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Prospects for Denuclearization in the DPRK: Dim or Dimmer?

By Travis Lindsay | April 21, 2016

Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The prospects for a denuclearized DPRK have been in steady decline since the first nuclear crisis in 1993, and as of 2016 the chances for denuclearization are seemingly at an all-time low. The implementation and apparent enforcement of UNSC resolution 2270, specifically with regards to participation by the PRC, will likely not be a fundamental game-changer that modifies the Kim Jong-un regime’s calculus in the international community’s favor.

The DPRK’s decreasing likelihood to denuclearize can be seen as a function of its elapsed time as a nuclear weapons state as well as domestic political constraints. First, the longer it holds its nuclear stockpile, the less likely the DPRK becomes to trade that stockpile away. The regime has built credibility and national pride around its nuclear deterrent, essentially conflating its nuclear capabilities with both juche ideology and the byungjin line. That credibility and reliance on nuclear weapons’ necessity as a political crutch will only increase as more time elapses since the DPRK’s first detonation. Further, it is important to note that Kim Jong-un inherited a de facto nuclear weapons state when he assumed power in 2011. That the Young Leader is either amenable or politically able to reverse his nuclear policy back to the 1990’s status quo is a remote possibility.

Second, it is necessary to view the prospects for denuclearization through the lens of North Korea’s domestic political context. The major landmarks of denuclearization have occurred during periods of relative political stability within the DPRK. The 1994 Agreed Framework was negotiated while Kim Il-sung was relatively healthy, and had already allowed Kim Jong-il to build a patronage network that would ensure a smooth succession. The Six Party Joint Statements were negotiated and enforced up until a time that roughly coincided with Kim Jong-il’s 2008 stroke. If we view political stability in the DPRK as a requisite for progress on denuclearization, an estimation of Kim Jong-un’s current political position leads us to believe that the chances for a breakthrough are exceedingly low. Constant political purges show that the Young Leader is still in the process of consolidating power, and that nearly constantly heightened tensions and brinkmanship do not speak towards secure and flexible leadership.

This brings us to the issue of UNSC resolution 2270, perhaps the most effective, severe, and credible sanctions regime in recent history. The obvious rationale for these sanctions is that a financially constricted regime may calculate that the overwhelming consequences of its nuclear program are not worth its benefits. Therefore, it could begin to seriously consider negotiating away its nuclear program with the right incentives. While the level of pressure on the regime may be unprecedented, it is important to note that the DPRK regime has almost never responded to coercion and threats with sincere negotiations. The sanctions will almost definitely increase pressure on Kim Jong-un - ultimately destabilizing his core constituencies, imperiling the survival of the Kim regime, and lowering the regime’s willingness to negotiate. Stakeholders on all sides of UNSC 2270 may see this new sanctions coordination as possible history in the making if they finally alter the DPRK’s nuclear calculus. A more sober evaluation sees this newest sanctions regime as another round of history repeating itself, with the prospects for peaceful denuclearization in the DPRK in the face of increased sanctions as more remote than ever.



Travis Lindsay is a 1st Year student at GPS studying International Politics. His interests include energy security, comparative politics in East Asia, and US foreign policy in the Middle East. After GPS, Travis hopes to work in the think tank world.


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