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The North Korean Puzzle

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations David C. Kang, Director, Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, President, Korea Economic Institute, former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2001-2003, Korea Economic Institute
Interviewer(s): Jayshree Bajoria Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
May 28, 2009


North Korea's nuclear test on May 25, its second since October 2006, once again threatens stability in Northeast Asia and poses a challenge to the international nonproliferation regime. Pyongyang has also threatened to disregard the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, which could further escalate tensions on the peninsula. The crisis revives vexing questions about the North Korean regime - the extent of its nuclear capabilities, its murky succession politics, its seeming imperviousness to sanctions, and the limits of multilateral diplomacy aimed at denuclearization. Four experts offer insights into each of these issues.

Charles D. Ferguson, Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations


Why did North Korea conduct a nuclear test and does this test make North Korea more threatening? North Korea may have tested to challenge the Obama administration, which is still early in office, in order to strike a better deal than North Korea had with the Bush administration. There is speculation that Kim Jong-Il may have ordered the test to shore up internal support for his regime. While doubts remain about the domestic and international political reasons for the test, from a technological and military standpoint, North Korea had compelling reasons to do the test. North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006 conveyed weakness rather than strength because it had an explosive yield far below the design yield. Thus, the North Korean military would have had little confidence that its nuclear arsenal would work reliably based on this single test.

There is considerable uncertainty about the capability of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Independent experts estimate North Korea may have as much as forty to sixty kilograms (PDF) of plutonium [approximately six kilograms of plutonium is needed to make one bomb]. North Korea's 2008 declaration claimed it had thirty-seven kilograms. The plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon could produce about one bomb's worth of plutonium annually when it was operating. Under the Bush administration's agreement with North Korea, this reactor was partially dismantled. It may require several months to repair and restart the reactor. Pyongyang could also undertake a uranium-enrichment program to further increase its fissile material stockpiles, but little is known about the status of this program.

Another reason for more than one test is to develop lighter weight and smaller-sized warheads in order to reduce the weight and size to be able to fit on a ballistic missile. North Korea has conducted few launches of the Taepodong series of long-range ballistic missiles--those that may eventually have a range far enough to reach the United States. The most recent Taepodong test in April 2009 showed that North Korea does not yet have the capability to reliably launch a lightweight satellite, let alone a first generation nuclear warhead that could weigh 500 kilograms [1,100 pounds] or more.

A third reason for additional nuclear testing is to advertise North Korea's nuclear capabilities to potential buyers. While North Korea would have to fear the consequences if it was caught transferring nuclear weapons or materials, it has a track record of selling ballistic missiles. Of more relevance, according to the U.S. government, North Korea assisted Syria in building a nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israeli bombers in September 2007. The important lesson that North Korea learned was that despite the U.S. claim of North Korean involvement, North Korea did not suffer any consequences as a result.

Crisis Guide: The Korean PeninsulaThe United States and its partners face the reality that they have limited options in stopping North Korea from further developing its nuclear arsenal. Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty , which is high on the nonproliferation agenda, will not prevent North Korea from conducting additional tests, but such action by China and the United States would provide more political leverage and legitimacy to these countries by showing that North Korea is flouting internationally acceptable behavior. Succeeding in having China, Japan, and South Korea take part in the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict North Korean ships and planes that could carry nuclear weapons and materials could risk sparking a war in light of Pyongyang's recent threats of conventional strikes against South Korea. Further sanctions could bring North Korea back to the bargaining table, or they could escalate the crisis.

Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations


North Korea's recent nuclear test and missile launch have taken place against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty about the health of its paramount leader Kim Jong-Il and who will succeed him. Kim evidently suffered a major stroke in August 2008 and disappeared from public view for six months. His few appearances since March 2009 show him to look frail and gaunt while also experiencing some loss of movement in his left arm--all of which has fueled speculation that he has begun to lay the groundwork for his succession. Several recent changes to the composition of the National Defense Commission (NDC)--the primary organ for state control--that Kim Jong-Il heads as chairman lend some credence to this. General O Kuk-ryol, described as a "loyal aide," has become vice chairman. There have been reports that Kim's third son Kim Jong-un was also appointed to a low-grade position in the NDC and is being groomed for succession but this is uncorroborated.

Commentary linking North Korea's nuclear test with the internal political situation typically infer one or more of the following: Kim Jong-Il is emphasizing military power to reassert his standing within the North Korean leadership after his illness; he is buying the support of the armed forces for his chosen successor; or he is endeavoring to make the country as strong as possible to deter any possible attack during the succession period when it is potentially most vulnerable. All are plausible, but without further information they remain nothing more than speculation.

What are the policy implications of this? First, the likelihood of making significant progress toward denuclearization is not high while the North Korean leadership remains distracted by the succession process. This could play out over an extended period. There is already speculation that 2012 may prove to be the culmination of the process: it will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth--the founding father of North Korea--as well as the seventieth birthday of Kim Jong-Il (and possibly the thirtieth birthday of Kim Jong-un).

Second, to the extent that further diplomatic initiatives toward North Korea are going to be successful, they must adjust for the likelihood that the nuclear weapons program is being driven primarily out of considerations of "regime survival" as distinct from national security. Thus it may not be simply enough to signal that the United States has "no hostile intent" toward North Korea but rather it may be necessary to consider active measures to reassure the Kim family regime of its future. Any moral reservations about doing this have to be weighed against the larger goal of denuclearization. The Libyan precedent is instructive in this regard.

