North Korea has fired off yet another missile, triggering another round of belligerent rhetoric from the US and more joint military exercises with South Korea with Donald Trump also castigating China for doing nothing. Why is North Korea doing this? It is because they have learned the lesson that has been painfully clear as even US intelligence chiefs recognize – that giving up your nuclear capability is an invitation for the US and its allies to invade you.
North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un is not crazy, said [Director of National Security Dan] Coats. In fact, he has “some rationale backing his actions” regarding the country’s nuclear weapons. That rationale is the way the U.S. has demonstrated that North Korea must keep them to ensure “survival for his regime, survival for his country.”
Kim, according to Coats, “has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability.” In particular, “The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes … is, unfortunately: If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.”
In 2011, the U.S. and NATO conducted a bombing campaign to assist Libyan rebels in overthrowing the Gaddafi government. Gaddafi himself was captured by one rebel faction, who apparently sodomized him with a bayonet and then killed him.
You would definitely expect this to get the attention of North Korea’s ruling clique — especially given that Iraq had also disarmed and then been invaded, with its dictator executed by a howling mob.
And, indeed, North Korea said this explicitly at the time. Its foreign ministry stated, “The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,” which was that the deal to rid Libya of weapons of mass destruction had been “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.”
Moreover, North Koreans and other countries can read, and so understand what America’s foreign policy elite has repeatedly explained why we want small countries to disarm. It’s not because we fear that they will use WMD in a first strike on us, since nations like North Korea understand that would immediately lead to their obliteration. Instead, our mandarins explicitly say the problem is that unconventional weapons help small countries deter us from attacking them.
A Gabrielle Rifkind writes after a visit to that country, the North Korean leadership has made their motivations clear.
When Kim Jong-Il, the father of the country’s current leader, was asked why he was spending his country’s scarce resources on ballistic missiles, he replied: “I have to let them know I have missiles because this is the only way the US will talk to me.” His son might put it differently:
“It’s the only way the US will not attack us, and the only way they will not remove me from power.”
One of the reasons it is so difficult to resolve conflict is that we fail to look at our own behaviour and how it is perceived by those we see as our foes. We do business with our friends and not with our enemies. De-escalation and dissolution of tension is seldom achieved by looking though a one-way lens. To Americans, US-led war games in the region may look like a defensive manoeuvre, but to North Korea they look antagonistic.
The Kims have seen the recent history of Iraq and Libya and must surely glean the lesson: give up your nuclear weapons programme and your regime does not survive.
Political leaders and media commentators in the US constantly discusses openly what countries they should invade and when in order to overthrow their governments and replace them with ones that are subservient to the US. And then they react angrily when the leaders of those countries take their words seriously and adopt measures to prevent it. The US media also loves to hype war rhetoric and ignore peace gestures, as we saw with the offer by the Taliban government to talk with the US about al Qaeda before the US government invaded Afghanistan in 2001. How many people were even aware of that offer? Rifkind says that the same is true now with North Korea.
It was hardly reported in the western media, but in January Pyongyang proposed that tensions could be eased if the US suspended joint military exercises with South Korea. North Korea would respond, they asserted, by suspending their nuclear tests. This freeze-freeze proposal was supported by China and Russia and more recently by South Korea’s new president. Washington rejected it, not wanting to acknowledge any equivalence between their war games and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.
There are no military options to consider in this stand-off. North Korea will hit back in a densely populated region: 25 million people live in Seoul alone. So the only option is engagement with Pyongyang, which needs to be quiet and off the record and without preconditions. First steps could include the scaling back of US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for the North agreeing to freeze its nuclear programme tied to confidence-building measures.
Unpalatable as it may seem, the regime has no intention of negotiating away its nuclear arsenal because it sees this as a survival insurance policy. Only when the security anxieties of all parties are considered can the issue of nuclear weapons be addressed.
If there ever was a time for calm, sober, strategic thinking in the US, that time is now. Unfortunately Donald Trump is president.