Siegfried S. Hecker
Dædalus, Winter 2010
In October 2006, some 50 years after North Korea began its nuclear journey, it detonated
a nuclear device and declared itself a nuclear power. A second explosion, in May
2009, erased lingering doubts about its ability to build the bomb. It is instructive
to learn how, but even more important to understand why, it built the bomb. Pyongyang
has proclaimed its reason for going nuclear: “The DPRK made nuclear weapons and
has strengthened its self-defensive war deterrent to maintain the sovereignty and
the right to existence of the nation in the face of the increased aggressive threat
by the U.S.”1 But is the alleged threat to Pyongyang’s security the only reason
it built the bomb? This essay briefly reviews what North Korea’s nuclear capabilities
are and shows how technical capabilities and political intent were inextricably
intertwined in shaping the program. The essay then turns to Scott Sagan’s theoretical
framework of three models for the bomb2 to show how Pyongyang’s deep security fears,
augmented by domestic and diplomatic drivers, have dominated its decision to build
and keep the bomb. The essay concludes with lessons learned from North Korea for
the nonproliferation regime.
The promise and peril of nuclear energy share a common technological foundation.
Pursuit of a civilian fuel cycle – making fuel, building reactors to burn the fuel,
and maintaining the back-end to deal with nuclear waste, including the option of
extracting some of the valuable by-products from burning reactor fuel – enables nations
to develop the capability to make bomb fuel, either highly enriched uranium (HEU)
or plutonium. North Korea mastered the plutonium fuel cycle ostensibly for nuclear
power and then used it to build the bomb.
This brief review of North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities will only
touch on the important political milestones that helped to shape it; a more complete
discussion will be presented in the next section. Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding
father, laid the foundation for nuclear technology development in the early 1950s.
The Soviet “Atoms for Peace” initiative, modeled after President Eisenhower’s initiative
of the same name, enabled several hundred North Korean students and researchers
to be educated and trained in Soviet universities and nuclear research centers.
The Soviets built a research reactor, the IRT-2000, and associated nuclear facilities
at Yongbyon in the 1960s.
North Korean specialists trained at these facilities and by the 1970s were prepared
to launch a nuclear program without external assistance.
North Korea’s decision
to build gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors was a logical choice at the time
for an indigenous North Korean energy program because gas-graphite reactors can
operate with natural uranium fuel and, hence, do not require enrichment of uranium.3
Although North Korea may have experimented with enrichment technologies, commercial
enrichment capabilities were beyond its reach and difficult to acquire.4 North Korea’s
ambitious program began with an experimental5 megawatt-electric (MWe) reactor,
which became operational in 1986. Construction of that reactor was followed by a
scaled-up 50 MWe reactor and a 200 MWe power reactor, although neither was ever
North Korea quickly mastered all aspects of the gas-graphite reactor fuel cycle.
It built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing facility, which
enabled extraction of plutonium from spent fuel.5 Unlike the Soviet-built research
facilities, the new facilities were built and operated without being declared to
or inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Pyongyang had no
legal obligation to declare these facilities because it was not a member of the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). American reconnaissance satellites picked
up signs of the reactor construction in the early 1980s and the reprocessing facility
in the late 1980s. It was not until 1989, when South Korea leaked American satellite
data of the reprocessing facility, that the international community first became
aware of and concerned about North Korea’s indigenous nuclear program. The concern
stems from the fact that gas-graphite reactors are capable of producing weapons-grade
plutonium while generating electrical power and heat. So, whereas Pyongyang’s choice
of gas-graphite reactors for its energy program was logical, it was also the best
choice to develop a nuclear weapons option.
In parallel, North Korea asked the Soviets to build light water reactors (LWRs)
to help meet North Korea’s energy demands. North Korea joined the NPT in 1985 because
the Soviets made consideration of LWRs contingent upon joining the Treaty. These
reactors, though, never materialized because of the demise of the Soviet Union.
Pyongyang kept inspectors out of its new facilities until 1992, by which time it
had all of the pieces in place for the plutonium fuel cycle. This move coincided
with several diplomatic initiatives and President George H.W. Bush’s decision to
withdraw all American nuclear weapons from South Korea. By this time, the 5 MWe
experimental reactor produced electricity and heat for the local town, as well as
approximately 6 kilograms (roughly one bomb’s worth) of weapons-grade plutonium
per year. The fuel fabrication and reprocessing facilities were operational, and
the two bigger gas-graphite reactors were under construction.
