[INTERVIEW] ‘North Korea won’t use nuclear bombs’

Dutch politician urges President Yoon Suk-yeol to keep options open for North Korea, not insist on denuclearization

By Ko Dong-hwan

When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test at Punggye-ri on Oct. 9, 2006, the world saw the possibility that the small impoverished state could threaten global security. As the first test was followed by five more ― the latest of which was in September 2017 ― tension has only been escalating. The United Nations and the U.S. attempted to estrange Pyongyang by placing sanctions on the state to impede its global trade power and cripple its economy. The Western countries point to human rights violations and the regime’s extravagant expenditures on its military while many North Koreans face poverty and food shortages.

The goalposts have occasionally been moved, in line with South Korea’s on-again-off-again peace efforts. The two Koreas exchanged cultural and sports representatives during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and special back-to-back performance tours in each country the same year. Then South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 shook hands and hugged each other at the Joint Security Area in the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjeom, promising to work jointly on lowering inter-Korean tensions and achieving unification. There has never been a more dramatic and rosy moment that suggested peace on the Korean Peninsula wasn’t far-fetched.

But years later, and the global community still sees North Korea steeped under the same self-justifying rhetoric that triggers military provocations and harsh language against its critics. The seemingly interminable conflict was ratcheted up even further when South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol repeatedly criticized Moon’s North Korea policies. Arguing the necessity for Seoul to ramp up military power against Pyongyang, Yoon said Moon had “given in to Kim’s regime.” In response, Pyongyang shot back at Yoon, rejecting his “audacious initiative” the president proposed North Korea on the 100th day of his presidency.

Michiel Hoogeveen, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who has been studying North Korea and made three visits between 2014 and 2017, said he knows why this inter-Korean tension persists.

“When negotiating with North Korea, we constantly make mistakes by starting with a conclusion, which is denuclearization,” Hoogeveen, who represents the Netherlands’ political party JA21 at the European Parliament, said in an interview with The Korea Times. “When you start with the conclusion, then you go too fast. We must first ask the question: why do they have nuclear weapons?”

The answer: the state has become paranoid and feels constant threats within the region, according to Hoogeveen. “You have on one hand South Korea, a very successful global superpower that has tremendous products and is part of the global economy. On the other hand, you have North Korea, a failed state that is not recognized by the U.S. and Japan and has competition with Seoul across the southern border. So Pyongyang is very scared and that’s why they have nuclear weapons, which are their ultimate deterrent.”

Another reason Pyongyang favors nuclear weapons, Hoogeveen said, is to remain relevant on the world stage. Enshrining nuclear-friendly doctrines and promoting itself to the world as a “crazy, irrational actor” that keeps shooting missiles whenever it wants has been Pyongyang’s unchanged tactic for the last few decades, he added.

“This is just ramping up their rhetoric to provoke a response from South Korea and the U.S.,” Hoogeveen said. “They want to increase tensions.”

Yoon, at this critical inter-Korean juncture, must persuade Pyongyang wisely instead of using hostile rhetoric such as threatening to launch a preemptive strike on Pyongyang, according to the politician.

“We agreed under the Panmunjeom Declaration and also with the United States and in the Singapore Statement that the Korean Peninsula will be denuclearized. But it’s a long-term goal that might take generations. In the meantime, (Yoon should say), ‘Let’s talk about what you want.’ Paradoxically, if you want to get rid of the nukes, you should stop talking about the nukes and start talking about what actually matters to the North Koreans so that they feel safe to normalize relations and lower their defenses.”

Persuading Pyongyang shouldn’t make them feel like they are being bribed out of their nuclear deterrent, according to Hoogeveen.

“North Koreans will never give up their nuclear deterrent in exchange for money or investment, although those are what they want,” he said. “So, let them have their nuclear weapons. They won’t use them anyway. They don’t have any reentry vehicle and don’t have any concrete aim (to target their ballistic weapons). Even if they shoot the missiles to the U.S., the state will be destroyed in response and the Kim regime will be over. So I think President Yoon should act with this in mind.”

Having visited Pyongyang three times, Hoogeveen, 33, first came in contact with North Koreans while being part of Pugwash Netherlands, an organization born following the Cold War to initiate dialogue on complicated international issues. He said the organization has been dormant for years.

Comparing 2014 to the present days, Hoogeven said Kim’s dictatorship has changed. Kim, becoming the state leader in 2011, started promoting his Byungjin Line policy that supported simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and improvements to the economy. But encountering the U.S.’ persistent stance against North Korea having nuclear weapons, Kim started secluding his regime from the outside world, according to Hoogeveen. After COVID-19 broke out worldwide, the state became even more isolated.

“Kim promised North Koreans they will no longer have to tighten their belts,” Hoogeveen said. “And he was actively seeking foreign investment. He was lenient on gray and black markets and was very much open to negotiations with the U.S. But after the failed Hanoi Summit in 2019, the behavior of Kim changed. He became more pessimistic on whether negotiations with the U.S. will ever succeed because he realized that the U.S., when negotiating with North Korea, will always start with the conclusion. That’s not what Kim wants. He wants to talk about investment, normalizing relations and peace.”

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