Nuclear weapons weaken North Korea

North Korea's new initiative to put aside its nuclear programme could, if sincere, begin to correct a long-running and disastrous policy error.

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In 1968, North Korean commandos attacked South Korea's presidential Blue House, almost succeeding in a mission to kill then-president Park Chung-hee. In 1983, a bombing in Yangon in Burma narrowly missed South Korea's then-president Chun Doo-hwan, and killed 14 compatriots accompanying his delegation. Five years later, North Korean saboteurs blew up a Korean Air plane, killing all 115 on board.

If South Korea were going to attack North Korea, it would have done so long ago.

The chief rationale for North Korea's nuclear-weapons programme has been that the bomb provides a deterrent against South Korean or US attack. But it is abundantly clear that long-suffering South Korea was loathe to restart the 1950s war long before its neighbour's first nuclear-weapons test in 2006. A nuclear weapon, even if North Korea can build one that works on the battlefield (which is uncertain), is superfluous.

Pyongyang announced on Wednesday that it would suspend its nuclear programme and open its doors to IAEA inspectors. The country has a long history of duplicity in negotiations, notably having tricked the Bush administration into removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorists, just before the country's second nuclear test in 2009. This time, however, with a young leader in Kim Jong-un, backed by a rickety cabal of relatives and military officers, there is a possibility that Pyongyang might actually change its course.

So what, then, has North Korea gained from the nuclear game? The idea might have made sense when the programme was first initiated way back in 1956, and even in subsequent decades as it proceeded in fits and starts. It was a matter of prestige, a domestic rallying cry and, most importantly, a cudgel to threaten neighbours.

During the reign of the recently deceased Kim Jong-il, however, the programme was also a lead weight around the country's neck. When Kim took power in 1994, the country was sliding into a devastating famine caused by economic mismanagement. Over the next decade, while North Korean scientists limped along in their nuclear programme, resources were diverted to it from decaying infrastructure and government functions. North Korea depends on its sworn enemies, South Korea and the US, for food aid, about which it then lies to its people.

For its own good, Kim Jong-un's regime should break with the past. And for Iran, and other countries considering nuclear weapons, North Koreans' last two decades of suffering should be a cautionary lesson.