Most recent commentary on Kim Jong-un’s reasoning to continue with his nuclear programme rarely fails to invoke (the rogue state’s lessons learned from) the examples of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
There are, however, other examples that help explain the situation and project future developments. I would like to point out two of them—one providing historical insight; the other emphasising positive outcome of diplomacy and sanctions in order to halt a nuclear programme.
First, a case that is closer at hand for Kim but more distant in the history: that of Mao Zedong. China became nuclear before it became rich. This could be, in Kim’s mind, an example to follow, instead of Gaddafi or Saddam. Mao, while considering nuclear weapons as “paper tigers” with little military value, still recognised the political value in getting them.
Since its first tests in 1964, China made it clear that their programme would only serve as a part of its deterrent posture adhering to the “no-first-use” principle. In doing so, China avoided antagonising the nuclear status quo powers becoming, in time, a highly respected member of the nuclear community, valued negotiator in Iran or North Korea, and, additionally, the second largest economy in the world.
The second example to consider is the over overlooked case of Iran.
Pictures of John Kerry and Mohammad Zarif walking along the shores of the Lake Geneva are hard to forget, considering the history of the two nations. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement was a significant win for Rouhani who had carefully balanced his steps in the domestic as well as international fora. Yet, in turn, the agreement was also a victory for then U.S. President Barack Obama, the European Union’s Special Advisor for Iran Talks Catherine Ashton and all the others who put the diplomacy first.
As with all such agreements, their ultimate success or failure will only be revealed in the long term, while the controversies can be balanced sometimes nothing more tangible than trust and confidence. However, it is still fair to say that the sanctions regime was efficient in bringing about negotiations and the agreement that still stand.
While it is difficult to assess whether the Kim regime will successfully parlay its weapons programme to the nuclear club, or as a guarantor the regimes of longevity, it is also important to consider how civil societies might the impact the future.
Domestic political discourse, even in some non-democratic states, has always played a critical function in determining foreign policy outcomes. How much do the people matter in top level policy decision-making depends not only on the degree of autocracy of the regime, but also on the nature of the civil society: its resilience, critical mind and aspirations. In other words, its strength to influence the decision makers to avoid taking decisions that ignore the people’s will.
U.S. President Donald Trump pointed out in his recent UN speech that the roots of the Iranian people go back to the centre of civilisation, culture and wealth—and China’s, of course, thousands of years. While insights into Chinese societal impacts on its nuclear weapons programme are difficult to identify, even less is known about the decision-making process of the Kim regime and what role, if any, civil society might have in his autocratic state. It is not difficult to picture which of the two parallels is easier to draw from considering the roles and the strength of different civil societies.