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A Nuclear Umbrella won’t make North Korea Abandon Nuclear Weapons

Updated: Jul 19, 2019

Global Times (Huanqiu)

Nov 13, 2013

Full title: It is not Realistic for China to Provide North Korea with a Nuclear Umbrella in order to Persuade it to Abandon Nuclear Weapons

Zhang Liangui 张琏瑰 - Institute for International Strategic Studies of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China 中共中央黨校國際戰略研究所



This article was written in 2013. However, it outlines the unique perspective on the issue of nuclearisation on the Korean peninsula of an informed and influential Chinese thinker. In the view of NEASAIR, this perspective is worth reviewing when appraising the current trajectory and potential for success of ongoing negotiations on denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.

Don’t harbour delusions about solutions to the Korean Nuclear Crisis

According to a recent South Korean report, a South Korean legislator asked the foreign minister “If North Korea was to ask China to extend the protection of a nuclear umbrella on the condition that the North denuclearises, how should South Korea respond?” This question was possibly influenced by the Chinese media, as Chinese scholars have suggested that China could extend the protection of a nuclear umbrella to North Korea to persuade it to abandon nuclear weapons.

Speaking frankly, this is fundamentally unrealistic at this present time. The reason is that North Korea has on many occassions stated clearly that it will “never abandon its nuclear weapons,” and has refused all requests for dialogue in relation to this issue. North Korea has also written “possessing nuclear weapons” into its constitution, and has established a policy of “developing nuclear weapons and developing the economy concurrently” [i.e., the so-called Byungjin or dual-track strategy]. In the eyes of North Korea, “there is no North Korea nuclear weapon ‘problem’”.Raising issues such as “extending a nuclear umbrella in exchange for abandoning nuclear weapons” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of North Korea.

Firstly, there is a misunderstanding in relation to North Korea’s motivation for possessing nuclear weapons. North Korea has for a long time proclaimed that the reason it has been developing a nuclear deterrent is because of America’s policy of treating North Korea as its enemy, which has created insecurity - hence it developed weapons for the purpose of ‘self defence’. In reality, the actual goals that have motivated North Korea to possess nuclear weapons are a lot more complicated. This April (2013), an article in the North Korean state mouthpiece The Rodong Sinmun stated openly that the goal that inspires North Korea’s uncompromising position on the issue of nuclearisation is “succeeding in unifying the peninsula”, and American scholars have noted that North Korean officials have told America on more than one occassion that its nuclear missiles are not directed at America and are oriented towards other objectives. Hence the so-called ‘self defence’ theory is but one of a number of aims, and could even be a procedural goal. Advocating using the protection of a ‘nuclear umbrella’ in exchange for North Korea abandoning nuclear weapons is based on the simple understanding that North Korea’s objectives stem from a sense of insecurity, and completely neglects the fact that North Korea uses nuclearisation as a tool to pursue other interests.

In addition to this, there is a misunderstanding about this ‘philosophy of self reliance’ (Korean: Juche sasang 주체사상, Chinese, zhuti sixiang 主體思想). In December 1955, North Korea, while in the middle of a factional struggle against the [Chinese backed] Yeonan faction, advanced “establishing self reliance,” and this subsequently evolved to become “the philosophy of self reliance.” The core value of the “philosophy of self reliance” was “opposing servitude to powerful states.” “Servitude to powerful states” (Korean: sadae, Chinese: shida 事大) had been a byword for the Joseon policy towards China. To this day, North Korea places special emphasis on “self reliance in thought, independence/self-rule (jaju / zizhu 自主) in politics, self reliance (jarip/ zili 自立) in the national economy, self defence (jawi/ ziwei 自衛) in national defence.” Under the guidance of “the philosophy of self reliance,” Korea will not under any circumstances accept any other country’s ‘protection’. “Servitude to powerful states” has a concrete meaning in the history of the Korean peninsula. Because of this, should the Chinese government really obey this naïve suggestion and raise the issue of ‘protection’ with North Korea, North Korea will definitely slam the table and leave, or even declare war.

The third issue is a miscomprehension of the logic behind North Korea’s leaders’ intentions and conduct in relation to the possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s leaders embrace the doctrine of realism in international politics, insist on the politics of placing military affairs first [songun - a core political ideology in North Korea], and are devout in their faith in military might. North Korea’s leaders have made the possession of nuclear weapons a fundamental national policy, and in spite of every cost and danger, their resolve to possess nuclear weapons has not wavered for a moment - they are even willing to tear up and defy treatises. On March 16, the DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the idea that idea that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons in order to attain a bargaining chip in negotiations is “quite simply nonsense.” On the 30th March the North Korean government made a special announcement stating “there will never be a world in which North Korea does not have a policy of songun [military first],’“which once again states a pledge: as long as North Korea has a policy of songun it will have nuclear weapons; if a North Korea without songun exists, the entire world’s existence is without meaning.

From this we can see that at the present moment, the hope that extending the protection of a nuclear umbrella to guarantee North Korea’s security will lead to North Korea abandoning nuclear weapons is an idealistic fantasy.

Similarly, since North Korea undertook its third nuclear test and proclaimed “it will never abandon nuclear weapons,” a kind of defeatism has taken hold. Some have advocated that demanding that today’s North Korea abandon nuclear weapons is not realistic and that we should give up maintaining the aim of denuclearising the peninsula, and change to “managing” North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. They may be fooling themselves but they will not fool others. When the entire international community, including the United Nations Security Council, is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, if you can’t adopt efficacious measures to prevent North Korea from possessing nuclear weapons, do you think North Korea will still allow you to “manage” its nuclear arsenal? The inevitable conclusion is that if you give an inch they will take a mile.