Becoming A Nuclear Power: North Korea on the Edge

Testing nuclear devices forces reflection on North Korea’s history of diplomatic strategy and disrepute, whilst posing problems for future negotiation.

By John Hemmings, RUSI

North Korea has tested a second nuclear device this weekend (24-25 May 2009), signifying both the end of fourteen years of difficult negotiations and its desire to be ranked as a permanent nuclear power. In many ways, the test is the culmination of a planning process that began in the early 1990s, after North Korea watched a similar-sized military to its own – with the same Soviet equipment and tactics – get rapidly overrun in the Iraqi desert.

Faced with a collapsing economy at exactly the same time that the US military was first deploying stealth technology and precision-guided munitions in battle, North Korean defence planners were faced with a conundrum: how to maintain their capacity in the face of new weapons with limited funds. The answer was to funnel a majority of its weapon research and development funds into two key areas: missile technology and nuclear capabilities. The combination amounted to one last desperate security gamble: nuclear capability and deterrence. This deterrence would not only guarantee the survival of the isolated and increasingly bankrupt regime, but would also give it the power and leverage it craved in the region. The only obstacle that North Korea faced was a shortage of funds and the opposition of every state in the region, including its main patron-state, China. So how exactly did North Korea manage to pull it off?

Playing for Time in Diplomatic Strategy

For the past fifteen years, North Korea has used two key principles to achieve its diplomatic objectives: keep its foes off-balance and play for time. Both principles were derived from the combat tactics used by North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung as he fought against the Japanese Imperial Army and later against the United States Army. They subsequently became foreign policy strategies during the Cold War, to be passed on to his son, Kim Jung-il in 1994.

The first principle involves off-setting a foe’s superior numbers and capabilities by keeping the enemy guessing, moving where he least expects it, and striking where he is most vulnerable. The second principle involves whittling down a foe’s resistance by repeated, seemingly disparate manoeuvres, and gaining time by avoiding decisive encounters. In his book, Negotiating on the Edge, Scott Snyder explains how those two tactics were brought to the nuclear negotiating table time and again. The tactics disconcerted American, South Korean, and Japanese negotiating teams, and wore them down with strong demands on unrelated areas, giving easily on other areas, and then rescinding on those offers. Significantly, while Japanese, American, and South Korean negotiating teams suffered reshuffling every four or five years due to election cycles, North Korea retained its core team, which grew more experienced with every year. Worse still is the reshuffling of leaders and their policies: from 1993, when Kim Jung-il assumed control of North Korea to the present day, the US has had three presidents, South Korea has had six presidents, and Japan has had ten prime ministers.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect with regards to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is the nasty template it serves for other rogue states. Not only did North Korea show how a small but aggressive state could develop these capabilities in opposition to the United Nations and IAEA opposition- kicking sand in the face of the international community, and the world’s only super power- but it also showed how a determined state could get the United States and the international community to effectively pay for that same development by holding out the meaty morsel of nuclear disarmament. According to a Congressional Research Service Report issued in July 2008, the United States has provided North Korea with over $1 billion in assistance since 1995, with approximately 60 per cent going to food aid and 40 per cent paying for energy assistance. Japan and South Korea have provided approximately two million Metric Tons (MT) of food in that same time, giving Pyongyang the breathing room it desperately needed to continue funding its missile programmes and nuclear programme. Tokyo provided 766,000 MT of food aid to North Korea, while Seoul provided 1.5 million MT of food aid. While it is clear that all three states funneled aid through the World Food Programme, in an attempt to avoid that aid being sidelined for military use, it could be argued that that same aid made the process of developing nuclear and missile technologies possible, or at least easier.

A Bad Reputation

It has been argued by some that North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons presents less of a threat to regional and global stability and more of a threat to US strategic interests in the region. This argument does not significantly address the threat to stability in the region posed by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. The first line of arguments against North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons starts with the position that North Korea is in itself an irresponsible state, and cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Leaving aside North Korea’s atrocious record of mistreating its own citizens, one need only examine the North Korean state’s infringement of basic international law in a variety of situations to understand why it is not a suitable possessor of nuclear weapons. It has a history of using its diplomatic carrier bags to smuggle heroin and speed overseas in order to get a hold of hard currency; it carried out abductions of South Korean and Japanese citizens in order to develop language schools for its intelligence operatives; it carried out large-scale counterfeiting of US dollars to prop up its economy, and it is one main pillar in the illicit weapon exchange programme with Iran and Syria. In one telling situation in talks in Beijing in March 2003, a North Korean official pulled aside his American counterpart and threatened to ‘transfer’ nuclear material to other countries highlighting the fact that, unlike Hu Jintao’s China, Kim Jung-il’s North Korea remains an anti-status quo power, which views the downfall of the current international order as a long-term strategic goal.

