North Korea’s nuclear program, which seems to have drifted off the global radar in recent months, will most likely return to the spotlight in the near future. The reason for the shift could be the compromise reached by the United States and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. Influenced by this development, many will wonder whether the deal with Iran couldn’t serve as a model for a possible future compromise with North Korea.

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is an unequivocal “no.” The deal with Iran cannot serve as a model for compromise on the North Korean nuclear issue. Moreover, there is currently no model for such a compromise at all. Or, more precisely, such a model exists in theory, but is currently unacceptable, at least for one of the key players.

North Korean Fears vs. Iranian Fears

The main difference between Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs is that Iran has far fewer reasons to fear either a direct American attack or military support provided by the United States and its allies to the opposition in the event of an armed power struggle in Tehran (the latter scenario, incidentally, isn’t very likely). On the other hand, the Iranian ruling elite has many more reasons to fear potential fallout from Western political and, especially, economic pressure.

Iran has a unique sort of limited “theocratic democracy” in which, caveats notwithstanding, elections do play a role and the ruling elite must take into consideration public opinion.

The North Korean situation is totally different. Justifiably or not, the North Korean leadership believes large-scale foreign military invasion to be a real threat. It is also well aware of the potential instability of its domestic political position. Knowing the fate that befell Nicolae Ceausescu and Colonel Qaddafi, the North Korean leadership has been certain for decades that only the presence of nuclear weapons can guarantee both the country’s and the regime’s stability in the face of severe economic crisis, the enormous lag behind South Korea and a hostile international environment.

On the other hand, the North Korean government faces no domestic pressures. It doesn’t have to worry about the effects of public opinion on election results. There are no elections in North Korea; or, more precisely, elections do take place but with pre-determined results. From 1957 onward, every election in North Korea has ended in announcements that the official candidates received 100 percent of the registered vote.

The North Korean leadership has every reason to fear excessively close contacts with Western states, since these contacts, however economically beneficial they might be, may have undesirable political consequences. Through such contacts North Koreans would most likely learn how badly their country lags behind other states in the region, particularly South Korea—a fact that has been painstakingly concealed from the public. So the idea of “bringing North Korea out of its international isolation” may not be such a draw for the country’s leaders.

Unfortunately, the North Korean leadership can hardly be called paranoid for its firm belief that only nuclear weapons can ensure the stability of both the country and the regime. The unenviable fate of Saddam Hussein and especially Muammar Qaddafi make Pyongyang’s worst fears quite justifiable.

The eccentric Libyan leader was the only dictator in history to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for economic concessions. That’s exactly the type of deal that Western states constantly offer to North Korea, and it’s no accident that in 2004—2005 a number of Western diplomats openly stated that Pyongyang ought to learn from the Libyan experience. Without a doubt, Pyongyang did take note of the Libyan experience, particularly the last few months of the Qaddafi regime, and it only reaffirmed the North Korean leadership’s existing belief that giving up nuclear weapons is tantamount to political suicide.

Plutonium Fishing Boats

What is the state of North Korea’s nuclear program today? Understandably, accurate information about this is in short supply. Most experts agree that North Korea currently has 30 to 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium—enough to produce approximately 10 nuclear weapons. In addition, since at least 2010, North Korea has been producing enriched uranium, which can also be used to make nuclear weapons. It is not entirely clear how much enriched uranium North Korea has at this time, since its production, unlike that of weapons-grade plutonium, is much harder to control.

The state of the country’s delivery vehicles is far shabbier. In December 2012, North Korea did manage to launch a prototype of a long-range ballistic missile that put the first North Korean satellite into orbit (though they did not manage to stabilize the satellite).

A few caveats are in order here. First, all the previous launch attempts had failed, so any talk of a reliable ICBM prototype is premature. Second, the missile really was just a prototype. North Korean engineers haven’t even started working on the problem of protecting the nuclear weapon upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Third, it is unknown how successful North Korean engineers have been in developing smaller nuclear weapons; chances are that the weapons currently at North Korea’s disposal are too heavy to be installed in missile warheads.

Of course, the North Koreans are working hard to find solutions to these problems and occasionally come up with original approaches. For instance, this year reports surfaced that the country is actively working on developing submarine-based ballistic missiles (a prototype of such a missile was tested in January).

Furthermore, the lack of delivery vehicles doesn’t necessarily render nuclear stockpiles useless. Under exigent circumstances, unconventional delivery methods can be found—for example, a nuclear device could be installed in the hold of a fishing boat that gets sent to the shores of South Korea, the United States or Japan. Of course, such makeshift methods can’t compare with a proper delivery vehicle, but they are theoretically possible and, in the hopes of North Korea’s leaders, would deter potential aggressors.

