America Shouldn’t Need to Bribe North Korea

Déjà vu all over again. Pyongyang promises to suspend its nuclear activities in return for aid.

Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, in the morning of September 27, 2008
Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, in the morning of September 27, 2008 (Kok Leng Yeo)

North Korea has agreed to suspend parts of its atomic weapons program in exchange for humanitarian aid from the United States. The move has cautiously been heralded as a breakthrough but isn’t.

Pyongyang’s stock of nuclear devices represents its only independent leverage over foreign powers. Its client relation with Beijing may be weakening as the new generation of Chinese leaders regards the North’s erratic behavior warily. The regime may count on China to prevent Western nations from intervening militarily but ultimately, the threat of nuclear retaliation against the South is the country’s best guarantee of survival.

So North Korea won’t give up its nuclear program. It has promised to halt atomic bomb and long range missile tests and freeze uranium enrichment although it will be difficult if not impossible to verify these promises even if inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are allowed to see some sites.

It is also not the first time that North Korea has made them. The regime routinely promises to change its behavior in exchange for aid only to backpedal on these commitments later. As recently as September 2010, the United Nations dispatched several hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assistance — less than four months after North Korean submarines sunk a Southern corvette in the Yellow Sea.

It’s sad for the millions of North Koreans who are suffering destitution and famine as a result of their government’s economic mismanagement but the West does them no favors by enabling the regime to stay in place.

As its people are slowly starving to death, the communist government in North Korea continues to invent crises to legitimize its position. Especially if the population is starting to recognize that their brethren on the other side of the demarcation line aren’t slaves to America but prospering as a free and democratic nation, the regime has to foment a fear of imminent danger in order to keep control.

For years, it has been one crisis after another, from nuclear weapons tests to intercontinental ballistic missiles to abducting American journalists to sinking a South Korean navy ship. With a young and untested Kim in command, there is an even higher risk of confrontation if the new leader believes that he must assert himself to win the respect of the armed forces.

Giving the regime food doesn’t just reward bad behavior; it signals a weakness on the part of the United States. A superpower shouldn’t have to bribe rogue states into making concessions, at least not publicly. It should be able to overawe a state that has no chance of beating it and its South Korean ally on the battlefield.