On Feb. 29, the newest round of negotiations between the United States and North Korea ended. The North Korean side has agreed to freeze its uranium-enrichment program and refrain from long-range missile testing in exchange for food aid from the United States.
The Western media has predictably expressed hope (admittedly, limited and conditional) about the revival of nuclear talks, and the U.S. State Department has described the negotiations as a "modest first step."
Yes, it was a "step," and not the first in the seemingly endless nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea -- but toward what?
The United States' official stance is unwavering: Its stated goal is the complete, irreversible, and verifiable nuclear disarmament of the North. This position has not changed over the past 20-odd years. In the meantime, the North has successfully tested plutonium devices, conducted a number of long-range missile launches (admittedly not so successful), and started an impressive uranium-enrichment program. We have never been as far from denuclearization as we are today.
This shouldn't be surprising: U.S. policy is hopelessly unrealistic. Under no circumstances will the North Korean government consider relinquishing its hard-won nuclear capabilities. And why should it?
The North's nuclear capability provides a deterrent that ensures that the leadership in Pyongyang won't suffer the sorry fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Pyongyang's leaders assume, probably correctly, that the two dictators would still be alive and in power had they developed nuclear weapons. Once upon a time, in interacting with the North Korean dignitaries, Western diplomats would frequently cite Qaddafi's decision to surrender his half-baked nuclear program as a shining example to emulate. North Korean diplomats were not impressed, and they have been proved right.
From North Korea's perspective, nuclear weapons have been a great investment. They are a key means for the North to receive generous and all but unconditional aid from the international community, important for the regime's survival because its dysfunctional economy cannot be reformed due to internal political constraints.
The North's nuclear blackmail has worked brilliantly. Look no further than the recent deal: an agreement by the North to slow down its nuclear developments in exchange for a large volume of unconditional aid. Denuclearization cannot be made attractive because Pyongyang understands that by possessing a nuclear weapons capability, it can demand aid through negotiations.
Not only is the carrot useless, but so is the stick. Outside pressure and international sanctions won't persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Because only a post-Kim Korea might conceivably surrender its nukes, regime change could work, but the human and financial costs of a military operation would be prohibitively high.
Sanctions fail because China will be unlikely to participate in a sanctions regime. Even with genuine Chinese cooperation, the main victims will be normal North Koreans, whose survival ranks fairly low on the regime's agenda. Effective sanctions would merely result in the death of countless North Korean farmers, not a reversal of Pyongyang's policies. In the long run, such pressure might bring a revolution -- but not before a million or two people starve to death. Even this is uncertain: If pressed, the regime will pretend to take steps toward denuclearization and start receiving aid again, bringing us back to where we are today. For the governments of democratic countries, sanctions have made sense to show voters that something is being done, but as a policy sanctions have failed completely -- and likely will again.