Written by Liang Tuang Nah.

With the 23rd Winter Olympic Games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Kim regime of North Korea initiated yet another plan to rehabilitate its dismal international image by improving relations with the ROK. As the international community watched, Kim Jong-un dispatched his nominal Head of State, Kim Yong-nam, de facto Head of his Olympic delegation, sister and personal emissary, Kim Yo-jong, along with North Korean ice hockey players and official cheerleaders to the games from the 8th to the 25th of February. Whilst there, athletes from both Koreas marched under a unified flag and competed with a joint ice hockey team. More importantly, on the 10th of February, Yo-jong conveyed an invitation from her brother Jong-un to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to come to Pyongyang for a summit meeting.

The sporting solidarity and apparent olive branch extended from Kim to Moon have led to popular speculation of an end to inter-Korean tensions, and even expectations of negotiated progress towards the DPRK’s denuclearization. However, without concrete and irreversible demonstrations of North Korean sincerity, such optimism might well end up in disappointment.

Pending Disappointment and Insubstantial Korean Summit Diplomacy

Logically, the Moon administration has every incentive to accept and even welcome North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang games, as it ensures that the DPRK will be on its best behaviour and not destabilize the Korean peninsula. Hence, until at least the end of February, Seoul is assured of stability and a decent chance of recouping the ROK’s sizeable investment in the Winter Olympics via tourist revenues. Yet, even as the international community enjoys the easing of Korean peninsula tensions, it would be irrational to expect that this turn of events signals a permanent change in Pyongyang’s strategic policies, and that if Moon goes north to meet with Kim, the region will see a substantial change in the latter’s mindset leading to curtailed belligerence from his regime.

Kim makes no secret of his plan to defy the international community by “having his cake and eating it” though implementation of his Byungjin ideology which promotes both national prosperity and nuclear arms possession.

Looking back on recent history, we can see that if anything, North-South summit diplomacy makes for good publicity but little else. The two previous ROK-DPRK summits were held in October 2007 and June 2000 between Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung respectively, going to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Jong-un. Roughly two years after the first summit, the US detected that North Korea was surreptitiously enriching uranium, violating the spirit of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze the DPRK’s nuclear program. This led to the collapse of the framework and increased tensions. Similarly, Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in 2009 implies direct Seoul-Pyongyang apex diplomacy does not leave a lasting impact on the Kim dynasty’s decisional calculus. President Moon should think long and hard about the efficacy of accepting Kim’s invitation. Unless the latter is prepared to make sizeable and permanent concessions promoting peace on the Korean peninsula, the Moon-Kim handshake photo opportunity in Pyongyang will only be a propaganda victory for the North, with only ephemeral benefits for the South.

Now’s not the time to tread softly with Pyongyang

Now is not the time to tread softly with Pyongyang simply because it is behaving more placidly. Using the history of arms negotiations with the DPRK as a guide, it can be seen that North Korea is only willing to undertake diplomatic engagement or negotiations when it is subjected to significant economic duress, and is seeking a way out of its predicament. It would be counterproductive to ease pressure just when coercive measures are starting to bear fruit. Instead, Seoul and its allies should stand firm and only negotiate when the Kim regime is prepared to countenance nuclear weapons abnegation.

Two examples support this stand. The first placed North Korea under duress not because of sanctions but rather Cold War abandonment and Mother Nature’s wrath. With conclusive termination of the Cold War from the USSR’s demise in 1991, both Russia and China drastically curtailed aid and subsidies to the DPRK. This sent the North Korean economy into a tailspin, causing it to shrink by half by 1999. When coupled with a series of natural disasters from 1995-1997 which destroyed farmland and coal mines, this resulted in famine related deaths of up to three million people. Consequently, these events encouraged Pyongyang’s negotiability when, in September 1999, it agreed to a provisional moratorium on missile tests in exchange for a relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions.

