Why Are We Wasting Time on Nuclear Talks?

This author is confused. Why is the United States still actively seeking to engage in nuclear talks with North Korea? North Korea’s nuclear program is about regime survival, prestige, self-sufficiency and national defense. Pyongyang has made the strategic decision that it is in the country’s national interest to acquire and maintain nuclear weapons. The West has absolutely nothing North Korea wants.

The survival and absolute power of the Kim family is the government’s primary interest. North Korea sees the US as having intervened in an intra-Korean affair (i.e. the Korean War) and as the largest obstacle to reunification. North Korea has been threatened by the US for decades, including with nuclear weapons. The United States continues to maintain troops in South Korea and partner with Japan and South Korea against it, both the DPRK’s enemies. From the North’s perspective, nuclear weapons are not only a rational choice, but a necessary one. They are not a bargaining chip. It is not a temporary or tactical decision. They will never give them up and no amount of sanctions, threats or talks wil ever change that. US policy fails spectacularly at understanding the strategic culture of the DPRK. It’s time to give up the illusion.

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
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17 Responses to Why Are We Wasting Time on Nuclear Talks?

  1. Vlasov says:

    It is so true. It would be really interesting to know if US follows some kind of a secret agenda, that they actually have a plan. They probably expect that the inevitable father-to-son transition of power will trigger some changes within the regime, maybe even weaken it. Very doubtful perspective though (in short term). Time is running out.

  2. Brent says:

    It’s all about domestic politics. No one wants to be seen as a “do nothing” on this issue, even though I suspect they all know the points you raise above. Same thing with the Israelis/Palestinians.

  3. Chirol says:

    Possibly, but we’ve basically accepted India, Pakistan and Israel’s programs.

    As for Israel/Palestine, there are some things we can do like cut all aid to Israel. While the US doesnt have the power to solve teh problem, we do have a few levers though I doubt we’ll actually use them.

  4. Bud says:

    What I fail to understand is N. Koreas long term goal; even with nukes they could not gain anything from a war. If they were reunited with S. Korea it would only speed the fall of the N. Korean regime. Do they just plan to wallow in a hopeless situation forever? I have a hard time accepting that; although I have no idea what they are planning I have to think they have a plan.

  5. Thanos says:

    We have 2 things they want – food, and status. A country like NK being able to force a superpower to interact with it mean that they can claim the same world profile, at least internally.

  6. Chirol says:

    Long term goals are clear:

    Regime survival
    National security
    Reunification of south into north

  7. Bob Harrison says:

    A little off topic but I’m curious what the authors of this site think about the START treaty. Some argue that the more we delay such treaties the less legitimacy we have to stop proliferation to places like North Korea.

  8. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I agree that survival of the Kim family’s total control is the overriding NK priority, but in my opinion “reunification of South into North” has nothing to do with it, and even the Kims must surely know that it is an impossibility. Their only hope is to perpetuate ownership of their starving, impoverished fiefdom.

  9. Jupiter says:

    Israel, India and Pakistan all have fears that we can understand. Not so with North Korea; Americans are a rational people that would (almost always) prefer to avoid war and as such, we find it hard to understand how we could be viewed as threatening by NK leadership. See: Ronald Reagan’s reaction to Soviet anxiety over Able Archer 83.

  10. Michael says:

    See the entry for November 21st:


    I’ll readily grant this site has biases on the subject, but the question still comes to mind: To what extent is the NK nuclear weapons program a mirage summoned by the Kims to make themselves look more dangerous than they really are?

  11. Chirol says:

    Jupiter: North Korea is no less rational than the US, India, Pakistan or Israel. It simply has a different culture and different national goals. Sure they may be decided by some crackpot dictator but NK does make rational decisions towards reaching its self-professed goals. We see them as “irrational” to our detriment.

    Secondly I disagree Americans generally tend to avoid war. The last 100 years tend to contradict you. That’s not to say all the wars were unjustified but only that Americans as a people are probably the most beliigerent in the Western world.

