Why you should care

Because jaw-jaw is better than war-war. 

The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000–2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

President Obama is pulling out the stops to defend last month’s Iran nukes deal, and there are good reasons to hope the bargain works out. But it’d be folly to deny the risks. Indeed, denial is futile, what with a cautionary example staring us right in the face.

That cautionary example is, of course, North Korea. The United States went down this road with the “Hermit Kingdom” in 1994, with the negotiation of the so-called Agreed Framework. Under its terms, North Korea was supposed to dismantle its nuclear facilities — then capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium — and receive, in return, help building less advanced reactors for peaceful purposes, as well as shipments of heavy fuel oil to offset energy shortages. But in 2002, U.S. intelligence discovered that the North was cheating — buying materials apparently intended for uranium enrichment. After years of contentious negotiations, North Korea finally fessed up in 2010.

Over the past decade, North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests and now has about 10 bombs. Within five years it could have another 10, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at my university. The North also has a robust missile program, with a fleet of short- and medium-range missiles, and claims it could mount a nuclear warhead on one. The head of the U.S. Northern Command has publicly agreed. Since the 1990s, North Korea has been working on a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); given its successful launch of a space satellite with a large, three-stage rocket in 2012, it appears just short of that goal.

In the wake of the Iran agreement, North Korea is now coming under U.S. and international pressure to return to the bargaining table, which it abandoned in 2008 after years of what were called “six-party talks” (the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea). But the North’s ambassadors in China and Russia slammed the door on a renewal just last week.

Why is North Korea so adamantly against talks, and what are the prospects for changing that? The primary motive is simple: regime survival. Long squeezed by international sanctions and regarded as the globe’s most repressive political system, North Korea revolves around a cult of personality centered on the Kim dynasty. The leadership has long seen nuclear weapons as the key to survival, often citing Libya as its own cautionary example. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear program in 2004 and was killed in 2011, as his regime collapsed during Libya’s violent version of the so-called Arab Spring.

More than 1,000 university students burn effigies of U.S.- marked nuclear weapons during an anti-U.S. and anti-Team Spirit military exercise demonstration at Korea University 13 March 1993. The protesters demanded that the U.S. government investigate Nort

Korean students burned effigies of U.S.-marked nuclear weapons.

Source Choo Youn-Kong/ Getty

The Kim dynasty and the system around it are not the only ones interested in its survival. In South Korea and China, there is constant fear that the North Korean regime will simply collapse under greatly increased economic and other pressures. That would trigger massive refugee flows to the north into China and south onto the peninsula. Sorting this out — essentially uniting the two Koreas — would be a huge project that in cost and complexity would dwarf the union of the two Germanys in the 1990s.

The prospect for movement toward talks is bleak but not hopeless. Even if it had no intention to give up its nuclear weapons, the North might be lured into talks if it thought it could use them as a stalling mechanism, while angling for food and economic assistance. It has done so in the past. For others, the benefit would be the prospect of slowing the North’s nuclear progress and tying it up at the bargaining table, instead of letting it progress, full steam ahead. This strategy, such as it is, boils down to buying time, and it’s not a terrible one. Churchill’s theory was that “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”

The key to any movement sits with China. It is, far and away, the country with the most economic and political leverage over the Hermit Kingdom, by virtue of supplying 90 percent of its energy and most of its food aid. China surely wants to avoid the chaos of a North Korean collapse, or Pyongyang’s reckless use of its nuclear or missile capability. But the wild card is the North’s new ruler, 30-year-old Kim Jong Un. He is still erratically consolidating his power through purges and executions, and he is not, it seems, as close to Beijing as his father, Kim Jong Il, had been.

The bottom line? Leverage on North Korea is more limited than in the past, in part because it is so dramatically different from Iran: much farther along the nuclear path, less engaged with the world outside and with not a speck of democracy (compared to Iran’s controlled but reasonably fair elections that often surprise the regime). As often in hard times, we are probably best advised to fall back on the wisdom of the founders, in this case Benjamin Franklin’s adage that “persistence is the secret to success.” That’s not much, but with North Korea, it’s better than nothing.

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