The Likely Future of North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program
Whatever long-term movement towards détente may ultimately emerge from the “reset” in North Korean-American diplomatic relations, history does not give much grounds for optimism. Regardless of the diplomatic skills or personal characteristics of the negotiators, there are powerful reasons for North Korea to continue its nuclear program. Any attempts to compel North Korea to abandon its program are likely to be cost-prohibitive. The broad perceived utility of nuclear weapons, the culture of North Korea’s leadership elite, and the incentive structure of international politics all suggest that, in the long-term, North Korea will maintain and expand its nuclear deterrent.
The culture of North Korea’s leadership elite is characterized by a degree of paranoia that is often difficult for outside observers to fully grasp. In a normal nation-state, intra-state political disputes are not usually resolved violently. Party politics is not a blood-sport for the developed world. In contrast, North Korea’s internal politics more closely resemble those of a particularly vicious imperial court.
The Kim family’s position at the center of the state is essentially hereditary[i] and its methods of rule have been explicitly compared to those of the Chosun dynasty which ruled from the 14th to the 19th centuries.[ii] Kim Jong-Un, since he came to power, has made a point of cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies, most visibly that of his uncle Jang Song-Taek.[iii] In this, Kim Jong-Un is not exceptional. Rather, his internal purges are a continuation of his father and grandfather’s Stalinist tactics.[iv] Kim is as a much a product of the system as he is a perpetuator of it.
Lower-ranking members of the ruling class in turn compete with each other for imperial favor. The various North Korean security agencies have overlapping and often conflicting mandates[v] allowing the uppermost leadership to ensure their power by keeping the various agencies in competition with each other. Prior to his fall from power, Jang Song-Taek himself exercised oversight of the Ministry for State.[vi]
This practice of divide-and-rule extends to the lowest levels of North Korean society. Every village is monitored by a “neighborhood watch” group which in turn contains informants who report directly to the North Korean security agencies.[vii] These informants are in turn recruited from persons of “questionable” background (i.e. having a distant relative who has defected to the South, or being descended from a bourgeoisie family) to give the Security Services maximum leverage and to encourage a vigilant attitude on the part of the informant.[viii]
In short, North-Korea is a quintessentially low-trust society. As demonstrated by the brutal way in which Kim Jong-Un consolidated his power, elite status is no guarantor of personal security, and may even place an individual at greater risk. In such a culture, good faith transactions are exceptionally difficult. Even if one party to the transaction has no malicious intentions, they cannot be sure of the other party’s trustworthiness. Paranoia begets paranoia ad infinitum. An individual can only feel safe if they have an instrument of coercion to apply against others. It is unlikely that Kim Jong-Un, or any leader able to navigate the cutthroat internal politics of the regime, would be willing to surrender the bargaining advantage a nuclear capability represents. Habits of suspicion are hard to break.
And nuclear weapons are an undeniably useful tool for the regime, both in a narrow military sense and a broader geopolitical context. History shows that from the moment nuclear weapons arrived on the world stage, any government which felt threatened by a powerful neighbor was desperate to acquire them. Mao, in an address delivered to the Politburo in 1956 expressed it bluntly: “In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, we have to have this thing.”[ix] Mao’s attitude was not unique. On the contrary, he voiced a common sentiment amongst post-colonial nations.
Countries which were unable to achieve conventional military parity with their rivals are especially eager for a nuclear capability. The case of Pakistan is illustrative. No sooner had Pakistan and India become separate nations than they began to squabble over the Kashmir region. Less than three months after partition, they fought their first war, which ended with India in control of approximately 60% of the disputed territory.[x]
They fought again in 1965; although militarily inconclusive, the Pakistani leadership, who had anticipated an easy victory, was humiliated by the outcome.[xi].In 1971, India and Pakistan clashed over the issue of Bengali (previously East Pakistan) independence, with India achieving decisive victory.[xii] In 1999, Pakistani troops attempted to infiltrate Indian positions in the Kashmir territory and were repulsed.