    Lastly, the fact that we don’t understand our constant threatening of other countries can be seen as threatening is part of our cultural and policy problem. We still suffer from too much idealism and too little realism

  12. Thomas says:

    Jupiter said it, “Americans are a rational people that would (almost always) prefer to avoid war and as such,”

    That is exactly how Americans see ourselves but that is not how much of the world sees us. In our minds, we’re the good guys and ostensibly no just nation needs to fear us. Every Presidential administration in my lifetime has bombed or invaded another country. Two of those presidents made the appearance of militarism and a willingness to use violence as a major tool of diplomacy into cornerstones of their time in office. The last president declared DPRK to be one of the US’s greatest enemies. Moreover, the moral arguments notwithstanding, we remain the only nation on Earth to ever deploy nuclear weapons against a foe.

    It doesn’t matter whether we’re the good guys or not. North Korea has no reason to depend on our good will and our pretenses of morality. We have the capacity to destroy them and we keep intimating that we’ll eventually do so. Of course they want nuclear weapons.

    If you were an arthritic midget and the champion boxer around the block kept telling everyone how he was going to beat you to death as soon as he got around to it, even if you suspected he was bluffing, you’d probably want a shotgun. It would only be wise.

  13. Brent says:

    I have to agree with you Thomas. Only one of two things keep a country from taking a given action 1) lack of will or 2) lack of ability. The United States does not lack the ability to destroy the North Korean regime, it only lacks the will. Possession of nukes by the North Koreans will increase the cost to the US of destroying them and therefore means the US would need an even greater desire (will) to go about destroying that regime. This goes directly to Chirol’s top two goals of the North Koreans – regime survival and national security. If you want to see what happens to “little” countries when the US gets around to feeling the will, see Afghanistan and Iraq. If either of those countries possessed nukes, their ruling class before US invasion would still be in power.

  14. Roy Berman says:

    “Every Presidential administration in my lifetime has bombed or invaded another country.”

    Jimmy Carter frequently mentions being proud of the fact that he is the only (20th century?) President to have not fought or attacked any country during his term. Is he incorrect in that assertion?

  15. Brent says:


    Yes, Jimmy Carter is lying about that. Probably because the attack he ordered didn’t go well, at all, and everyone would like to forget it.

    See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Eagle_Claw

  16. Roy Berman says:

    I can sort of see the argument for not including that since it was a rescue operation rather than something initiated by America, but I don’t think it’s a very good case. You’re right, it should have been included. But it is still far less than probably any other president in a very long time.

  17. slim says:

    You are confused, on a number of counts:

    -It is North Korea and China who are actively seeking resumption of nuclear talks. The Obama administration’s position, restated almost daily, is that they’ll talk when North Korea indicates it will do things that would give the talks any value. Without that unlikely action by North Korea, any talks are likely to revert to the rinse-and-repeat cycle of North Korea reaping awards for the crises that Pyongyang manufactures.

    -As Thanos notes, beginning with food and status, the U.S. has plenty North Korea wants. I would add cash and an export market. I’d say North Korea wants to diversify its pool of sugar daddies away from a suffocating China whose designs on northern Korea are unknown and suspect in some quarters and a South Korea that has questioned the value of its 2000-2007 largesse. (And in any case, as others above have noted, too close of an embrace of NK by Seoul presents an existential threat to the Kim Family Regime.)

    -Any “threat” to North Korea from the U.S., nuclear or conventional, takes the form of retaliation for North Korean attack — although since 1953, this has been theoretical as a long line of North Korean attacks and outrages against South Korea (and occasionally against the U.S. ) have gone unanswered in military terms. Since June 25, 1950, North Korea = offense; US/South Korea = defense.

    You are correct that North Korea is unlikely to give up what it sees as its survival card. That is why I expect more serious, focused and concrete discussion of regime change in 2011 and hope for more fruitful efforts to make that palatable to the Chinese.