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Should we really be so afraid of a nuclear North Korea?

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Nuclear weaponsShould we really be so afraid of a nuclear North Korea?

By Markus Bell and Marco Milani

Published 6 February 2017

The common thinking is that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a threat to global peace and diverts economic resources from an impoverished population. North Korean leaders are depicted in the Western media as a cabal of madmen who won’t be satisfied until Washington, Seoul, or some other enemy city is turned into a “sea of fire.” But it also pays to consider what sounds like a perverse question: could a North Korean bomb actually benefit both the country’s people and the world at large? As far as Pyongyang is concerned, its militaristic strategy has worked: It has kept the Kim government internally stable, the population dependent on the government, and the country’s enemies at bay. Accepting the country’s nuclear status, rather than trying to head it off with sanctions and threats, could bring it back to the diplomatic bargaining table.

The common thinking is that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a threat to global peace and diverts economic resources from an impoverished population. North Korean leaders are depicted in the Western media as a cabal of madmen who won’t be satisfied until Washington, Seoul, or some other enemy city is turned into a “sea of fire.”

Successive U.S. governments have used a range of carrots and sticks to entice or pressure the North Korean leadership to give up its nuclear program. The North’s missile launches and nuclear tests in 2016 make plain that these efforts have failed; in short, the West has to accept that it is now a nuclear power and focus instead on limiting the risks a nuclear North Korea presents.

But it also pays to consider what sounds like a perverse question: could a North Korean bomb actually benefit both the country’s people and the world at large?

First, a reality check: The North Korean nuclear program is less a madcap scheme than a clear and deliberate strategy. Its leaders have closely watched what’s happened to other countries that have backed away from nuclear arsenals, and two in particular: Ukraine and Libya.

Ukraine gave up its massive Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in 1994 when it signed the Budapest Memorandum with Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, on whose terms it traded nuclear weapons for a formal reassurance to respect its sovereignty; 20 years later, Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, and a pro-Russian insurgency in the east is still rumbling. As for Libya, Muammar Gaddafi renounced his weapons of mass destruction program as part of an opening to the West only to be forcibly removed from power by the same countries some eight years later.

Along with the Iraq War, these spectacles taught the North Korean regime that it’s hard for a relatively small, isolated country to survive without the military hardware to guarantee it. Pyongyang has duly shown great diplomatic skill in drawing out nuclear negotiations, buying itself both time and financial aid as its program moves forward.

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