Kim's Nuclear Obsession

Obama’s summitry won’t convince North Korea to give up its nukes.

The Obama administration is holding a "nuclear security summit" in Washington D.C., with over forty countries sending senior officials. Combined with the recently released Nuclear Posture Review and the arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, the goal of the summit will be to strengthen global norms against nuclear proliferation and clarify the conditions under which Americamight use nuclear weapons, as well as to increase cooperation and coordination regarding trafficking and proliferation of nuclear weapons. These are all admirable goals, and should be a step in the right direction of improving U.S. national security while reassuring allies and deterring potential adversaries.

Yet little of what happens this week is likely to have an impact on one of the more troublesome proliferation problems in the world, North Korea. Regarding Pyongyang, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week, "If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that if you're going to play by the rules, if you're going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you."

Unfortunately, numerous administrations have already sent this message to North Korea, to little effect. North Korea is already far outside of both the global community and international norms, and it arrogantly flouts institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency. Indeed, North Korea has made very clear it doesn't care about international approval, and little that happens this week is likely to change that. Far more important factors for Pyongyang's actions are the local perceptions and goals of the regime itself as it struggles to both survive and to continue the rule of the Kim family into a third generation.

Yet the North Korean nuclear issue is different in one key aspect from many of the other major international crises facing the world today: in contrast to the nuclear problem with Iran, for example, both the United States and North Korea have agreed-multiple times, explicitly, and in writing-on both the cause of, and solution to, their differences. That basic agreement, first laid out in the 1994 "Agreed Framework" and then reiterated in the September 19, 2005 principles and once again on February 13, 2007, contains the core aspects of a deal: North Korea gives up its nuclear and weapons programs, and the United States normalizes relations with Pyongyang and opens trade and other economic relations.

However, the two sides have not realized this basic agreement in over a dozen years, because they disagree about how to implement that agreement. That is, the United States has generally wanted the North to move first, and completely dismantle its nuclear weapons programs and satisfy American suspicions about its support for other nations before the United States would formally recognize Pyongyang. In contrast, the North has generally refused to disarm until it has security guarantees in the form of normalization from the United States. 

Perhaps just as important as the question of "who goes first" is the way beliefs in America and North Korea may have changed over the years. Although in the mid-1990s U.S. (and South Korean) leaders may have imagined that North Korea might give up its nuclear weapons under certain conditions, many observers now believe that will never happen. Similarly, leaders in Pyongyang may very well believe that events over the years have shown that the United States and South Korea will never choose to live with any kind of North Korea, nuclear or non-nuclear. Policy makers in all three countries may now believe that no real solution is possible, and thus may be reluctant to commit any political capital to the issue.

Solving the North Korean nuclear problem is an important regional and global task; and the Obama administration is making admirable strides towards strengthening global norms and institutions against nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, stronger norms against nuclear weapons, and even stronger institutions against proliferation, are unlikely to help solve the North Korea problem. The roots of proliferation on the Korean peninsula spring from domestic and international insecurity, as well as the unique history and perceptions of the leaders in North Korea. Only by dealing with those issues is there any hope of making progress on the nuclear issue, and today a solution appears as far away as ever.


David C. Kang is professor of international relations and business, and director of the Korean Studies Institute, at the University of Southern California. His latest book, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, will be published in October.