Pakistan’s repeated inability to achieve its goals through conventional military means reflects the vast disparities between Pakistan and India’s economic and military strength.[xiii] India’s military budget is between 6-8 times that of Pakistan’s, though it represents a smaller portion of their overall GDP. Its total population exceeds that of Pakistan by approximately one billion. In light of this conventional military weakness, it is unsurprising that Pakistan sees its nuclear arsenal as its ultimate defense against a numerically superior rival.[xiv]
North Korea’s military situation parallels that of Pakistan in important respects. Although in sheer size, it has the advantage over its adversaries, it’s military consists overwhelmingly of light infantry.[xv] It’s air, naval, and mechanized forces are relatively small.[xvi] Moreover, North Korea is a near-pariah in the international community. In the event of a war, it would confront not only South Korea but the United States and its allies, whose combined industrial might and military strength would easily outmatch North Korea’s conventional war-making capability. In the event of full-scale war, North Korea’s best chance for self-preservation would be using the threat of nuclear attack to make continuing the war cost-prohibitive for its adversaries.
In the long history of counter-proliferation, only one nuclear power has voluntarily surrendered its nuclear arsenal: South Africa. In 1989, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Africa voluntarily dismantled its operational warheads.[xvii] But South Africa’s geopolitical context was fundamentally different from North Korea’s today. The global decline of communism meant the withdrawal of foreign military aid to South Africa’s regional rivals.[xviii] Following the resolution of the conflict with Angola, the greatest threat to the South African regime was not a neighboring state, but internal dissent, a threat against which nuclear weapons were useless.
Modern history has provided little reason for mid-level states threatened by demographically and economically superior neighbors to abandon nuclear deterrence. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was left in possession of a significant quantity of nuclear weapons.[xix] Although some observers advised against it[xx], Ukraine returned the weapons to Russia in exchange for a non-binding security agreement. Exactly how non-binding was demonstrated by the Russian annexation of Crimea twenty years later.[xxi] These are not encouraging precedents for de-nuclearization efforts.
The usefulness of nuclear weapons is not limited to strictly military contexts. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal gives it significant bargaining power even in non-military contexts, bargaining power which can help the regime survive in spite of its internal tensions. For decades, North Korea has pursued a policy of Juche, or self-sufficiency[xxii] which have significantly restricted its economic growth. Although it is difficult to obtain precise data about the size and capability of the North Korean economy, most assessments indicate that the country is only partially industrialized, possesses limited functional infrastructure, and is unable to fully capitalize on its extensive natural resources.[xxiii]
This economic weakness is of particular concern to Kim, because much of his power base rests on his ability to effectively conduct “giftpolitik”, i.e. to bribe North Korea’s leadership elite with consumer goods and status-symbols.[xxiv] Simultaneously, he must maintain a powerful military deterrent and keep his work-force well-fed enough to be compliant. This last requirement has proven particularly difficult. In the 1990s, the country experienced a famine and significant portion of its population starved to death[xxv]; another significant portion survived only due to generous foreign aid.[xxvi]
Over the years, the Kim dynasty has used a wide range of tactics to sustain its patronage network.[xxvii] The systemic shock caused by widespread famine in the 1990’s forced the regime to relax some of its restrictions on private economic activity. Like other regimes before them, however, the North Korean leadership has been reluctant to allow market reforms to go beyond the bare minimum necessary for survival.[xxviii] Rather than implementing further reforms, the North Koreans have frequently resorted to blackmailing western nations.
Between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided approximately 1.3 billion dollars of aid to North Korea, roughly split between food aid and energy-infrastructure assistance.[xxix] The North Koreans imposed significant restrictions over the distribution of food aid, manipulating humanitarian assistance to ensure population compliance.[xxx] In effect, the United States and its allies propped up the regime. Although the regime does not appear to be in economic crisis at this time, the possibility of one remains on the horizon.[xxxi]
Possession of nuclear arsenal makes other nations invested in the stability of the North Korean regime. The prospect of a nuclear state collapsing is not one any policymaker will treat lightly. National Security Council staff have previously cited the fear of uncontrolled proliferation as a major planning concern in dealing with the state[xxxii] Although there have been debates about the utility of food aid, if forced to choose between the possibility of unchecked nuclear proliferation and propping up the regime, most western nations will probably choose the latter. After all, the war in Iraq, waged partially to combat the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, cost an order of magnitude more than US food aid, over a shorter period of time.[xxxiii] Against this, 1.3 billion dollars over 13 years seems like a bargain, one which most governments would happily make again.
