North Korea, or the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (hereafter DPRK), began its long journey towards nuclear weapons in the 1960’s, when its superpower sponsor, the Soviet Union, assisted it in constructing a nuclear research reactor in Yongbyon. This decision was taken at the height of the Cold War, when the USSR and the United States were lending similar assistance to many of its clients across the world.
From the 1950’s through the 1980’s the USSR was the DPRK’s guardian, providing the impoverished country with economic and military assistance of various kinds. In The Two Koreas, Don Oberdorfer outlines the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions over the decades. When the USSR disintegrated in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the DPRK was one of several countries that found itself suddenly without its protector.
These newly-exposed countries, from Cuba to Syria to North Korea, responded in different ways to the fall of the Soviet Union. The DPRK was in a unique position, however; it was still technically at war with South Korea (the Republic of Korea, hereafter ROK), and South Korea was protected by the United States. In other words, North Korea had lost its superpower ally, but South Korea had not.
This new vulnerability led the regime of Kim Il Sung to accelerate the transition of nuclear technology from civilian to military uses. In the 1990’s the American government came to the brink of war with the DPRK over the nuclear issue but then decided to solve the issue diplomatically with the Agreed Framework. This decision stipulated that the United States would aid the DRPK with fuel as well as nuclear technologies that were only to be used for civilian purposes.
After Kim Il Sung died, his son, Kim Jong Il, continued this policy; the DPRK would talk with the United States while continuing to secretly work on the development of nuclear weapons. The administration of George W. Bush decided to take a tougher approach with the DPRK than the Clinton administration had, and it accused the DPRK of cheating on the Agreed Framework. The new president was much more openly hostile to the DPRK. This led the DPRK to accelerate its program until it made clear than the deepest fears of South Korea and the United States had come true; on October 9, 2006, the DPRK tested a nuclear bomb.
The American policy towards the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions has changed with American presidents. Marion Creekmore writes of these trends. A brief overview shows that two democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, attempted to engage and negotiate with the DPRK as a way of lessening tensions. The current administration of George W. Bush, by contrast, deems the DPRK to be inherently hostile and untrustworthy. President Bush has spoken openly of his desire to change the DPRK regime and refuses to talk bilaterally with the DPRK, instead opting for six-party talks involving the DPRK, ROK, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States.
Jimmy Carter’s engagement with Kim Il Sung led the DPRK to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. This was a very significant progression in U.S.-DPRK relations. When Carter took office, tens of thousands of American soldiers had faced off against the DPRK army on the 38th parallel for a quarter of a century. Carter’s diplomacy seemed to lessen tensions.
The most significant event between Carter’s actions and those of Bill Clinton was the fall of the Soviet Union. This made the DPRK much more isolated and paranoid, and Clinton decided to soothe the fears of the DPRK by cooperation. The death of Kim Il Sung, who had ruled the DPRK since its birth, was a huge shock to the DPRK system, but the government of his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, made no indication that it rejected any of the elder Kim’s agreements.
George W. Bush’s hard-line approach to the DPRK is based on two very simple facts. Firstly, the DPRK had cheated on its agreements with Carter and Clinton, and agreements are worth nothing if one side breaks them. With this perspective, Bush saw no point in trying to come to an agreement with the DPRK, as it would not be worth the paper it was printed on.
Secondly, the 9/11 attacks convinced Bush that the world was a dangerous place and that governments like the DPRK made it more dangerous. The DPRK was known to have sold advanced weaponry to whomever had cash and, after 9/11, the possibility that they would sell nuclear weapons to terrorists became something worth considering. Michael Kramer has written about the danger of the DPRK selling its nuclear technology.
The policy of American presidents towards the DPRK has changed, but these changes must be seen in connection with the DPRK’s behavior as well as other global developments, rather than simply as a function of the particular president’s personality.
While the behavior of the DPRK may seem erratic and dishonest to most observers, its motives for pursuing nuclear weapons are very rational from its own perspective. It may be difficult for Americans to understand, but the official ideology of the DPRK, which is passed on to its children, is that America is an aggressive imperialist power that started the Korean War and wants nothing more than to crush the DPRK.
In part, the DPRK clings to this view in order to keep its own citizens under control and in fear. An educated and curious population is a threat to any dictatorship, so the DPRK cuts itself off from the outside world more than any country on earth. This allows it to tell its citizens only what it wants them to hear. Sang Rae Jo has written of the moral bankruptcy of the DPRK regime and its need for control.