In 1992, Pyongyang opened the window on its nuclear program for diplomatic reasons
explained below, but closed it quickly when IAEA inspectors uncovered discrepancies
between their own nuclear measurements at Yongbyon and Pyongyang’s declaration.
Pyongyang responded to IAEA accusations by announcing its intent to withdraw from
the NPT. Pyongyang was apparently surprised by the sophistication of the IAEA’s
nuclear forensics and by the strictures of the NPT. Negotiations started in June
1993 but stalemated. In 1994, when North Korea unloaded the reactor’s fuel containing
an estimated 20 to 30 kilograms of plutonium, Washington and Pyongyang came close
to war before former President Jimmy Carter intervened and brokered a freeze.
negotiations in Geneva led to the Agreed Framework,6 which changed North Korea’s
nuclear technical trajectory dramatically. Pyongyang agreed to give up its indigenous
gas-graphite reactor program for the promise of two LWRs to be supplied by the United
States, South Korea, and Japan. The spent fuel rods unloaded from the 5 MWe reactor
were repackaged by an American technical team and stored in the cooling pool for
eventual removal from North Korea. Operation of the 5 MWe reactor, the fuel fabrication
plant, and the reprocessing facility was halted and monitored by IAEA inspectors
per special arrangement under the Agreed Framework. Construction of the two larger
reactors was stopped.
Although Pyongyang halted its plutonium program during the Agreed Framework, it
continued to expand its missile program, including by conducting a long-range rocket
launch over Japan in 1998. It also explored uranium enrichment.7 During its first
formal encounter with Pyongyang in October 2002, the Bush administration, which
was adamantly opposed to the Agreed Framework, accused Pyongyang of covertly pursuing
the alternative HEU path to the bomb. This altercation effectively ended the Agreed
Framework and changed Pyongyang’s technical and political trajectory again.
North Korea became the first nation to withdraw from the NPT. It expelled international
inspectors and announced that it would strengthen its nuclear deterrent. By the
end of 2003, which also marked the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein,
Pyongyang was eager to have Washington believe it had the bomb. It used my first
trip to North Korea, an unofficial, Track II tripled by my Stanford University colleague
John W. Lewis, to send that message back to Washington. In a carefully choreographed
tour of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in January 2004, Pyongyang gave me remarkable
access to nuclear facilities and nuclear scientists and allowed me to hold nearly
a half-pound of plutonium bomb fuel (in a sealed glass jar), all to convince me it
had a “deterrent.”
Over the next five years, Pyongyang built and demonstrated its nuclear weapons capabilities
while it was engaged off and on in the six-party talks, which it joined only because
of Chinese pressure.8 We do not know exactly when Pyongyang got the first bomb,
but we know it made significant strides during the past five years. In the early
1990s, the CIA reported that North Korea may have had enough plutonium for one or
two bombs. Albright and O’Neill9 reported the uncertainty in that estimate, noting
that it varied from 10 kilograms plutonium to perhaps less than 2 kilograms. They
also reported that non-nuclear explosive experiments, which are prerequisites for
a plutonium bomb, were conducted at Yongbyon in the 1980s, leaving little doubt
that Pyongyang was pursuing the bomb.
Since its restart in 2003, the 5 MWe reactor has operated for approximately three
years, but is currently not operational. The reprocessing facility is operational,
but extensive corrosion of fuel fabrication equipment that occurred during the Agreed
Framework left that facility only partially operational.10 North Korea has conducted
three reprocessing campaigns since 2003. The reprocessed plutonium, combined with
the roughly 2 to 10 kilograms North Korea may have produced before 1994, yields
an estimated plutonium production of 40 to 60 kilograms, of which 24 to 42 kilograms
are available for weapons today.11
North Korea also conducted two nuclear tests of plutonium devices, the first in
October 2006 and the second in May 2009. The first was only partially successful;
its explosion yield was estimated as slightly below 1 kiloton (compared to roughly
21 kilotons for the bomb at Nagasaki). The second was more successful, with an estimated
yield of 2 to 4 kilotons. We know nothing about North Korea’s nuclear design capabilities.
I believe the test results indicate that North Korea can build a Nagasaki-like simple
plutonium bomb with a yield of 20 or so kilotons, and most likely possesses a nuclear
arsenal of four to eight such primitive weapons today. Based on the experience of
other nuclear countries, North Korea appears a long way from developing both a missile
and a warhead to launch a nuclear weapon to great distances. Fielding a nuclear
weapon on its shorter-range No-Dong missiles would take less time, but it may require
another nuclear test.
