Dan Coats, then-Director of US National Intelligence, stated “North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons”. Whilst many analysts agree with this assessment, the President fired back at the intelligence community since it contradicts his own personal view of his relationship with Pyongyang. Many experts have been pessimistic over the last year regarding the likelihood of successful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration has been steadfast in claiming that talks are progressing whilst quietly moving the goalposts so they never have to admit failure. The President has moved from saying the nuclear threat from Pyongyang is “over” in June 2018 to claiming that there is only a “decent” chance of denuclearisation in a recent tweet. So, since it seems to only invite trouble, why is Pyongyang so keen to maintain its nuclear arsenal?
The USSR aided the DPRK in developing nuclear energy facilities including the nuclear development and research facility and Yongbyon. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that Pyongyang was no longer covered by a nuclear umbrella and was therefore vulnerable to attack. Although the nuclear program had already existed for a decade or so, it is likely that the fall of the DPRK’s most powerful ally was a driving force in the acceleration of the program leading to the first nuclear test in 2006. The end goal of this project was to return to the Cold War days of mutually assured destruction. If the DPRK possessed nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to the US mainland then Washington would not dare attack Pyongyang for fear of retribution. This is the same strategy which prevented nuclear war between the US and USSR during the height of the nuclear standoff. There have been numerous bilateral and multilateral talks between the DPRK and other members of the international community since the nuclear issue arose but despite this, Pyongyang has yet to give any ground on denuclearisation. Why? Because giving up its nuclear status would be an objectively bad move.
Since Nov. 2017, the DPRK has had the ability to strike the US
North Korea’s so called “defensive nuclear force” is the only thing which distinguishes the DPRK from other anti-US governments around the world. Iran, Iraq and Libya are prominent examples of other governments which are or were aligned against the United States. The Bush administration suspected Saddam Hussein of developing WMDs and promptly invaded Iraq in 2003. Gaddafi in Libya made a deal to dismantle his nuclear program, only in the development phase, and was later toppled in the Arab Spring by US supported rebels. So far the US has not set a precedent for being a peaceful and trustworthy dealmaker. In the case of Iran, the JCPOA deal seemed to be a huge success until Trump pulled out suddenly and reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran without a legitimate excuse. That dramatic move by the administration in Washington further lowers the trust between the US and DPRK and may decrease the already slim chance of reaching a deal since officials in Pyongyang may be wary of this administration and its willingness to cancel agreements without reason. Most importantly however, Pyongyang does not want to end up like Tripoli or Baghdad.
George W Bush placed the DPRK on his ‘Axis of Evil’ list
As long as Pyongyang maintains its nuclear and missile arsenal, it holds all the cards. If the US threatens a military strike against the DPRK then Pyongyang can threaten a missile strike against the US or its regional allies such as Japan or South Korea. Pyongyang may make small concessions to ensure sanctions are lifted allowing the economy to flourish but dismantling the nuclear arsenal would turn the DPRK into just another undefended government which does not align itself ideologically with the United States. This puts it at risk of interventionist policies from Washington and this becomes even more of a concern since the President’s National Security Advisor John Bolton has professed his support for regime change all over the world in countries which are not pro-Washington. It would therefore be safe to assume that the DPRK will not be giving up its nuclear capability any time soon and that will make the February summit between Marshall Kim Jong Un and US President Trump all the more interesting. Will we see another vague statement with no concrete steps, or will a surprise break-though be made on some minor issues? Who knows.