When 10 = 50

For years, North Korea has been adamant in its refusal to discuss giving up its nuclear program. Pyongyang pretty much put the seal on that position in 2012 when an article on the country’s nuclear status was included in its constitution. But if North Korea is not ready to discuss nuclear disarmament, why then is it persistently seeking to resume negotiations on nuclear issues with the United States and other Western countries? What lies behind these efforts by North Korean diplomats?

North Korea no longer seeks political and economic concessions in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons; instead, in recent years, it has been trying to get these concessions in exchange for merely freezing its nuclear program while retaining current weapon stockpiles. In other words, Pyongyang is not ready to discuss nuclear disarmament but is willing to talk about the prospects of limiting its nuclear weapons (if it can get something in return, naturally).

Pyongyang is hoping to reach some version of the following compromise: North Korea agrees to stop its work on developing nuclear weapons, shuts down its nuclear generator (if it is functional by that time) and grants international observers access to its nuclear sites. In return, the United States and other countries promise to provide North Korea with direct and indirect economic aid and possibly make some political concessions. Meanwhile, North Korea gets to keep its current fissile material stockpiles and its already assembled nuclear devices, wherever those may be. Thus, Pyongyang doesn’t want a return to the situation of 2006, prior to its first nuclear test; rather, it seeks to preserve the status quo.

Such a compromise makes sense to the North Koreans. They understand perfectly well that their Yongbyon nuclear facility won’t be able to compete with Los Alamos or Arzamas-16 even under the best of circumstances. North Korean nuclear stockpiles will always remain small, at best consisting of only a few dozen weapons.

On the other hand, even at its current modest level, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is sufficient as a deterrent. If North Korea produces 50 to 60 nuclear weapons, as opposed to the 10 to 12 it most likely has now, the deterrent effect will not increase fivefold; in fact, it will hardly increase at all. From this viewpoint, increasing its nuclear potential is a luxury that Pyongyang could do without, if the compensation is commensurate, of course.

Poisonous Freeze

But calls for negotiating a freeze have so far failed to generate enthusiasm in the United States. Washington currently insists that talks can start only if North Korea takes specific steps to demonstrate its commitment to completely dismantling its nuclear program. Obviously, Pyongyang will not demonstrate such a commitment, since no such commitment exists.

A number of American analysts, diplomats and midlevel government officials (mostly Korea experts) have long understood that freezing the North Korean nuclear program is in fact the best possible scenario. The only alternative is to continue the present policy. But in this case, North Korea will clearly continue to increase its nuclear stockpiles and to work on improving its delivery systems. As a result, the North Korean nuclear program will look ever more menacing.

Nevertheless, these midlevel government officials, from the State Department or, say, the National Security Council, have neither the opportunity nor the desire to actively lobby for a policy of compromise on the North Korean nuclear program. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, decisions on issues of nuclear security and nonproliferation are handled by the president and his closest advisers. While these people are not Korea experts and don’t know the intricacies of North Korean politics, they have a good sense of the global picture. From that standpoint, a compromise with North Korea would be quite a risky undertaking, fraught with undesirable consequences.

North Korea differs from other de facto nuclear states (Pakistan, Israel, India) in that it once signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and took advantage of the nonproliferation regime to gain access to certain nuclear technologies. After this, North Korea withdrew from the nonproliferation regime and successfully developed a nuclear-weapon prototype. Under these circumstances, Washington cannot agree to give North Korea substantial financial assistance while the country retains its nuclear status, however limited: Doing so would be seen as a dangerous precedent and a pay-off to a blackmailer.

There is also a second set of problems that make a nuclear-freeze compromise impossible. These have to do with the potential negotiators’ domestic political considerations and personal career ambitions. Even if the U.S. president and his inner circle come to the (well-founded) conclusion that the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea is unattainable, and the only realistic scenario is to freeze its existing nuclear program, they would have a hard time proving this during domestic political debates. Such a deal would immediately draw fire from Congress, and opposition lawmakers would accuse the president and his administration of lacking principles and capitulating and, more importantly, creating a dangerous precedent (this latter accusation, as noted above, wouldn’t be far from the truth).

The career ambitions of certain government officials play a role here as well. Everyone understands that the diplomats associated with such a controversial compromise would hardly be able to use it to advance their careers. State Department officials remember what happened to Christopher Hill after his efforts to reach an agreement with North Korea in 2006—2008: The rising star of American foreign policy ended up a dean at a provincial university.

The situation has hit a dead end. And while compromise is theoretically possible, it takes two to tango and American officials have serious reason not to get on the dance floor. As a result, we are likely to continue living with the North Korean nuclear impasse for many years to come.

Andrei Lankov is a historian, Korea scholar and professor at Kookmin University (Seoul)

This publication originally appeared in Russian.

  • Andrei Lankov