Following the initial 2002 altercation with the Bush administration over North Korea’s
alleged uranium enrichment program, Pyongyang denied ever having pursued such a
program in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As part of its response
to UN sanctions following the April 2009 missile launch, Pyongyang announced that
it would now pursue enriching uranium for a domestic LWR program. On September 3,
it informed the UN Security Council that it was in the final stages of enriching
uranium, something that it could only have accomplished if it already had an active
program long before April 2009. It appears that Pyongyang used the current crisis
as an opportunity to admit to having a uranium program; however, that admission
changes the North Korean threat very little. I still believe that Pyongyang has
experimented with uranium enrichment for decades, but never developed it on an industrial
Pyongyang has pursued an extensive missile program for decades. It built its initial
capability, obtained from the Soviets, into a formidable short-range missile force
and developed an ambitious export business for re-engineered Soviet missiles. Its
principal customers have been Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Burma. Pyongyang’s
long-range missile development has been slow and not a great technical success.
After the 1998 launch, it delayed its second launch until July 2006, primarily because
of the missile moratorium it declared in 1999. However, the second launch failed
instantly when the rocket apparently hit the gantry. Its third test, in April 2009,
successfully lifted the first two stages over the Pacific, but the third stage failed.
Many observers now look at the last two decades as a dismal diplomatic failure because
Pyongyang’s nuclear program was not eliminated. Let’s take a closer look at what
Pyongyang actually achieved technically – or, perhaps more importantly, what it did
not achieve. It failed to get commercial nuclear power. Although Pyongyang now has
nuclear weapons, its weapons program is much smaller than it would have been if
left unchecked. With the capabilities it already had or was soon to complete by
the early 1990s, Pyongyang today could have an arsenal of a hundred or more nuclear
weapons. Instead, it has enough plutonium for four to eight weapons and currently
is not producing more. It has the capacity to put the 5 MWe reactor back into operation
and produce one bomb’s worth of plutonium annually for the foreseeable future, but
it has not taken steps to do so, perhaps indicating that it believes its small nuclear
arsenal provides a sufficient nuclear deterrent.
However, Pyongyang’s export of missiles and nuclear technologies appears not to
have been constrained. It has widely exported short-range missiles and manufacturing
technologies. We have much less information about its nuclear exports. However,
evidence is overwhelming that Pyongyang built a plutonium-producing reactor for
Syria that was destroyed by an Israeli air raid in September 2007. It appears quite
likely that it exported to Libya uranium hexafluoride, the precursor to HEU. There
are also grounds to suspect nuclear cooperation with Pakistan and Burma.13 Cooperation
with Iran is the greatest concern because Iran is putting in place all of the pieces
for a nuclear weapons option, and its nuclear capabilities complement those of North
Korea.14 The nature of the nuclear exports also suggests that North Korea may have
undeclared uranium facilities.
No one outside Kim Jong-il’s inner circle understands the decision-making process
and motivations of North Korea’s regime. I will use Sagan’s framework to analyze
Pyongyang’s nuclear decisions and try to answer why it built the bomb. Sagan postulates
three models for the bomb: the security model, the domestic politics model, and
the norms model. The security model calls for states to build nuclear weapons to
increase their security against foreign threats, especially nuclear threats. States
that face nuclear-armed or vastly superior conventionally armed adversaries will
eventually attempt to develop their own nuclear arsenals unless credible alliance
guarantees with a major nuclear power exist.
Security concerns have been the central driver of the North Korean ruling regime
since the birth of the nation after World War II. Much of Pyongyang’s nuclear decision-making
can be understood by examining how Pyongyang saw its security environment evolve
over the years. The devastating Korean War, resolved only by an armistice, and the
U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons likely moved Kim Il-sung to pursue nuclear weapons
early on. He likely strengthened his resolve to pursue his own bomb when China,
shortly after its own first nuclear test in 1964, turned down his request to share
its atomic secrets.
The late 1960s were turbulent times in Pyongyang’s relations with the West. South
Korea’s military was bolstered by U.S. troops and U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil.
