The View from Pyongyang


Image from M. Wuerker.

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North Korea is a state that has every reason to seek nuclear weapons.  It may or may not be right, but this quest for a nuclear arsenal is undeniably reasonable.  The post-Cold War world has been a dangerous place for the Hermit Kingdom.  It is surrounded by enemies, and its allies are beginning to question their friendship.  Both friends and enemies repeatedly call for drastic changes in North Korea’s behavior, and the North Korean government fears such changes could spell the end of the Kim regime.  In such a hostile world, nuclear weapons offer North Korea the only sure security guarantee available with no strings attached.  Because of this, North Korea is likely to continue to pursue the acquisition of more nuclear weapons, as well as increasingly advanced delivery devices, regardless of any sanctions Washington can possibly impose.

The North Korean government has reason to see the United States as a legitimate threat.  President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons to forcibly bring an end to the Korean War. President Clinton very nearly approved strikes on North Korean nuclear sites, even in the face of the North’s ability to inflict massive damage on South Korea. Not only did President Bush include North Korea in the “Axis of Evil,” but he then proceeded to find justifications for an invasion of the first country on that list.  At the time, America seemed dead set on regime changes in certain states, and North Korea was clearly one of them.  Since then, the U.S. and U.N. have kept up a steady stream of sanctions and denunciations of North Korea’s appalling human rights record.

What makes matters worse for North Korean leaders is the fact that without nuclear weapons, the Kim Jong-un regime could not survive an American invasion alone. While in the past it could rely on Chinese support, recently China has been increasingly questioning its longstanding alliance with North Korea. Even the DPRK’s ability to cause massive damage to the South Korean capital was a less-than-perfect deterrent in 1995, when the U.S. would likely have attacked North Korean nuclear sites had it not been for President Carter’s last-minute diplomacy. Though Pyongyang does have a number of options to deter aggression, it seems that the only perfectly reliable deterrent available to North Korea is a substantial arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on United States targets.


A North Korean missile that launched the country’s first satellite into orbit. Image from Joongang Photos.

In the past, the U.S. has tried to barter diplomatic recognition and promises not to use nuclear weapons in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear program. In the future, such diplomatic incentives are likely to be ineffective.  Every North Korean schoolchild is taught that Americans have a long history craftily manipulating treaties to control Korea.[1]   Even if America were to sign such an agreement, we would likely continue to censure North Korea’s many human rights abuses, and seek to influence their domestic politics to address those abuses.  The fact of the matter is, many Americans detest what North Korea is and what it does, and no treaty can change that.  The Kims have learned from the fallen Soviet and Ceausescu regimes that reform, once started, quickly leads to revolution. Almost every nation that abandoned Communism with the end of the Cold War was wracked by massive internal strife.  Given the cynical and weary state of the populace, such unrest could likely be fatal to the Kim regime. To North Korea, such meddling calls for reform can be almost as frightening as American warplanes.

Economic sanctions are also likely to be useless unless China is willing to enforce much more stringent measures than it has in place now.  Even in the face of new economic punishments imposed after its most recent missile tests, North Korea seems to be prospering more than it has in decades. While China may be willing to support some sanctions, it is clearly unwilling to crush Pyongyang’s recent economic revival.

North Korea evidently considers nuclear weapons essential to its security.  While its friendship with China does offer some protection, it also comes with frequent calls for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions and reform its economy. Lately North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has not only been aggressively pursuing a more advanced nuclear arsenal, but also in many ways dismantling North Korea’s conventional forces, and using these savings on defense to help his domestic economic programs. This seems to indicate that Kim realizes that a large nuclear arsenal is the only way to guarantee his regime’s security, and that with its reduced conventional forces, North Korea intends to increasingly rely on that guarantee.

North Korea understandably sees a substantial nuclear arsenal as essential to its security, and this renders every diplomatic and economic instrument available to the U.S. impotent.  We likely have no carrot or stick, short of the use of military force, which is as important to Pyongyang as gaining the ability to deter American aggression.  This leaves us with three rather unpleasant alternatives.  In the past, the threat of military force was enough to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and could be effective again.  Threatening North Korea with military strikes, however, would be prohibitively dangerous and likely drive China and North Korea closer together.  The best option would be to convince China to inflict truly devastating sanctions on North Korea.  Such sanctions could provide so much economic disruption that they would threaten the North Korean regime more than the American forces the DPRK’s missiles are meant to deter.  China, however, is unlikely to acquiesce to any economic punishments substantial enough to cause that level of disruption, and anything less is unlikely to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear safety guarantee.  The final option would be to simply accept that the costs of convincing Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons are simply too high, and learn to live with a nuclear armed North Korea.

[1] Inhyeong Ri, Galmyeong Je, and Chimok Jang. Korean History, Vol. 4. Pyongyang, North Korea: Pyongyang Higher Education Printing Office, 2000.

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