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Can North Korea's 'treasured sword' be bargained away?

Despite Friday‘s cross-border summit affirming the shared goal of complete denuclearization, skepticism lingers over whether North Korea will forgo its nuclear arsenal, a quintessential source of national pride and “treasured sword of justice.”

Despite crippling sanctions and global excoriations, the North has gamely pushed to advance its nuclear program not in a haphazard way but systematically with apparent operational purposes, strategic planning, and not least a long-term vision.

Despite its recent cryptic shift toward economic reconstruction, Pyongyang has been seen crafting legal justification for its nuclear buildup, codifying its “nuclear power status” in its constitution and other legal and policy documents.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right) share final words before Kim`s departure to Pyongyang after Friday`s inter-Korean summit. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right) share final words before Kim`s departure to Pyongyang after Friday`s inter-Korean summit. (Yonhap)

“(We) made the legislation to ensure our nuclear force serves until the denuclearization of the world is realized, so as to deter and defeat aggression and attacks against our republic, and take retaliatory strikes to annihilate the origin of invasion,” the North’s state media reported when its rubber-stamp parliament passed an act on its nuclear possession in April 2013.

Friday‘s inter-Korean summit declaration that included the phrase of “complete denuclearization” raised cautious optimism that Pyongyang could reorient its nuclear policy, but questions remain over whether it will bargain away its nukes.

The moment of truth for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may come when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump for unprecedented talks in May or June when the American commander-in-chief is expected to test the veracity of Kim’s denuclearization commitment.

Washington has called for a “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization, vowing not to repeat past mistakes -- allowing Pyongyang to secure hefty incentives for a gradual drawdown of nuclear arms under a deal, cheat on it and eventually drop out of it.

Pyongyang‘s push for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the continental United States has galvanized Washington into an aggressive denuclearization campaign -- following years of the U.S. “strategic patience” derided by some as a “strategic coma.”

The North’s ICBM program is seen by some as part of Pyongyang‘s broad strategy to secure a reliable nuclear deterrent against “U.S. hostility.”

Along with the ICBM, Pyongyang has been pursuing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as seen in a series of tests in 2015 and 2016. SLBMs could lead to the North’s “second-strike” capability to launch a nuclear retaliation after a “first strike” from an enemy.

Second-strike capability forms the basis of a condition referred to as “mutual assured destruction” that is credited for maintaining the “long peace” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Under the condition, one dares not initiate nuclear warfare that would lead to mutual annihilation.

Major nuclear powers have been equipped with a “nuclear triad” that consists of three nuclear deterrence assets: ICBMs, SLBMs and a strategic bomber.

Given its course of nuclear development, Pyongyang appears to be following the trajectory of major powers‘ nuclear buildup.

“North Korea on its part has apparently been thinking hard about a strategy for developing nuclear arms, as well as utilizing them in an operational sense. ... It might have already mapped out an operational plan for the use of its nuclear forces,” Park Won-gon, security expert at Handong Global University, told Yonhap News Agency.

Based on the North’s apparent quest for the survivable second-strike platform, some experts raised the possibility that Pyongyang might seek an “assured retaliation” strategy that deters enemy forces with the prospect of unacceptable nuclear counterstrikes.

Pyongyang‘s avowed pledge not to use nuclear weapons first as long as it does not face any nuclear threat gives weight to the argument that it may be leaning toward a retaliation strategy rather than a “first-use” approach.

However, there is still speculation that Pyongyang could resort to an aggressive first-use strategy in the face of the conventional military superiority of the South Korea-U.S. alliance and given the unpredictable, bellicose nature of the regime.

The communist state could also lose interest in crafting an assured retaliation strategy, as Washington has been sharpening its global multilayered missile defense program likely to neutralize the North’s still rudimentary retaliation platform.

The strategy issue aside, many argue that Pyongyang might be seeking to complete its nuclear arsenal to attain the dynastic regime‘s lofty goal to make the North an “ideologically, militarily and economically strong nation.”

The North claims it has already become a powerful nation ideologically with its ideology of “juche,” or self-reliance, and militarily with the “nuclear button” on Kim’s desk. The remaining legacy task for its leader Kim is to shore up his country‘s debilitated economy -- a reason why Pyongyang’s policy focus has recently switched to economic reconstruction.

Nuclear weapons are also a major source of the North‘s national pride that critics say its leadership has seized on to press ahead with the weapons program despite sanctions that have crippled the livelihoods of everyday North Koreans.

The ill-defined description of the phrase, “complete denuclearization,” in the latest inter-Korean declaration is a source of contention.

Many argue that the phrase marks the start of a long-awaited march toward the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program. But others argue that it could mean the removal of America‘s extended deterrence to South Korea, which will lead to the breakup of the decades-old Seoul-Washington alliance.

Extended deterrence refers to the U.S. commitment to defend its ally by mobilizing all military capabilities, nuclear and conventional, against the North’s aggression.

The North could also seek to learn lessons from history.

Russia is seen to have flouted the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, under which Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear arms in exchange for its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a strong sentiment has emerged in Ukraine that the country should not have given up its nuclear arsenal. (Yonhap)