said.
Instead of disarming North Korea, the world must pressure North Korea to pursue nuclear responsibility. Pyongyang must be encouraged to ensure that it has capabilities to prevent and mitigate the effects of “Broken Arrow” incidents. A US military term, a Broken Arrow refers to accidental launching and detonating of nuclear weapons, as well as to their loss or theft.
Auslin suggested that this is where China could be of great help: “Chinese President Xi Jinping might offer some basic technical assistance on issues like launch authentication or setting up permissive action links. Helping train missile technicians in damage control and critical repair of launch systems might add another layer of certainty to the daily maintenance of nuclear weapons.”
If North Korea believes in the deterrence effect of nukes, it must also believe that a nuclear war would only result in its own annihilation because it doesn’t have nuclear parity with the US. Pyongyang won’t really use its nukes unless it’s seeking its own destruction.
But North Korea can inadvertently destroy itself and its neighbors if its nuclear safety regime isn’t well-developed. Thus, it’s in the best interest of North Korea to beef up its nuclear safety capabilities. An interest that coincides with the interest of its neighbors as well. A nuclear accident in North Korea would not only be disastrous to it, but to the East Asian region as a whole, which would suffer from the consequent fallout.
So, it’s nuclear security and not disarmament that could put North Korea back into the negotiating table. And that requires accepting it as a nuclear power. Only then could it be engaged with the pressing issue of nuclear responsibility that its Asian peers could help it advance.