This incentive only exists, however, as long as North Korea remains a nuclear state. Promises to decelerate the program, or to reduce the standing arsenal, are useful diplomatic tools, and may be even kept. But if the regime ever fully de-nuclearized, their bargaining position would be vastly weakened.
Nor is compelling the regime to abandon their weapons an attractive option. A pre-emptive military strike to “decapitate” the arsenal would confront significant intelligence, logistical, and political difficulties. A conservative estimate places the number of North Korean nuclear program sites at 100 or more.[xxxiv] It is not clear that all sites have been identified.[xxxv] Most of the sites which have been identified are deep inside the country and would require the use of airborne and airmobile forces to secure.[xxxvi] Due to the technical nature of counter-WMD operations and the defenses such facilities possess, the number of soldiers and personnel required could be in the thousands.[xxxvii] Employing indirect fire systems in stand-off attacks reduces the number of troops involved, but increases the likelihood of accidental contamination from destroyed facilities and the difficulty of conducting accurate damage assessment.[xxxviii]
The complexity and scale of such an operation make it very likely that North Korea would detect and respond to a military strike while it was still underway. Moreover, the difficulty of accounting for all nuclear material makes it likely that North Korea would retain some kind of retaliatory capability even after the operation’s conclusion. Thus, any attempt at a pre-emptive strike risks causing the very thing it was intended to prevent by triggering a nuclear attack. Nor is diplomatic pressure likely to be effective. Due to the paranoid character of the regime, any attempt to marshal international pressure against its nuclear program would probably only lead it to cling more tightly to its weapons.
The regime’s recent overtures towards de-nuclearization reflect Kim’s tactical flexibility while remaining grounded in a familiar strategic framework. In the short-term, Kim has much to gain by offering to reduce his nuclear arsenal. He has succeeded in weakening the US-ROK military alliance[xxxix] and may be able leverage his relationship for further concessions, particularly in the economic sphere. These short-term considerations do not outweigh the fundamental factors shaping North Korea’s relationship to the world. Although North Korea may make transactional movements towards abandoning its program, it will never fully do so. Nor is the United States or its allies likely to apply military force against their arsenal. Whatever tentative progress is made towards de-nuclearization, within the next ten years some change in the political winds will make it advantageous for North Korea to rattle the nuclear saber again, and they will do so.
[i] Gause, Ken E. North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-Un. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015. pg 6
[ii] Gause, K. E. (2012). Coercion, Control, Surveillance, And Punishment: An Examination of The North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. pg 5
[iii] Gause, Ken E. North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-Un. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015. pg 15
[iv]Gause, K. E. (2012). Coercion, Control, Surveillance, And Punishment: An Examination of The North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. pg 5
[v] Gause, K. E. (2012). Coercion, Control, Surveillance, And Punishment: An Examination of The North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. pg 18
[vi]Gause, K. E. (2012). Coercion, Control, Surveillance, And Punishment: An Examination of The North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. pg 20
[vii]Gause, K. E. (2012). Coercion, Control, Surveillance, And Punishment: An Examination of The North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Pg 44
[viii] Gause, K. E. (2012). Coercion, Control, Surveillance, And Punishment: An Examination of The North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Pg 45-48
[ix] Wilson Center Digital Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114337
[x] Pike, J. (n.d.). Military. Retrieved from https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/indo-pak_1947.htm
[xi] Pike, J. (n.d.). Military. Retrieved from https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/indo-pak_1965.htm