The second line of argument against the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea is concerned with the impact that this development will have on the current balance of power in North East Asia. Until now, South Korea and Japan were content to be protected under the US nuclear umbrella. Although it is unlikely that either Seoul or Tokyo will rush out to develop nuclear weapons tomorrow, the issue is likely to become a new topic for debate and discussion among domestic policy-makers in those cities. For the uneasy populations of Tokyo and Seoul, the debate is now shifting from why North Korea should not have weapons, to why they themselves should not have nuclear weapons. It is a slight change, but it could be a transformation with immense long-term ramifications for regional security, particularly with regards to Japan. Right-wing politicians and bureaucrats have come to rely on North Korean provocations in an increasingly disturbing and symbiotic manner in their efforts to overturn Japan’s pacifist constitution.

It is likely that these same policy-making elites will apply more pressure on the United States to symbolically strengthen and reinforce its nuclear commitment to the region every time there is a change of administration in the White House, exciting media speculation and fueling unease in the region. Although it would appear that popular opinion in Tokyo and Seoul is still resolutely against the acquisition of nuclear capabilities, the development of a North Korean nuclear bomb could perhaps be the final straw for Japanese policy-makers who have seen no results from a culture of restraint in their dealings with the regime.

Re-sealing Pandora’s Box

The main problem confronting diplomats converging on the United Nations Headquarters in New York to discuss a new sanctions regime against North Korea is how to halt the situation that has begun. Sadly, this is unlikely to take place without a real and effective isolation of the regime, and this is not going to happen as long as North Korea plays a key role in the on-going game for regional influence between the United States and China.

Certainly, a new resolution will seek to bind North Korea economically as much as possible: diplomats know that they have to take a fine line between coercing North Korea back to the seemingly defunct Six Party Talks and antagonising it into some new rash misadventure. They must impose a regimen of restrictions that are harsh enough to bring North Korea back to the table, but not so punitive as to push them into outright conflict. That China is taking a strong line against North Korea at present is a short-term good, but this is unlikely to continue in the long run against China’s overall strategic interest, which is to have a pro-Beijing regime in Pyongyang. China will not consider anything that threatens the viability of the state in Pyongyang and that includes sponsoring a military coup inside the country.

Unfortunately, the best option that the Obama administration has is to continue down the traditional approach and hope that time and incentives will wear down Pyongyang’s intransigence. They must overlook the escalating rhetoric in their responses and look at Pyongyang's actions rather than its statements. Although, recent statements by Pyongyang have raised the very real possibility of war, the simple fact is that North Korea's primary aim is to survive, something that outright conflict plays against. Time may be on the side of Pyongyang’s adversaries as the regime is known to be deeply concerned about succession and its vulnerability to internal turmoil during the transition phase. Kim Jung-il’s two strokes this summer highlighted the very real threat of a sudden power vacuum in the capital, and it is clear that every detail of the succession is being planned in order to prevent a power struggle or palace coup. Despite this preparation, there are still uncertainties for the likeliest successor. Kim Jong-un, youngest son of the current leader, is only 26 years old and lacks both experience and a solid base of support within either the Workers’ Party of Korea or the Korean People’s Army. Washington can afford to watch these developments while also building up the energy and clarity, developed during Obama’s Prague speech, to build a formidable diplomatic wall around North Korea, depriving it of economic and energy aid until it returns to the negotiating table. There should be a consensus on this strategy from the main players of the Six Party Talks, with the guiding principle being to maintain pressure: it may have been easy for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but it should not be easy for them to keep these weapons.

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North Korea’s nuclear tests: a sign of things to come?

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


John Hemmings

Senior Fellows Co-ordinator / Research Analyst

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