Pyongyang is no Tehran

North Korea's leaders have no reason to compromise on nukes.

    An activist holds an anti-North Korean placard during a rally in Seoul [AFP]
    An activist holds an anti-North Korean placard during a rally in Seoul [AFP]

    The recent framework agreement between the US and Iran is rightly seen as a dramatic breakthrough. Predictably, one of the questions which is going to be raised is whether this deal opens a way towards a compromise solution of other diplomatic stalemates related to the nuclear proliferation issue, including the most intractable of all - that of North Korea.

    Indeed, it might be argued that North Korea now has an example to emulate and, with a measure of flexibility on both sides, a North Korea nuclear deal might be within the realm of possibility. We are likely to hear such reasoning frequently in the near future, but unfortunately, hopes for a possible Iranian-style deal with North Korea are unfounded.

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    The optimists tend to overlook major differences in the situation of these two potential nuclear powers (well, North Korea, having conducted three nuclear tests, might better be described as a "de-facto nuclear power").

    Grave existential threat

    Unlike their Iranian peers, North Korean decision-makers are certain that they face a grave existential threat. They believe that one day they might face not merely a bombing campaign, but a full-scale US assault or, even more likely, an internal rebellion which would be supported from the outside.

    In other words, North Korean leaders think that eventually they are likely to face the fate of either Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi - as long as they are weak, of course.

    As a matter of fact, North Korean propaganda never ceases to remind its readers about the sorry fate of these two Middle Eastern strongmen and alleged suffering of their former subjects. Often such reminders are combined with an explicit message that only the existence of a nuclear deterrent safeguards the North Korean people from the tragic fate of the Iraqis and Libyans.

    For a change, North Korean propaganda tells what the North Korean decision-makers actually believe - and, frankly, the recent events have seemingly demonstrated that their line of reasoning is by no means paranoid. After all, the late Colonel Gaddafi is the only strongman in history who agreed to swap his (admittedly, half-baked) nuclear weapons acquisition programme for western promises of economic advantages. Everybody knows how badly things turned out for the credulous dictator.

    Even if the economic sanctions lead to a decline in living standards, the North Korean populace is likely to do what their parents and grandparents always did: Keep their mouth shut...


    Ten years ago, after the nuclear deal with Libya was struck, US diplomats said that North Koreans should learn from Gaddafi's experience. No doubt, they did just that, even though the lesson might be quite different from what people in Washington once hoped for.

    Neither sticks nor carrots

    Another difference is that the US and the outside world in general has neither sticks nor carrots sufficient to push or lure the North Koreans into a deal. Iran might be a curious case of a cross between a democracy and theocracy, but it is clearly a place where people vote and where they have manifold ways to express their concerns and worries.

    North Korea is different. North Koreans do not vote - or, to be more precise, they vote with predetermined results. Starting in the late 1940s North Korean "elections" allow only one candidate per district, and since 1957 the official published reports after every elections tell us that 100 percent of all voters cast their votes for the government-appointed candidates.

    A riot, let alone a rally, is something unthinkable in North Korea (there were some minor riots at soccer matches and marketplaces, but clearly of a non-political nature).

    Thus, even if the economic sanctions lead to a decline in living standards, the North Korean populace is likely to do what their parents and grandparents always did: Keep their mouth shut and, when ordered, rush to government rallies, where they will profess their unwavering enthusiasm for the Kim family and its policies.

    In the late 1990s, a massive famine killed some 600,000 people, or 2.5 percent of the entire population, but no cases of riots were reported.

    Rusty surveillance

    Things might be somewhat different now: The surveillance bureaucracy is getting rusty. Nonetheless, only a massive economic deprivation (if any) is likely to provoke serious discontent, so North Korean leaders have little reason to worry that sanctions will lead to internal instability.

    On the other hand, Pyongyang's leaders are under little pressure to deliver better living standards. They do not mind if their subjects' lives improve, and in recent years they have done much to promote an economic recovery. Nonetheless, in a system where the majority has almost no way to influence the decision-making, the government is unlikely to seriously compromise on security issues for the sake of some economic gains.

    So, North Korea is no Iran. The upsurge of hopes, brought about by the Iranian nuclear deal, might indeed lead to some diplomatic moves around Pyongyang. However, one can be pretty sure that these efforts will end in nought.

    North Korean leaders have no reason to compromise on nukes. Such a deal would damage their security, giving them little in return, and they understand this only too well. 

    Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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