Third, while North Korea has already proven it can undergo a dynastic succession--still the only totalitarian Communist country to do so--there is no guarantee that it will be successful again. The United States should be prepared for the possibility that Kim Jong-Il dies before he has put in place a robust succession arrangement or that whatever has been decided is challenged after he does. Planning for a range of contingencies is essential.

David C. Kang, Director, Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California


Affecting North Korea's economy, either through sanctions or engagement, has been one policy area that is consistently mentioned as a possible avenue to influencing North Korean behavior. Unfortunately, it appears that economic leverage--either positive or negative--will probably have less impact on North Korean behavior at this time than at any time in the past.

The United States and the United Nations could impose more stringent sanctions on North Korea than have already been applied. Yet these would be purely symbolic, both because the United States, Japan, and other countries have almost no economic relations with North Korea to begin with, and because it is unlikely that such sanctions would be harsh enough, and consistently applied, to cause any North Korean distress. South Korean trade with the North reached $1.8 billion in 2008, but those figures have declined significantly this year, reducing South Korean potential leverage on the North.

The only country that could affect North Korea's economy in a major way is China. Indeed, the Chinese appear to be fairly angered at North Korea's latest moves, and the nuclear test in particular has been a real insult to Chinese diplomatic efforts. There has also been intense debate within China about the best way to deal with North Korea and even whether North Korea remains strategically important to China.

However, it is unlikely that China would use such economic pressure, or that such pressure would work. China has continued to build economic relations with North Korea over the past few years, and to a considerable degree, Chinese economic policies toward North Korea have been designed to prevent instability through expanded economic assistance. That is, China faces the same problem that other countries do--how to pressure and persuade North Korea to take a more moderate stance, without pushing so hard on North Korea that it collapses. In this way, North Korea's dependence on Chinese aid limits China's ability to pressure North Korea--North Korea is so vulnerable that China needs to be quite careful in its policies toward it. And China, like South Korea, must concern itself with the potential consequences of a North Korean collapse, which could include hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees, a large and well-armed North Korean military that may not voluntarily disarm, nuclear weapons unaccounted for and uncontrolled by any central authority, and the subsequent social, economic, and cultural costs of dealing with an implosion. Thus, the prospects of China putting any significant pressure on North Korea are dim.

The sad fact is that the range of policy options available to the Obama administration and other governments in the region are quite thin. Few countries would consider military action to cause the regime to collapse for fear that collapse would bring even greater instability and potentially unleash uncontrolled nuclear weapons. At the same time, few countries are willing to normalize relations and offer considerable economic or diplomatic incentives to North Korea in the hopes of luring Pyongyang into moderation. As a result, the Obama administration is left with the choices of rhetorical pressure, quiet diplomacy (either bilateral or multilateral), and mild sanctions.

Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, President, Korea Economic Institute, former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2001-2003, Korea Economic Institute


There are a couple of different components to a U.S. diplomatic response to the North Koreans' provocative action. First of all is the sharing of information among the five parties other than North Korea in the Six-Party Talks. Currently, that's being done very well. The [Obama] administration has begun a process of evaluating internally the reactions or statements by North Korea and then consulting first with our allies in South Korea and Japan, and then going to the Chinese, and as time permits to the Russians. The second aspect of this is making maximum use of the UN Security Council, collaborating with the permanent five and a critical mass of the fifteen members to come up with either a new UN Security Council resolution or a tightening of the existing sanctions that have been put in place under UN Security Council Resolution 1718 following the North Koreans' first nuclear test in October 2006. It is the message that is most important, not so much how difficult the sanctions may be for the North Koreans, but that there is a unified and collective message coming out of the Security Council in a relatively short period of time.

What has to be conveyed to the North Koreans is that their actions and the trend line of their actions over the last several months, not to mention the last few years, are headed in the wrong direction. And that's not a direction the United States can respond to by satisfying Pyongyang's long-term goals early on, meaning that we really can't enter into a serious discussion about a peace treaty and normalized relations with North Korea without having first satisfied our security concerns and those of our regional partners. North Korea cannot be a nuclear threat to its neighbors or be a proliferation threat to the United States.

The history of the last fifteen years in dealing with North Korea suggests that it is a bilateral approach between the United States and North Korea that has worked the best, that has produced the most results in the shortest period of time. That is not to diminish the important role of multilateral talks. However, to date, the multilateral approach has not produced the desired results. Even those who would point to some modicum of success in the Six-Party Talks would acknowledge that it came about through truly bilateral meetings between the United States and North Korea in January 2007 in Berlin, and then later in Singapore in the fall of 2007. Appropriately, the results of those meetings were then codified in the Six-Party process. Pyongyang was a reluctant partner which preferred not to participate in the multilateral setting, if given a choice. Without regard to the efficacy of the bilateral approach, the North Korean nuclear issues have regional and international implications that require the participation and buy-in of more than just the United States. What this suggests is that we've got to find a way in which to make the multilateral setting work as a matter of routine. Bilateral meetings will continue to perform an important role, but the ultimate solution to the North Korea nuclear problem requires a multilateral solution.

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