Nuclear Logics in North Korea

By: Se Hwan Youn Year 2013 in the Korean Peninsula

After watching incumbent President Barack Obama successfully secure his tenure for another term, South Koreans are now anxiously waiting for their upcoming presidential election, to be held on December 19th. The population is focusing on how the leadership change will reshape the security landscape in the peninsula. How do the South Korean presidential candidates differ in their agenda? More specifically, are their policies towards North Korea different from each other? How “promising” are their promises in the international arena?

All three main candidates— Rep. Park Geun-Hye, of the ruling Saenuri Party, Rep. Moon Jae-In of the left-leaning Democratic United Party, and Ahn Chul-Soo, a doctor and software entrepreneur who is running as an independent—promise similar things: economic democratization, reforms to the Chaebol, the country’s industrial conglomerates, and improvements to relations with North Korea, with the end goal of a nuclear-free peninsula. However, without fully laying out the fundamental causes of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it is questionable if talking again with North Koreans by itself will lead to a mutually acceptable agreement for two Koreas and the United States – despite the rhetoric.

What Does North Korea Want?

For more than 60 years, the Korean peninsula has been the ground for an uneasy standoff between a communist dictatorship, North Korea, and a liberal democracy, South Korea. The relative peace and stability of the Korean peninsula has been built on a strong U.S.-South Korean military alliance, namely the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty that has served as the cornerstone of Korea’s security networks. Under the current Lee Myung-Bak administration, relations between South Korea and the U.S. have been arguably at the most robust stage in nearly a decade. Calling South Korea the United States’ most significant partner in the Pacific region in 2010, Obama once described the bilateral alliance as the lynchpin for security in Northeast Asia. What should also be noted, however, is that there has been no observable communication between Seoul and Pyongyang since North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island, Yeonpyeongdo, two years ago. In other words, at the same time as relations between South Korea and the U.S. were improving, the two Koreas had reached the nadir of their bilateral relations during Lee’s time in power.

Many of the things considered to be among North Korea’s demands—economic assistance, a promise of a peace treaty—have been already offered to them in the context of bilateral negotiations occurring between the U.S. and North Korea, South Korea and North Korea, and during the Six-Party Talks. It appears that North Korea wants negotiations, not about denuclearization, but about arms control. Their aim is to turn the Six-Party Talks into a bilateral U.S.-North Korea nuclear arms reduction negotiation in which the North is accorded a status as a nuclear weapon state that agrees to mutual nuclear arms reductions, as opposed to elimination.

What led to this North Korean ambition for nuclear weapons?

Analysis of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation should begin by asking the following question: why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? In attempting to answer this question, it is possible to examine why leaders of this reclusive nation wanted to get international attention; what they demanded at the bilateral and multilateral talks; and what their negotiating counterparts —namely diplomats from the U.S. and South Korea— offered as concessions in exchange for cessation of their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s various motives for pursuing the nuclear program are aimed at one fundamental goal — regime survival. First, North Korea developed nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. from launching a nuclear attack against Pyongyang. During the Korean War, the U.S. explicitly expressed its willingness to use nuclear weapons first to discourage the Chinese forces from advancing towards the south of the Korean peninsula (Mazaar 1995, 17). After North Korea was exposed to the U.S. nuclear threat as an infant nation, its leaders subsequently recognized the enormous power and political value of nuclear weapons (1995, 16). The U.S intensified this impression when it introduced a nuclear-capable weapons system into South Korea in 1958. The increasing U.S. nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula “energized [North Korea’s] search for the ultimate deterrent… to forestall U.S. nuclear use in the event of a revolutionary or conventional war” (1995, 21).

Second, North Korea may have adopted a doctrine of minimum deterrence and developed nuclear weapons as “an insurance against an eventual South Korean conventional superiority” (1995, 18). Third, as Michael J. Mazzar (1995, 18) asserts, it is likely that North Korean leaders regarded nuclear weapons as “a means to obtaining diplomatic leverage” and used the nuclear status to grab the international community’s attention, pressure the U.S. to negotiate directly with them, and obtain economic and political concessions from negotiating counterparts. The last motive is as equally important as the first two motives because military security without economic advancement would not be sufficient for regime survival.

Understanding the “Which First” Dilemma

Based on these motives, North Korea seeks to achieve the following objectives by playing the nuclear card. First, Pyongyang seeks a negative security guarantee that Washington will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the North. Second, Pyongyang wants to normalize diplomatic relations with the U.S. in the long term. Third, to achieve this diplomatic status, Pyongyang seeks to negotiate directly with the U.S. in order to legitimize itself as a viable member of the international community. Fourth, Pyongyang seeks to secure material and economic assistance from the U.S. and other countries to overcome its perennial shortage of energy and food. These objectives conflict with the policy goals of the U.S. in North Korea because the U.S. wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for addressing any of North Korea’s concerns; however, North Korea claims it will be vulnerable to U.S. attack after denuclearization and asks that the U.S. first signs the peace treaty that has not been signed for 60 years. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the U.S. will not credibly commit to not attack North Korea once North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons program. On the other hand, from the U.S. perspective, North Korea will not plausibly promise to give up nuclear weapons after the peace treaty with the U.S is signed. Hence, we see the classic problem of “which first” dilemma, where one party prefers assenting to a political agreement — the peace treaty that would officially end the Korean War — first while the other party prefers settling on a non-political agreement, namely North Korea’s denuclearization.

Willingness to Talk: Necessary but Not Sufficient for Denuclearization

While it is a promising sign that all three candidates aim to recommence the bilateral talks with North Korea to discuss the North's nuclear weapons program, but no candidate has yet shown specific and innovative plans that need to be carried out in order to solve the perennial "which first" dilemma. Therefore, even though the resumption of the Six-Party Talks or a direct bilateral talks between two Koreas or between North Korea and the U.S. may result in a tentative agreement like the 9/19 joint statement in 2005, it is unclear if any form of agreement can be actually implemented.


Work Cited

Mazzarr, Michael J. 1995. North Korea and the Bomb: A Case Study In Nonproliferation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Territorial Disputes: Kashmir

Tibetan Resistance Movement in Light of China’s Power Transition