Pyongyang watched the Cuban missile crisis unfold in a manner that shed doubt on
Soviet commitments to its allies. It witnessed the Sino-Soviet split and the Chinese
Cultural Revolution. Each of these developments reinforced the notion that Pyongyang
could only rely on itself for the North’s security. Although Pyongyang fielded an
immense conventional army and its deadly artillery along the Demilitarized Zone
(DMZ) was poised to destroy Seoul, nuclear weapons would help to balance the U.S.
nuclear presence in the South. Therefore, the political drivers existed to match
Pyongang’s sustained technological drive to develop or import the necessary reactor
and reprocessing facilities to eventually build nuclear weapons, a technological
base that it completed by 1990.
By the early 1990s, Pyongyang’s security environment deteriorated dramatically.
As the Cold War drew to a close, Pyongyang lost financial assistance from the former
Soviet bloc. Its archrival, South Korea, had pulled ahead economically as well as
strengthened its military. China focused on its economic rise and reached out to
South Korea, and Russia recognized the South as well. Pyongyang was devastated by
these changes and began seriously to explore accommodation with the West, especially
with the United States. Carlin and Lewis15 believe that Kim Ilsung made the strategic
decision to engage the United States and even accept U.S. military presence in the
South as a hedge against potentially hostile Chinese or Russian influence.
Kim Il-sung took bold steps toward reconciliation with the South. He signed a North-South
reconciliation agreement and North-South denuclearization agreement, which altered
the security landscape and offered a potential resolution to the nuclear issue.16
Following a difficult start with the Clinton administration, Pyongyang agreed to
trade its gas-graphite reactors and associated fuel-cycle facilities for two
LWRs and interim energy assistance in the form of heavy fuel oil. Carlin and Lewis
point out that Pyongyang viewed the political provisions of the Agreed Framework,
which called for both sides to move toward full normalization of political and economic
relations, to be the heart of the pact.
However, reconciliation between Washington and Pyongyang proved difficult, as
Washington saw the Agreed Framework primarily as a nonproliferation agreement. Struck
by the Clinton administration as the best alternative to avoid war and put the North
on a path to denuclearization, the Agreed Framework was opposed immediately by many
in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate
funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in
its commitments almost from the beginning. The LWR project also fell behind schedule
because the legal arrangements were much more complex than anticipated. The Agreed
Framework, which began as a process of interaction and cooperation, quickly turned
into accusations of non-compliance by both parties.
The 1990s were also particularly difficult times domestically for North Korea.
In addition to geopolitical changes, North Korea lost Kim Il-sung and had to cope
with a series of natural disasters that added to its economic devastation and decimated
its industrial capacity. Its once mighty conventional military was decaying. Its
hope for receiving the benefits of nuclear electricity to help bolster its sagging
economy appeared a distant hope because of delays in implementation of the Agreed
Framework. However, the diplomatic crisis resulting from its 1998 rocket launch
over Japan was resolved by the Perry Process, which brought Pyongyang’s second-ranking
official, Vice-Marshal Jo Myong-rok, to the White House in October 2000.17 The two
sides issued a joint communiqué that pledged “neither would have hostile intent
toward the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every
effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.” This communiqué
signaled to Pyongyang for the first time that the United States recognized the right
of North Korea to exist. The follow-up meeting between Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright and Kim Jong-il that was held in Pyongyang a couple of weeks later appeared
to put the nuclear crisis on a path to final resolution.
With the change in administrations in Washington, hope for a settlement was quickly
dashed. Whereas Pyongyang was waiting for a U.S. response to the Perry Process,
it ran into the Bush administration’s adamant opposition to the terms of the Agreed
Framework and to political accommodation. Pyongyang practiced restraint with the
incoming Bush administration until North Korea was accused of a covert uranium enrichment
program and saw the Agreed Framework come to an end. During the confrontation over
enrichment in October 2002, First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Sok-ju told
his American counterpart, “We are a part of the axis of evil. . . . If we disarm
ourselves because of U.S. pressure, then we will become like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan’s
Taliban, to be beaten to death.”18 Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT and restarted
its dormant Yongbyon facilities to produce fuel for a plutonium bomb.
Pyongyang’s security fears were further heightened by the invasion of Iraq. Pyongyang
now believed the bomb would assure its survival, so it no longer hid its nuclear
weapons aspirations. At the six-party negotiations, Pyongyang again declared its
willingness to denuclearize in return for political accommodation and economic and
energy assistance. Although Pyongyang signed the Joint Denuclearization Statement
on September 19, 2005, the talks were mired in distrust and accusations. They led
to alternate cycles of dialogue and confrontation.
