Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Status and Nukes

Our class discussion today introduced an additional possible motivation behind North Korea's nuclear program beyond those suggested in the readings: the desire for status. Korea pursuing nukes for status's sake does not bode well for any sort of resolution to the nuclear standoff in the near future.

If the nuclear program is driven primarily by defense/security considerations, it means that conceivably, if you eliminate the security threats and build trust between the once hostile parties, then you can eliminate the need for nukes. If the U.S. convinces the North that it poses no threat (indeed a tall order), then Pyongyang should no longer feel the need to continue its nuclear weapons program.

Similarly, if the nuclear program is intended to serve as a political card (nuclear blackmail), then regular engagement contingent upon mutual cooperation and concession could eventually eliminate the need to rely on that card to gain concessions. In the case of North Korea, I think this would also require some serious confidence building over a prolonged period of time (Pyongyang and Washington have been hostile for more than 50 years). The forum of the 6 Party Talks could provide a valuable socialization mechanism in this regard...nothing like a talk shop to highlight the utility of negotiation...unless things continue the way they're going...nowhwere...(sigh) I think I'm digging myself a hole here.

To back this up, Platkovskiy (it's easier to type than say) suggests that NK only resorted to such measures in the first place b/c of domestic and international turmoil in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was successful so they stuck with it, but it would not be Pyongyang's only way of interacting with the international system. If you eliminate the prospect of political instability through engagement and demonstrate the potential success of sincere dialogue, I think you can remove the impetus for relying on nuclear blackmail. (Granted, at this point, it would be hard to distinguish NK's genuine diplomacy from nuclear blackmail).

Certainly, these two possible drivers of the nuclear program are not mutually exclusive and there is indeed some overlap.

If achieving status is the ultimate driver of the program however, then I think that poses a considerably greater challenge and offers a more grim prognosis for the future. Status is inextricably linked to self-image and all of the other factors that comprise it. For the North's sake, it has little else going for it besides its mighty military, thus one of the utmost status symbols for a militaristic country is a nuclear bomb. It is hard to prevent an actor from following a path that makes it feel confident and good about itself. To deter Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear weapons would entail an entire overhaul of the national culture, suggesting a dramatic political and economic change of course.

For the short term, this seems far less likely than the already not-so-likely options of engagement and trust-building. Furthermore, it presents a likely incentive for the North to continue to employ nuclear blackmail as a strategy of international relations. Ultimately, I think the perceived strategic necessity, the political utility, and the ego-boosting capacity of a nuclear weapons program all drive Pyongyang's pursuit of the bomb.

Like any good idealist though, I think that the North Korean issue is solvable, despite these tremendous obstacles. (Sorry, I realize this is one of those arguments where the conclusion has no correlation to what came before it; I just need to believe that engagement will go somewhere). All parties involved in the 6 Party Talks have a vested interest in deterring and preventing the use, sale, or proliferation of nukes in the region. I think even China and Japan hold that in common. Certainly, U.S. influence remains significant enough to deter any escalation or nuclear arms race.

By a sustained effort from multiple sources to induce reforms in the North, reforming the culture up there from a militaristic one to a modernistic one is possible for the long-term, particularly with the elimination of threat perceptions and the building of trust (East Asian states specialize in CBMs after all). Short-term solutions are not tenable. Engagement remains the most effective policy, and the only policy capable of bringing about a long-term resolution to the issue...a missile defense system would also help. haha.

And the peninsula will radiate with peace and love.

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