ON ITS FACE, North Korea's announcement that it plans to return to the six-party nuclear talks marks a victory of sorts for diplomacy. Working with its allies, the United States fashioned a package of U.N. resolutions, economic sanctions and the threat of more to get Kim Jong Il back to the bargaining table.
Ultimately, though, the talks will bear fruit only if North Korea concludes that eliminating its nuclear program better ensures regime survival. The history of nuclear disarmament, coupled with North Korea's unique strategic circumstance, suggest that the possibility remains a long shot.
Compare the North Korean case with three countries that surrendered nuclear ambitions — South Africa, Libya and Ukraine — and one comes to the conclusion that Pyongyang has yet to reach the requisite underpinnings to do likewise.
Under the veneer of a peaceful nuclear explosives program to dig harbors and oil storage facilities, South Africa — under President P.W. Botha — manufactured six atomic bombs. The true motivations included international isolation fed by apartheid and the belief that such weapons would deter a Soviet and Cuban threat along South Africa's borders.
Libya never acquired nuclear weapons but spent decades trying. Its leader, Moammar Kadafi, sought to buy a weapon from China, enrichment equipment from France, reactors from the U.S., a nuclear-armed submarine from the Soviet Union and to annex uranium-laden land from Chad.
Tripoli had some success in the 1990s when the smuggling network of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan provided the rudiments of a nuclear centrifuge program and weapons designs, which added to Libya's other black-market acquisitions.
Kiev did not strive for the bomb; the bomb fell into its lap when Ukraine became a nuclear-armed successor state to the Soviet Union. The arsenal included about 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons plus 1,240 strategic nuclear warheads mounted on 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles, making Ukraine the holder of the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal.
What moved these three nations to disgorge their nuclear capital, and what are the implications for North Korea? In South Africa's case, the withdrawal of Soviet and Cuban forces lifted the bomb's raison d'être. Botha's successor, F.W. de Klerk, viewed nuclear weapons elimination as one requirement to end the country's international isolation.
For Libya, such isolation, following the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, posed an increasing strategic burden. Oil revenue plummeted, leaving the economy in disarray. Tripoli, which had been a promoter of terrorism, found itself a target of the new breed of Islamic terrorism, which international assistance could help suppress. Then there was the threat of a preemptive U.S. strike, coupled with events in Iraq. Ending its program provided the lure to get the West to deal.
Ukraine concluded that nuclear status would undermine national identity and security. It would tie Kiev to Moscow's atomic command-and-control system, keeping the newborn country within Russia's orbit. Maturation and upkeep would be a needless economic burden. A nuclear course also would jeopardize economic and political ties with the West.
All three nations came to the conclusion that denuclearization would enhance security and prosperity. The roots of North Korea's program, coupled to the nature of the regime, promote a far different judgment in Pyongyang.
Stirred by U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War, Pyongyang's impulse to take the plunge gained traction during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. North Korea concluded that it would not suffer Cuba's fate — "abandonment" by its Soviet ally. Only juche — self reliance — would do. After getting a research reactor from Moscow in the 1960s, indigenous talent generated additional plants.
For Kim Jong Il, nuclear weapons provide a means to preserve his fiefdom. They generate international tension that justifies the garrison state. They compensate for conventional military weaknesses, providing a hedge against perceived U.S. military designs. They furnish leverage to extract international humanitarian assistance and economic investment from a nervous South Korea. And they provide an economically failing regime a marquee to demonstrate strength, resolve and modernity.
Unlike Libya, South Africa and Ukraine, North Korea has not arrived at the point necessary for abandoning its nuclear ways: a willingness to reduce self-imposed political isolation. Rather, it continues to view isolation and its nuclear buttress as the key to regime preservation.
This is a fact we likely will have to live with, talks or no talks.
Why North Korea loves the bomb
Its nuclear weapons program plays a major role in propping up Kim Jong Il's repressive regime.
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