Pyongyang viewed U.S. financial sanctions imposed at the same time as a breach of
the denuclearization pact. It withdrew from the talks and launched a second long-range
rocket in July 2006 and conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006. The test
drew UN Security Council sanctions, but Pyongyang appeared to offset the negative
effects of sanctions with increased diplomatic leverage. Later that year, the Bush
administration radically changed its negotiating strategy with Pyongyang for the
remainder of its term. It conducted bilateral negotiations under the umbrella of
the six-party talks, something that Pyongyang had desired but that the Bush administration
had refused to do for six years. Pyongyang viewed this change as a direct result
of its new nuclear status, whereas domestic U.S. politics and the results of the
2006 congressional elections may have played a greater role.
During the remainder of the Bush administration, Pyongyang agreed again to halt
its nuclear program, but not to eliminate it. During my visit three weeks after
the nuclear test in 2006, North Korean officials made it clear that their negotiation
strategy had changed. They considered North Korea to be a nuclear power and wanted
to talk arms control with Washington, not denuclearization focused on the North.19
In early 2009, Pyongyang decided not to wait for engagement by the Obama administration,
but instead took aggressive steps to enhance its missile program. These steps prompted
more UN sanctions, which Pyongyang used as an excuse to walk away from all its international
nuclear obligations and to restart its nuclear program, including testing a second
nuclear device in May. Although security concerns continue to dominate its decision-making,
Pyongyang’s actions were most likely driven by domestic and diplomatic factors rather
than an increased sense of insecurity.
Sagan’s domestic politics model posits that nuclear weapons may serve the bureaucratic
or political interests of individual actors, such as the military, the nuclear establishment,
politicians, or the public. Such actors or coalitions of actors may influence the
state’s decision-making. Sagan cites the Indian nuclear program as a particularly
convincing case of the importance of domestic politics and the influence of domestic
advocacy groups. He further demonstrates that domestic political factors played
strong roles in nuclear decision-making in South Africa, Ukraine, Argentina, and
Domestic politics are clearly different in North Korea. The Kim dynasty, father
and son, has ruled the country with an iron fist and based its legitimacy, in large
part, on a cult of personality of its leaders. To stay in power, the regime tightly
controls all information, limits contact of its people with the outside world, and
warns its people that external forces constantly threaten the very existence of
their nation. External threats are used to justify keeping the country on a constant
war-footing that requires continued sacrifices by and harsh treatment of its people.
Natalia Bazhanova20 points out that in communist countries the pursuit of nuclear
weapons to meet external threats helps to increase tensions at home and distract
people’s attention from their daily grievances and the failures of the regime. The
need for nuclear weapons drives home the severity of the external threat.
The need for nuclear weapons was not directly invoked with the public until 2003,
when Pyongyang openly declared its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Propaganda was greatest
after the long-range missile and nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Although Pyongyang’s
leaders have not had to contend with political opposition or public uprisings, the
nuclear card, along with the missile program, has helped to emphasize the power
and prestige of the regime. There was much speculation that a succession crisis
was driving Pyongyang’s decision-making in 2008, after Kim Jong-il was reported to
have suffered a stroke and appeared frail. Kim Jong-il reemerged and appeared to
have rearranged the domestic power structure and solidified his control. Still,
any future succession crisis in the DPRK may make cooperation with the United States
less likely, as potential leaders would want to avoid being branded as “weak” or
as “appeasing” Washington in negotiations about the nuclear program.
Sagan’s norms model views nuclear decisions as also serving important symbolic functions
externally – both shaping and reflecting a state’s identity. Norms and shared beliefs
about what is legitimate and appropriate in international relations can drive nuclear
decision-making. Symbolism becomes important. Nuclear weapons become part of what
defines a legitimate, modern state. Sagan contends that the French decision to build
nuclear weapons was more the result of French leaders’ perceptions of the bomb’s
symbolic significance than its security calculus. Sagan also shows how international
norms, such as the NPT, helped to restrain nations’ nuclear ambitions and, in cases
such as Ukraine, to relinquish a nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union.
Pyongyang does not appear to have allowed international norms to influence its nuclear
decision-making. The record shows that its own needs always trumped international
norms and obligations. Pyongyang signed the NPT because of the promise of Soviet
LWRs, but did not sign the required safeguards agreement with the IAEA for years
because it wanted to keep its nuclear construction hidden from the world.
Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and defied international norms and UN sanctions
with its two nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. Pyongyang decided to
hedge its bets during the Agreed Framework, violating the agreement and its NPT
commitments by acquiring export-controlled materials and equipment from abroad in
order to explore the uranium enrichment route to the bomb.
However, international symbolism and prestige derived from nuclear technologies
and weapons played an important role. North Korea views itself as a small and weak
nation in spite of its domestic propaganda to the contrary. Once Pyongyang acquired
and demonstrated the bomb, it used the power and prestige derived from the bomb
as a diplomatic lever to strengthen its negotiating position. Its decision to confront
the Obama administration with a missile launch and a nuclear test was more likely
an attempt to gain diplomatic leverage and possibly to support domestic changes,
rather than an effort toward deterring an increased security threat.
Pyongyang may also simply have decided to take advantage of the transition to accomplish
two objectives while the Obama administration was still formulating its Northeast
Asia security policies and assembling its executive team. North Korea’s long-range
missile program needed additional flight tests, and Pyongyang needed to demonstrate
to itself and the world that its nuclear weapons could do better than the 2006 test.
The missile and nuclear tests must have been on the shelf ready to go for some time,
looking for a convenient window.
What can we learn from how and why North Korea built the bomb? North Korea is unlikely
to give up its nuclear arsenal anytime soon because it has become crucial to how
the regime assures its security. Nuclear weapons also play a supportive role domestically
and provide diplomatic leverage. Pyongyang views its security concerns as existential.
They are deeply rooted in history and, hence, are unlikely to be resolved by alliances
with its neighbors, each of which North Korea believes to have ulterior motives.
Pyongyang turned to the United States, but it found Washington unreliable and inconsistent.
In spite of having received numerous security guarantees that promised to respect
its sovereignty along with assurances not to invade the country, Pyongyang still
feels threatened today. It will require much more than another security guarantee
to make Pyongyang feel secure.
Even if North Korea’s security fears are assuaged, domestic factors favor keeping
the bomb. The external threat is used to justify the need for the bomb and the sacrifices
North Korea’s people are asked to make. That threat also helps keep its people submissive
and isolated from the international community. It also helps the regime continue
to control all information and to blind its people to progress in the rest of the
world, especially south of the DMZ. Paradoxically, compared to a more democratic
country, an autocracy like North Korea may find it easier to give up its weapons
if doing so is seen to help the regime survive, because it does not have to deal
with domestic opposition.
Military might is the only source of Pyongyang’s diplomatic power today. Nuclear
weapons have become central to the projection of its military might, in spite of
the fact that its nuclear arsenal has little war-fighting utility. Pyongyang views
nuclear weapons as diplomatic equalizers with its much more prosperous and powerful,
but non-nuclear rivals, South Korea and Japan. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea
would get scant attention from the international community.
Many believe that the bomb is only a bargaining chip and that North Korea is willing
to sell it for the right price. However, for reasons stated above, there is no price
high enough for Pyongyang to sell. It is also not about to give up its nuclear weapons
first as a condition of normalization. Pyongyang may agree to denuclearize in principle,
but it will drag out implementation as it did during the six-party process.
It is also unlikely that North Korea can be forced to give up the bomb. Realistically,
military options are off the table unless North Korea initiates a conflict. Additionally,
sanctions are ineffective without China’s support, but China will not support sanctions
that bring Pyongyang to its knees. Beijing fears U.S. intervention in North Korea
more than it does nuclear weapons in its neighbor’s hands. It wants peace and stability
on the Korean peninsula.
As undesirable as it may sound, the best hope is a long-term strategy to contain
the nuclear threat while tackling the North Korean problem comprehensively, but
in discrete steps.21 Both Beijing and Seoul favor taking the long view. Time is
not on Pyongyang’s side. The greatest threat to the regime is not from the outside,
but from within. It can’t hold back its people forever from the tide of change surrounding
its borders. In the meantime, it is important to avoid a clash between Pyongyang
and Seoul or Tokyo. And it is essential to stop Pyongyang from doing additional
damage around the world through nuclear cooperation and exports. Beijing is likely
willing to restrain North Korea from expanding its nuclear program and, most importantly,
to stop it from exporting its nuclear materials or technologies. That is how our
joint efforts should be directed to reduce this dangerous threat.
