The Logic of North Korea's Nuclear Program

Visiting Scholar, RIETI

In the wake of the recent Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) drill held in Japanese waters, it is interesting to take a look at the North Korean nuclear issue, which gave rise to the PSI.

We cannot know for sure what motivated North Korea to develop a nuclear program, but we do know it has invested enormous resources, by the standards of its wretched economy, in its nuclear activities. We can also assume that, although Russia's initial assistance reportedly aimed to resolve North Korea's energy problems, the primary motivation for North Korea's nuclear program today is military and has been so for a long time - not only because the Nodong and Taepodong missile programs make little sense without nuclear warheads, but also because the north has not made any serious effort to obtain international aid for its energy problems. If North Korea had been really concerned about its energy crisis, it would have asked KEDO for conventional power stations, which could have been built faster and with far fewer diplomatic hurdles, instead of insisting on nuclear power plants.

For North Korea, possession of nuclear weapons offers three overlapping benefits: deterrence, offensive military capability and political clout. In terms of deterrence, Pyongyang may believe the ability to deliver nuclear payloads against South Korea, Japan, and maybe eventually the U.S., will deter a U.S. attack on North Korea.

Nuclear weapons also give North Korea an offensive military capability. At this point, an all-out attack on the south looks unlikely, but is logical to assume that this idea remains alive in the mind of the North Korean leadership. The North Korean state makes little sense if it is stripped of its mission to unify the peninsula. Marxist-Leninist ideology, although supplanted by the North Korean idea of juche (self-reliance) in many areas, remains an important pillar for North Korea. This ideology postulates that a violent conflict with non-Marxist-Leninist states is unavoidable.

Finally, nuclear weapons translate to political clout for the north. Through blackmail and brinksmanship, Pyongyang can and has successfully used its nuclear capabilities to gain political advantage and economic aid. These capabilities are also a way for North Korea to ensure that its existence as a state is not negotiated away during discussions about reunification. Developing nuclear weapons, or threatening to do so, is one means of retaining membership in the international community. Small, impoverished states like North Korea can increase their presence in world affairs if they are seen as dangerous troublemakers with nuclear capabilities.

Given that the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, has a complex relationship with South Korea, and has a very bad one with North Korea, Washington would probably be happy if China took the lead in solving the North Korean nuclear crisis, though it is difficult to know what such a "solution" would entail. So far, however, Beijing has been unable or unwilling to deliver. China's interests are complex. Of course, it has a stake in avoiding a nuclear conflagration and it would also grow in stature if it could produce an agreement. On the other hand, Beijing's ability to pressure Pyongyang is limited since a collapse of the North Korean regime would be detrimental to its interests - and North Korea knows this.

In addition, reunification could also bring a Korea aligned with the U.S. and Japan to its border, as well as create problems with its own ethnic Korean minority. Moreover, a North Korean breakdown could be extremely violent and dangerous. China has an interest in reinforcing its ties with Seoul - although the recent spat over the relationship between the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo and China's own ancient empire indicates that Beijing also wants to make it clear who is the senior partner in the relationship. Notwithstanding disputes over history, the six-party talks do give China the ability to promote itself, with full U.S. support, as a regional problem-solver and as a responsible member of the international community. As such the talks allow it to show a more "respectable" face, in contrast to its frequent bellicose statements regarding Taiwan. Thus, China may hope to maintain the status quo, however tenuous.

For its part, Pyongyang has proved adept at using the issue of the Japanese nationals it abducted during the Cold War to enhance its nuclear program: Through selective releases of abductees, it has been able to obtain dollops of Japanese aid which, even if humanitarian in nature or tied to specific civilian projects, allows Pyongyang to divert its own resources even more exclusively to its armed forces, including investment in its WMD program. Ideally for Japan, normalization of ties between the two countries would coincide with the north abandoning its WMD ambitions, as happened recently with Libya and the United States. But at this point there is no indication that this is how events will unfold.

Future prospects

At present, it is difficult to see how the North Korean nuclear crisis can be permanently resolved. Complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament (CVID) is extremely difficult to achieve for several reasons: 1) North Korea wants a nuclear capability; 2) it may only abandon it at a price that is not acceptable to the other parties; 3) verification is extremely difficult; and 4) several countries, especially South Korea and China, do not want to apply strong pressure on Pyongyang. CVID is probably only feasible if North Korea believes the alternative is a full-scale American attack. Since this is not a credible scenario unless the north initiates hostilities, it is unlikely that we will see the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea. For Japan, a nuclear North Korea is obviously not a desirable outcome. But if the alternative is war, the Japanese government will prefer a de facto nuclear North Korea as long as the credibility of the U.S. deterrent is maintained, and, if need be, increased. Some would argue that a nuclear-armed North Korea would embolden Iran and others to seek their own nuclear weapons, but the sad reality is that nuclear proliferation has already progressed significantly. It is noteworthy that U.S. relations with India are now stronger than they were before India tested several nuclear devices in 1998. The U.S. has also accepted Pakistan's nuclear program - and turned a blind eye to its proliferation activities - in exchange for Pakistani support in the war against al Qaeda.

Given these circumstances, the goal of diplomacy should be to manage the North Korean nuclear crisis. This entails preventing proliferation by North Korea and, if possible, slowing its nuclear development. Like diabetes, the peninsula's nuclear problem is a chronic disease. It is likely be with us as long as the North Korean state exists.

December 14, 2004

December 14, 2004

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