[xii] India Pakistan | Timeline. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/south_asia/2002/india_pakistan/timeline/1971.stm
[xiii] India vs Pakistan | Comparison military strength. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://armedforces.eu/compare/country_India_vs_Pakistan
[xv] Asymmetric Warfare Group (2017) Korea Handbook: The Complex Operating Environment And Asymmetric Threats. FT. Meade, MD. Asymmetric Warfare Group
[xvi] 2018 North Korea Military Strength. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=north-korea
[xvii] South African Nuclear Program. (2018, August 15). Retrieved from https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/south-african-nuclear-program
[xviii] Young-nam, K. (2018, July 27). De Klerk's Advice on N. Korea Nukes. Retrieved from https://www.voanews.com/a/south-africa-leader-who-gave-up-nukes-says-north-korea-is-a-different-story/4503193.html
[xix] Ukraine, Russia, and the NPT. (2014, March 09). Retrieved from http://armscontrolnow.org/2014/03/08/ukraine-russia-and-the-npt/
[xx] Should Ukraine Have Gotten Rid of Its Cold War Nukes? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/should-ukraine-have-gotten-rid-its-nukes/
[xxi] Pifer, S. (2016, July 29). The Budapest Memorandum and U.S. Obligations. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/12/04/the-budapest-memorandum-and-u-s-obligations/
[xxii] Nanto, D. K., & Chanlett-Avery, E. (2009). North Korea: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis. Ft. Belvoir: Defense Technical Information Center. Pg 27
[xxiii] Special Report: North Korea's Shackled Economy (2018). (2018, July 18). Retrieved from https://www.ncnk.org/resources/briefing-papers/all-briefing-papers/special-report-north-koreas-shackled-economy-2018
[xxiv] Gause, Ken E. North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-Un. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015. pg 3
[xxv] Manyin, M. E., & Nikitin, M. B. (2012). Foreign Assistance to North Korea. Washington, D.C: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. Pg 1
[xxvi] Nanto, D. K., & Chanlett-Avery, E. (2009). North Korea: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis. Ft. Belvoir: Defense Technical Information Center. Pg 21
[xxvii] Greitens, S. C. (2014). Illicit: North Koreas Evolving Operations to Earn Hard Currency. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
[xxviii] Nanto, D. K., & Chanlett-Avery, E. (2009). North Korea: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis. Ft. Belvoir: Defense Technical Information Center. Pg 29
[xxix] Manyin, M. E., & Nikitin, M. B. (2012). Foreign Assistance to North Korea. Washington, D.C: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. Pg 1
[xxx] Manyin, M. E., & Nikitin, M. B. (2012). Foreign Assistance to North Korea. Washington, D.C: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. Pg 14
[xxxi] Estimates released South Korea's central bank show that North Korea's economy shrank 3.5% in 2017. This year is likely to be even more dire. (n.d.). North Korea's economy just had its worst year in two decades. Retrieved from https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/20/news/economy/north-korea-economy/index.html
[xxxii] Stossel, S. (2018, June 13). North Korea: The War Game. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/07/north-korea-the-war-game/304029/
[xxxiii] Trotta, D. (2013, March 14). Iraq war costs U.S. more than $2 trillion: Study. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-war-anniversary/iraq-war-costs-u-s-more-than-2-trillion-study-idUSBRE92D0PG20130314
[xxxiv] B., & W., B. (2013, September 19). U.S., ROK, and Allies Should Prepare for Eventual Collapse of North Korean Government. Retrieved from pg 205
[xxxv] B., & W., B. (2013, September 19). U.S., ROK, and Allies Should Prepare for Eventual Collapse of North Korean Government. Retrieved from pg 206
[xxxvi] B., & W., B. (2013, September 19). U.S., ROK, and Allies Should Prepare for Eventual Collapse of North Korean Government. Retrieved from pg 199 and 213
[xxxvii] B., & W., B. (2013, September 19). U.S., ROK, and Allies Should Prepare for Eventual Collapse of North Korean Government. Retrieved from pg 210 and 214
[xxxviii] B., & W., B. (2013, September 19). U.S., ROK, and Allies Should Prepare for Eventual Collapse of North Korean Government. Retrieved from pg 208
[xxxix] Westcott, B., & Browne, R. (2018, June 23). US suspends military exercises with South Korea after Singapore summit. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/22/asia/us-south-korea-exercises-suspended-intl/index.html