The lessons of North Korea will not be lost on other potential proliferators, particularly
Iran. Pyongyang broke new ground in defying international norms and took advantage
of the international community’s inability to respond effectively. Restricting supply
of nuclear technologies through international treaties, norms, and arrangements
slows down, but does not stop determined proliferators. We must understand the demand
side of nuclear proliferation. Motivation may change over time; it becomes more
difficult to reverse proliferation the longer a nuclear program has been pursued
and the more successful it has become. In North Korea’s case, the security motivation
was augmented by domestic and diplomatic considerations and also by time and increased
programmatic success. Many have called Pyongyang’s actions unpredictable and bizarre,
but I find that they are most likely based on a deliberate calculus of its needs,
its negotiating strategy, and the necessarily inexact science of negotiations and
North Korea demonstrated how a sustained technical effort can develop the nuclear
weapons option under civilian nuclear energy cover and, by exercising its NPT Article
X rights to withdraw from the Treaty, how that option can be exercised quickly once
proper political conditions emerge. The choice of fuel cycle for the civilian cover
is important. Pyongyang selected the gas-graphite reactor technology, which was the
best dual-use option. A lack of transparency and cooperation with the IAEA should
serve as a red flag of a state’s nuclear weapons aspiration. Pyongyang also confirmed
that producing the fissile material – plutonium in this case – is the critical step.
It was able to build the bomb rapidly once it had plutonium because it had tested
the non-fissile components of the weapon beforehand. North Korea taught us that
we should not underestimate the indigenous capabilities of nations willing to commit
resources to build the bomb. Both Russia and China underestimated this capability
and, consequently, misjudged the severity of the threat. In Washington, the threat
was often exaggerated for political purposes. Hence, it is important to get accurate,
publically available technical assessments of nuclear capabilities.
Pyongyang showed that a nuclear arsenal does not have to be large or sophisticated
to be politically effective. Nuclear tests strengthened the country’s hands and
tied the hands of the international community. Thus, it is crucial to stop aspiring
programs short of demonstrating their capabilities. All nuclear threats are not
equal; prioritization is critical. The Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework
for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by
covertly pursuing uranium enrichment. Doing so traded a potential threat that would
have taken years to turn into bombs for one that took months, dramatically changing
the diplomatic landscape in Pyongyang’s favor. On the other hand, the Bush administration
did not deal effectively with North Korea’s egregious, secret construction of a
plutonium production reactor in Syria, which constituted a serious proliferation
threat. Moreover, Pyongyang may also be engaged in similar, and perhaps even more
dangerous, liaisons with the likes of Iran and Burma.
The United States plays an indispensable role in proliferation prevention, but it
can’t go it alone. It cannot afford to sit at the sidelines as it has done with
Iran. We found that Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons
only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving,
but not when the regime was threatened. Pyongyang was willing to tolerate the six-party
negotiations, but progress was made only when Washington agreed to bilateral dialogue.
Washington holds the key to incentives, but by itself cannot impose sufficient disincentives
to eventually convince North Korea to give up its weapons. It must have support
from Beijing and Seoul, both of which have very different strategic objectives.
The more divided we are at home, the more we yield advantage to the adversary. Political
divisions in Washington in recent years resulted in our inability to negotiate the
nuclear crisis effectively. American diplomats lament that it has been more difficult
to negotiate in Washington than at the six-party table. Not only have we not been
able to negotiate effectively, but also we have allowed Pyongyang to cross with
impunity every red line we have drawn. The U.S. negotiating position has also been
hampered by our inability to sustain consistent policies through transitions in
administrations. Pyongyang has taken advantage of our political divisions to play
a weak hand with success. Unless we learn from the lessons of North Korea, others
may be able to do the same.22
Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists (June 18, 2009), http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/assessing-north-koreas-uranium-enrichment-capabilities.
http://isis-online.org/publications/syria/index.html. Evidence of cooperation
with Libya is less conclusive, yet likely; see David E. Sanger and William J. Broad,
“Tests Said to Tie Deal on Uranium to North Korea,” The New York Times,
February 2, 2005. Evidence of nuclear cooperation with Burma is weak, but possible;
see Julian Borger, “Burma suspected of forming nuclear link with North Korea,” Guardian.co.uk,
July 21, 2009,
http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_03/heckerliou; ;and Siegfried S. Hecker,
“From Pyongyang to Tehran, with nukes,” op-ed, Foreign Policy (May 26,