Secondly, the U.S. blacklisted Macanese bank, Banco Delta Asia which pressured the latter into freezing US$25 million in North Korean funds due to money laundering charges. This deprived then leader Kim Jong-il of a potential slush fund with which to ensure the loyalty of his generals, and closed off several avenues by which Pyongyang could access the international financial system, since Banco Delta Asia along with other previously DPRK friendly banks began to shun the North to avoid incurring Washington’s anger. As a result, the Kim regime was willing to negotiate a notable de-escalatory quid pro quo from 2007 to 2008. In return for releasing Pyongyang’s frozen funds, supplying North Korea with fuel aid and delisting the North as a state sponsor of terrorism, Kim authorised the freezing of the DPRK’s nuclear program, the demolishing of a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and the release of confidential nuclear program related documents to a U.S. representative.

Since contemporary developments tell us that agreeing to intangible or easily reversible “progress” on nuclear disarmament in return for relief from sanctions and pressure is part of the Kim family’s modus operandi, President Moon should exercise more circumspection towards the Kim regime’s diplomatic guile, and steadfastly uphold internationally supported denuclearization sanctions.

Stymieing the DPRK’s Nuclear Ambitions and Invalidating Byungjin

But even if realistic analysis reveals that recently tightened sanctions since 2016 will not result in the North’s denuclearization in the near future, upholding pressure on and isolating the DPRK still serves to shackle the North Korean nuclear threat, delegitimize Kim Jong-un’s “wealth and nukes” Byungjin national policy, and ultimately uphold global nuclear non-proliferation norms.

Each U.S. Minuteman ICBM costs US$7 million. Based on lack of economies of scale as well as heightened component prices on the black market due to sanctions (in addition to crudeness of the final product and cheap labour) it could be estimated that each of the DPRK’s Hwasong missiles might cost US$28 million (four times the Minuteman’s cost). Additionally, based on U.S. government predictions that the North has produced up to 60 warheads, it would cost about US$1.68 billion to equip them with ICBMs. This might sound exorbitant, but if we factor in the DPRK’s annual export revenue before the most recent sanctions, which was about US$3 billion, and assume that sanctions will bite even as North Korea will intensify smuggling operations, an 80 percent reduction in export revenue to US$0.6 billion per annum will still allow Pyongyang to complete its nuclear deterrent within three years, provided that Jong-un orders no further missile/nuclear tests – which would invite more sanctions tightening. Hence, the completion of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is highly probable.

Nonetheless, sanctions and isolative pressure to deprive Pyongyang of economic and diplomatic partners can limit and restrain its nuclear threat. Referencing South Korean estimates that North Korean nuclear warhead spending ranges from US$1.1 – 3.2 billion and that each of its estimated 60 warheads would cost about US$18-53 million for an average cost of US$35.5 million, each additional nuclear tipped ICBM beyond 60 would cost US$63.5 to field. Even if a sizeable chunk of its export revenue goes towards missile force expansion, only a handful can be added annually. As missile interception technology advances, the strategic threat from Kim’s ICBMs could well be managed.

Next, Kim makes no secret of his plan to defy the international community by “having his cake and eating it” though implementation of his Byungjin ideology which promotes both national prosperity and nuclear arms possession. Unlike Pakistan, India and Israel, North Korea is not strategically significant enough to be officially recognised as a nuclear power. As such, Kim can only achieve his nuclear deterrent at the cost of permanent economic underdevelopment. Up until 2016, UNSC sanctions have been carefully targeted to restrain the North’s WMD programs while leaving its civilian economy largely unscathed. Thus, the Kim regime has yet to feel the full impact of these UNSC resolutions. Since 2016, such sanctions have prohibited the export of not only North Korean manufactured goods such as textiles but also items like seafood, coal and iron ore, while curtailing its ability to send labour abroad. Under such pressure, Pyongyang will quite possibly confront an economy languishing in the doldrums, functioning on a subsistence basis, and unable to redeem the Byungjin strategy.

As potential nuclear aspirants witness the reality of a floundering DPRK, its nuclear achievements will seem less admirable and more like a cautionary tale that few states can run afoul of non-proliferation norms and continue to thrive. It is thus essential that the ROK and other like-minded nations stand firm against the North’s machinations, no matter how well disguised they may be.

Liang Tuang Nah is a Research Fellow of the Military Studies Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Image Credit: CC by Republic of Korea/Flickr.

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