Andrei Lankov is a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, Korea, an author of books on North Korean history and society, including ‘The Real North Korea’ (2014).
With a 10 kilotons yield, North Korea’s nuclear test last week was the most powerful test the country has had yet. Earlier this year, North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile, presumably capable of hitting Guam, and launched its first submarine-based ballistic missile. North Korean President Kim Jong Un wants a full-scale nuclear force, complete with array of delivery systems, and he is clearly getting there.
There is little doubt that the next weeks will be marked by frenetic diplomatic activity, with the United Nations Security Council passing yet another “strongly worded letter.” The U.N. is under pressure to introduce additional sanctions targeting North Korea.
However, North Korea is already under heavy sanctions, which have failed to prevent the advance of the military technologies and had little, if any, impact on the general state of North Korean economy. The market prices and currency exchange rates remain remarkably stable, and construction in Pyongyang continues apace.
The major obstacle to a successful sanctions regime in North Korea is the ambivalent attitude of China, a country that controls some 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade. Beijing is not happy about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions but does not want to hit Pyongyang too hard; regime collapse and civil unrest in a neighboring nuclear country is seen as an even greater threat. However, even if Beijing starts pushing North Korea really hard (a very, very big if), provoking an economic collapse, North Korea will still be unlikely to surrender the nuclear weapons. Kim is determined to go fully nuclear, even if it means ignoring his own deteriorating economy. North Korea will not yield on what it sees as a question of its own survival. Even if additional sanctions are to come, don’t be too surprised if and when China, regardless of its current outrage, starts sabotaging sanctions quietly in few months’ time.
A military solution, including precision airstrikes, seems to be a non-starter as well. If North Korea is attacked, it is capable of striking back, using its batteries to inflict serious damage on Seoul, which lies, essentially, on the border.
The prognosis is not good for an Iran-style negotiated solution for two reasons. To start with, the North Koreans have made clear that now they have not the slightest intention to talk, even though they might become more perceptive once their ballistic missiles and submarines are deployed. Second, even if North Korea were willing to engage in dialogue, the government would want to talk about arms control, not about disarmament.
So, what can be done? Is the situation completely hopeless? Perhaps not. The Cold War did not end because the communist countries collapsed under the pressure of sanctions. It ended because the people in the communist world concluded that their system was not worth keeping — and began to demand change.
At the end of the day, the low efficiency of the communist economies was decisive, but only because the common people learned how economically poor and politically restrictive their countries were — and they learned it because they had access to information about the outside world. It happened not only in the Soviet Union but also to an extent in China after Mao Zedong’s death.
The only realistic hope is to promote the type of internal change that proved decisive in virtually all communist countries. Information was what undermined the communist regimes, pushing them toward extinction or radical market reforms. Incidentally, North Korean bureaucrats understand the power of uncensored information very well and do what they can to isolate their people from the outside world — North Korea is the world’s only country where it is a crime to be in possession of a radio set.
North Korea’s information isolation is crumbling anyway — largely thanks to the spread of smuggled foreign movies and TV shows. Information dissemination efforts that serve to promote exchanges between North Koreans and the outside world should be supported by the international community. North Koreans, including the elite and their children, should be brought in contact with the broader world so that they start asking questions about how their country is run and lobby for change — like their Soviet and Chinese peers did decades ago.