Nuclear Weapons and the Future of North Korea

On September 5, the 9th Asia-Pacific Border Studies Seminar on Nuclear Weapons and the Future of North Korea was held by the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies of Kyushu University. Professor Yong-Chool Ha (Washington State University) was the speaker and Professor Akihiro Iwashita was a commentator. The seminar was moderated by Professor Jong Seok Park.

In his presentation, Professor Ha suggested that the current crisis will result to some compromise soon and called for going beyond the issue of denuclearization while discussing the current Korean crisis. He suggested to put the North Korean economic future in the conflict resolution context. While currently Pyongyang prioritizes legitimization of its nuclear status above all, it still should choose an economic development model after the compromise will be achieved.  Thus, North Korean economic future could be discussed during negotiations.

Anyway, current economic and social conditions of North Korea are changing towards greater role of the private market. Among economic options that Pyongyang will have, South Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, and Russian models were mentioned in the presentation (the South Korean model was particularly highlighted as potentially suitable). The choice that North Korea should make likely will not be easy, taking into account unfavorable international environment, scarceness of domestic material resources, and emergence of strong elite groups based on economic power and connections with masses. In particular, one cannot exclude that despite the regime will manage to boost its legitimacy in the short-term run, long-term internal socio-economic challenges could trigger either “palace coup d’etat”, or military coup d’etat, or revolt based on elite-mass coalition.

After making his presentation, Professor Ha responded other participants’ questions. Answering Professor Iwashita’s question about whether the North Korean nuclear strategy is similar to the Pakistani one, Professor Ha highlighted such differences of the North Korean case as Pyongyang’s political isolation and bad relations with the USA and also the multilateral character of the Korean nuclear crisis unlike bilateral character of the Indo-Pakistan crisis. Responding other Professor Iwashita’s question, the presenter also noted that assassination of Kim Jong Un can have potentially dangerous consequences if no evident successor is available: it could lead to serious internal conflict that could involve external powers (such as the USA and China). Answering Professor Iwashita’s and Professor Park’s questions about the agenda of potential negotiations on the current crisis Professor Ha suggested that Pyongyang regime’s security, withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South Korea, economic assistance, and non-proliferation will likely will be the key issues. It will not be easy to achieve a compromise, as some of these potential demands could be unacceptable for the USA and its partners (e.g. the withdrawal of U.S. troops can lead to the annexation of South Korea by the North, as Professor Park suggested) while highly desirable not only for North Korea itself but also by China. At the same time, Pyongyang most likely will not agree to give up its nuclear weapons on any terms.