On the other hand, however, the DPRK surely believes at least some of its rhetoric. Especially with the fall of the Soviet Union and with the warming of relations between the United States and communist China, the DPRK believes itself to be more isolated and vulnerable than ever before. Tong Whan Park has written of the DPRK’s motives in seeking a deterrent. From the DPRK’s perspective, it is the last genuine socialist country, being methodically surrounded by aggressive capitalist states. Whether one thinks this view is rational or not, it must be accepted that this is how the DPRK leadership sees the world.
For the last half-century, the United States has maintained large troop concentrations in South Korea. From the American perspective, these troops are there to protect a democratic ally, the ROK. From the DRPK’s perspective, the ROK is simply a puppet state to be used by the Americans to launch an attack on the DPRK. To prevent such an attack, the DPRK must remain militarily strong. During the Cold War, the DPRK had the protection of the USSR, which had its own nuclear arsenal. After that protection evaporated, the DPRK felt that it was in a storm without a nuclear umbrella.
Part of the motive for the DPRK in talking with the United States, for example with Carter and Clinton, was that it understood how strong the United States was and wished to obtain a guarantee that it would not be attacked. The paranoia of the DPRK, however, meant that it never really trusted the United States, and would continue to work in secret to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack.
The final great motivation for the DPRK can be summed up in one word: Iraq. In 2002, President Bush named Iran, Iraq, and the DPRK as part of an “axis of evil”. After seeing how quickly the government of Saddam Hussein was ousted from power in 2003, the DPRK leadership was led to two conclusions; Firstly, after 9/11 the United States appeared willing and able to overthrow any regime it chose to. Secondly, the United States only attacked Iraq so brazenly because Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. It seemed to the leadership of the DPRK that the United States was out for blood and that the only way to deter American military action was to make it known that thousands upon thousands of Americans would be killed in such an event. The only way to guarantee that, and hopefully deter the United States, was to acquire nuclear weapons.
The threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of the DPRK should not be underestimated. When assessing this threat, we must look at two possibilities. The first is that the DPRK would use this weapon either against the ROK or against American troops in East Asia, perhaps Japan. The second is that the DPRK would sell a workable nuclear bomb to terrorists who would deliver that bomb to an American city, leaving no “return address”.
In terms of the likelihood that the DPRK would use nuclear weapons, it seems clear that this is rather unlikely. Unlike al-Qaeda operatives, the DPRK leadership is not suicidal. Rather, like Saddam Hussein, its priority seems to be simply to hold on to power. For that reason, it is unlikely to initiate an action that would lead to the incineration of much of their country. Any attack using weapons of mass destruction would ensure that the DPRK would cease to exist, and the DPRK leadership knows this. The problem, as Gordon Chang wrote in Nuclear Showdown, is that since the program is so secretive, no one can really be sure of how many weapons the DPRK might have.
It is therefore unlikely that the DPRK would use a nuclear bomb as a first-strike weapon. If it had intended to do that, it already would have done so. By using a nuclear weapon in a test, rather than an attack, the DPRK signaled that it simply wanted the world to know it was well-armed. This is classic deterrence. It is unfortunate that the DPRK could not be prevented from getting nuclear weapons, but it seems clear that it wants them to ensure its survival rather than carry out its own suicide.
At the same time, there can be no doubt that the DPRK would use whatever weapons it had if it was attacked. Having seen the fate of Saddam Hussein, the DPRK leadership would most likely use every weapon available to it if it felt that the United States and the ROK were going to carry out a regime-change attack.
The threat of the DPRK selling weapons to terrorists is harder to assess. The DPRK has been involved in terrorism, mainly against the ROK, and it has also sold advanced weaponry to any willing buyer. These two ingredients are very troubling because if we combine them, the danger becomes clear.
Nuclear terrorism, however, is different because, similar to an overt strike by the DPRK, the DPRK knows that any attack on the United States or its allies that is traced back to the DPRK will result in the destruction of the DPRK. Although the DPRK is one of the poorest countries on earth and has been proven willing to engage in any number of illegal acts to generate cash, selling nuclear weapons to terrorists would bring utter destruction to the country if its crime was discovered. For this reason, we can reasonably assume that this scenario is unlikely.
When assessing the DPRK and the policies of American presidents, we must take care to see their actions in the context of broader historical forces. Ever since the Korean War, the DPRK has maintained the idea that the United States and ROK are simply waiting for the right moment to strike and destroy the DPRK.
This paranoia, which is not fundamentally irrational, was held in check by the protection of the USSR. When the USSR fell, the DPRK found itself alone and exposed. It tentatively talked with the United States but, never really trusting Americans, continued to assure it could deter the U.S. by secretly developing nuclear weapons.
After 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the DPRK perceived that America was aggressive and angry. As they were labeled members of the “axis of evil”, they had reason to be afraid. Their reaction was to obtain perhaps the only thing that could have saved Saddam Hussein: a nuclear bomb.