Why North Korea's Nuclear Program Can't Be Stopped

Tuesday's test has the world calling for a strong response, but the world can't negotiate with North Korea, because the world doesn't have anything North Korea wants.

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Despite years of war, sanctions, threats, and complete ostracizing from the rest of the planet, North Korea continues to defy all attempts to halt their nuclear operations. The state's latest test on Tuesday, its third in seven years, has officials around the globe condemning the regime and calling for new punishments. All sides are calling for a strong response, and the U.N. Security Council was meeting under South Korea on Tuesday morning, but since that international response won't include an all-out war, the only option is more pressure, followed by more negotiations.

Unfortunately, the world can't negotiate with North Korea, because the world doesn't have anything North Korea wants.

Yes, there are many things it needs — food, power, trade — but the Kim dynasty was been built on the idea that Koreans can and should provide those things for themselves. (Unfortunately, for most of their citizens, that means going without life's basic necessities.) Even the countries that share North Korea's borders and even its worldview — China and the old USSR/Russia — are only nominally considered allies. The Chinese haven't been able to keep the nuclear and missile programs in check, even though Kim Jong-un is as a big headache for Beijing and he is for Washington. The world wants engagement and negotiation; North Korea wants to prove it doesn't need the world.

The only concrete goal that North Korea seems willing to explicitly push for is the reunification with their southern neighbors. (And maybe the destruction of the United States, but mostly because the Eighth Army literally stands in the way of the first goal.) As is often pointed out, the Korean War never technically ended, and peace talks are not part of the current discussion. So there appear to be two options: 1) End the hostility and try to assimilate the two nations; for the North, that would mean a surrender to the more prosperous Southern way of life, and the loss of the war and their kingdom. Or, 2) they can conquer the South through sheer will — and bombs. As long the South has the United States on its side, the only bomb that levels the playing field is a nuke.

So just like Iran, which actually said today that "all weapons of mass destruction and nuclear arms need to be destroyed," there is nothing the world can offer that is worth more to them than a fully functional nuclear weapon. All the six-party talks and Security Council resolutions won't change that — and may actually be counterproductive since they allow the offending parties to effectively stall and waste everyone's time while they build their nuclear weapons. The first time North Korea actually agreed to abandon nuclear operations was in 1994. Eight years later the world learned they'd been operating a secret program the entire time, all while collecting foreign aid to build new "peaceful" nuclear reactors. There's a lesson in that episode, but maybe North Korea is the only one that learned it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.