There is a spreading conviction North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons no matter what concessions the United States makes or enticements anyone else offers.
A flurry of speculation has suggested the North Koreans, after a long boycott, may return to the Six-Party Talks in Beijing that include, besides themselves and the Chinese hosts, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The aim has been to dissuade the North from its nuclear ambitions.
Despite the conjecture, the North Koreans have evinced little intent to negotiate seriously. James Kelly, who until recently dealt with North Korea as an assistant secretary of state, has said: “It will negotiate, but apparently only about negotiations, not about the central issue that would diminish tensions.”
That leaves several unappealing options: Accept North Korea as a nuclear state, which would have unpredictable consequences, or muddle along in negotiations, which would buy time for North Korea, or seek economic sanctions on the North, which won’t work because China and South Korea oppose them.
A military attack on North Korea to destroy its nuclear sites has been all but ruled out because it would start a devastating war. Walking away and letting China, South Korea, Japan and Russia sort things out would be, said an American official, “a nutty idea” — except he didn’t have a better one.
Much evidence of their stance is provided by the North Koreans themselves. Last February, they proclaimed through their official news agency that they “have manufactured nukes for self-defense,” adding their “nuclear weapons will remain nuclear deterrent for self-defense under any circumstances.”
Since then, the official agency has consistently asserted a threat from the United States has “compelled the DPRK [Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea] to have access to nukes.” The North Koreans have contended that their nuclear arms were “a legitimate measure to avert a war.”
Earlier this month, the North Korean news agency insisted: “The nuclear weapons possessed by the DPRK are deterrent to defend the sovereignty and security of the country from the U.S. pre-emptive nuclear attack.” Several days ago, the agency declared: “Reality compels the DPRK to increase its capability for self-defense in every way.”
Private Korea-watchers and government officials elsewhere have begun concluding a nuclear North Korea is here to stay. Russia’s ambassador to Japan, Alexander Losyukov, who has taken part in negotiations in Beijing, was quoted in the Japanese press: “North Korea’s attitude toward the Six-Party Talks makes me believe that they are ignoring chances for negotiations.” The ambassador said North Korea was acting as a nuclear state. He urged North Korea to negotiate seriously but added: “I don’t believe this is going to happen.”
A South Korean news specialist on North Korea, Brent Choi of the JoongAng Ilbo, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would keep the weapons so he could boast “to his people and the military that he has successfully hidden away full-developed nuclear weapons and the U.S. will never get its hands on them.”
“He would emphasize,” Mr. Choi said, “that North Korea is now a proud nuclear-nation and that makes his Stalinist nation a winner in its confrontation with the ‘American Imperialists.’ ”
In Tokyo, the Japan Times, the English-language newspaper that often reflects Foreign Ministry views, said: “The Kim regime has no intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions. The nuclear-weapons program represents the regime’s only bargaining chip to secure a U.S. guarantee of survival.
“Experts were once divided over whether North Korea was actually aiming to produce nuclear arms or using the nuclear program as a tool of brinkmanship,” wrote columnist Keizo Nabeshima. “Few would disagree now that the North seeks to become a nuclear-weapons state.”
Similarly, Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, has written that North Korea’s 30-year effort to acquire nuclear arms is part of a “carefully considered strategy — a strategy so deeply wedded to purposes of state that can be described as integrally fused into the very logic of the North Korean system.”
The scholar said nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction were intended to enable North Korea to achieve “the annexation of present-day South Korea and liquidation of the government of the Republic of Korea.”
Moreover, Mr. Eberstadt said, North Koreans look on nuclear weapons as bargaining tools: “Pyongyang believes in “zero-sum” solutions, preferring outcomes that entail not only DPRK victories, but also face-losing setbacks for its opponents.”
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.