The media is often portrays North Korea as a mind-boggling rogue state, led by a maniacal trigger-happy dictator who acts on complete whim and fancy. But don’t be fooled. Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are not the pursuit of a madman. In fact, if we dig deeper into the tensions on the Korean peninsula and the motivations of all the parties involved, it will all start to make sense.
Let’s start with North Korea. Former US Defense Secretary William Perry says the North’s priorities can be distilled into three simple goals:
1) To maintain the stability of its regime
2) To gain international recognition
3) To improve its economy
Now take a look at its current situation. One, it’s an isolated authoritarian state shunned by the international community for various reasons, including crimes against humanity. Two, it faces ongoing tensions with its neighbour in the South and military threats from the US. Three, it’s claimed to have successfully tested a miniature hydrogen bomb that can be loaded onto its newly developed ICBMs.
Given the progress it’s made so far with its nuclear technology, why would it stop? It’s effectively the only deterrent it has against external threats.
Not surprisingly, Kim has taken nuclear weapons off the negotiating table. He knows his ability to wreak nuclear havoc at the push of a button is what is keeping the international community on its toes. Deplorable, no doubt. But fair game given the country’s current situation. It’s the extreme means with which he’s hoping to achieve his goals for the nation.
Then, let’s explore the motivations behind the other parties involved. Obviously, the US is feeling the heat, with the ICBMs pointed in their direction. North Korea now poses more than just an ideological threat. But talking tough and stepping up military drills with South Korea just isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s still hell-bent on getting the North to denuclearise. But it has to accept that it makes no sense for Pyongyang to back down on its nuclear plans now, given how much it’s invested in it (on top of the lives of millions of citizens).
Instead, it has to re-examine North Korea’s goals for itself. Nuclear weapons are a means to an end. Not the end itself. Negotiations thus have to take into serious consideration the ability to help North Korea grow its economy, allowing it (however grudgingly) to maintain its toxic regime and ultimately giving it some recognition on the world stage. This would take time, and many concessions on the part of the US, but it may produce more effective results than a zero sum stockpiling of weapons.
How about China? Why does it have its finger in the pie?
Here’s a reality check. To the rising economic giant, a nuclearised North is better than a collapsed one. Apart from the disaster of having millions of North Korean refugees cross its border, there are also other strategic considerations.
Namely, North Korea serves as an effective buffer against the heightened US military presence in the South. It has underlying interests in keeping it afloat. Hence its reluctance to place too much pressure on its irreverent neighbour.
It may take a lot of time, and the world may yet experience many moments of cold panic, but the key to success might lie somewhere between China coaxing the North into terms of non-escalation of its existing nuclear capabilities and the US and South Korea paying closer attention to what it is the North really wants.
After all, even madmen are capable of reason.