The fervent rhetoric that we have been hearing out of North Korea so far this year suddenly evaporated, to be replaced with conditions for diplomacy and what is slowly shaping up to be a tedious negotiation round with a predictable dead end, before the next escalation threatens to blow up Southeast Asia in a mushroom cloud.
Pyongyang is behaving much like it has previously, successively tightening and releasing the nuclear pressure as a way to gain standing and concessions in the international system – it is, in barest terms, a nuclear racket scheme.
Whatever we say about North Korea’s dismal economy, concentrated power or starving people, the fact remains that nuclear weapons, a diversified missile inventory that includes long-range capability and a space program, combined, make this country a consequential regional power in the military sense. It is also a prelude to a large knowledge base that can yet translate into economic terms through private satellite launches, the sale of nuclear power and technology, and a rise in military exports (potentially constituting 90% of the country’s exports) as North Korea’s technology matures over time and finds clients abroad.
While the average North Korean may not see much of these benefits, it is politically that North Korea’s royal family is seeking to profit from the ebb and flow of these tensions. What is at stake now is the potential international recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, whereas the United States adamantly refuses to confer legitimacy on the North’s nuclear ambitions.
However, American refusal is of little consequence, as there is nearly nothing we can do at this point about North Korea’s nuclear capacity, short of a total war whose costs are unacceptable on all sides and have high long term costs, especially if nuclear weapons become involved as well. As isolated as Pyongyang is, nuclear tests and missile launches continue unabated, and the political and diplomatic levers of influence are very limited for an effectual outcome.
Putting nuclear power in a greater perspective, nearly 70 years after the technology first became operational, it can be expected that its gradual horizontal and vertical proliferation beyond the traditional superpowers will take place and while we can slow the process, we cannot stop it – there is no monopoly on brilliant minds in the world.
Time is the driving force behind the long-term changes of international affairs and when a reality changes, clinging to its historical predecessor becomes a counter-productive strategy: the difference between politics and history is time – politics is history, now. In this logic, a nuclear-free North Korea is not a realistic expectation when having nuclear weapons confers immense strategic advantages in Pyongyang’s point of view. The factors that permitted this reality to develop are history, and the new reality of a nuclear North Korea requires a more sophisticated treatment than sanctions. If we don’t evolve, the result will be that if these periodic escalations keep happening, at some point someone will make a mistake and the results could be disastrous for everyone.
Every crisis can explode into war, but it always ends with a political settlement and, ideally, war would not be a recourse of action preceding the diplomatic effort. It is important to realize that when one category of diplomacy does not work, we have to try another in order to have progress. It is no different with North Korea.