After two years of essentially fruitless negotiations with Pyongyang, it seems justifiable to conclude that the era of North Korea acquiring nuclear-armed missiles has ended and given way to the era of North Korea as a permanent, de facto nuclear weapons state. While negotiations will continue, it is appropriate to raise the question of how this situation came about.
As a case study in international politics, what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) achieved is remarkable. The ancient and influential Greek historian Thucydides is celebrated for the concise wisdom of his observation that “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must,” a summary of the neorealist view of international politics.
In this case the power gap between the “strong” United States and “weak” North Korea was immense. The U.S. economy was roughly 100 times the size of North Korea’s, and the United States also boasted the world’s most capable conventional military forces plus a nuclear arsenal that could have incinerated every North Korean city. Yet this comparatively small country managed, despite the superpower’s awareness and opposition, to acquire a capability that made itself exponentially more potentially dangerous to the superpower.
Other states have tried and failed to get nuclear weapons over U.S. objections. South Korea aspired to going nuclear in the 1970s but wilted under American pressure and signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1975. The Republic of China on Taiwan started down that path on three separate occasions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Additionally, then-President Lee Teng-hui expressed interest in the 1990s in restarting the program. In every instance, however, Washington persuaded Taipei that the costs of damaging the bilateral relationship would outstrip the benefit to Taiwan of getting the bomb.
The DPRK succeeded where others failed largely because of three factors. The first factor is the strength of North Korea’s determination to get a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang persisted in this effort over seven decades, beginning with its establishment of an Atomic Energy Research Institute in 1952. A joint research agreement with the Soviet Union in 1956 led to the building of a reactor at Yongbyon. China helped the DPRK government with a geological survey to find uranium inside North Korea.
The DPRK subsequently scrambled to acquire nuclear technology and expertise from a variety of sources to build a program that was largely indigenous but heavily based on reverse engineering. North Korea took advantage of lax international safeguards to gather technical information and equipment from Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes through front companies in China or Chinese intermediaries.
An important source was the AQ Khan operation based in Pakistan. Former Soviet scientists and companies reportedly supplied the DPRK with assistance in both nuclear weapons and missile technology in the 1990s.
North Korea’s motivation for getting a nuclear missile is unusually strong because it is overdetermined — there are three distinct rationales stacked atop one another. The first is external security. North Korea suffered more terribly from U.S. conventional bombing during the Korean War than did Japan during the Pacific War. The U.S. government repeatedly discussed using nukes against North Korea and has frequently used nuclear-capable bombers to attempt to send intimidating signals to Pyongyang.
In recent years, the North Koreans also had to worry about vulnerability to conquest by better-equipped and better-trained South Korean forces, let alone a combined U.S.-ROK operation. Pyongyang has repeatedly said it sees nuclear weapons as the difference between U.S. adversaries that get militarily attacked and those that do not.
Second, the acquisition of a nuclear missile bolsters the domestic legitimacy of the Kim regime. Joining the prestigious nuclear club is not only a source of pride for North Koreans — most of whom know their country is far poorer than rival South Korea — it is also a rare success for a government that has consistently failed to deliver on its promises of economic development.
Third, having nuclear weapons makes North Korea relevant when it might otherwise be ignored. His newly demonstrated capability enabled Kim to spectacularly break out of his previous diplomatic isolation in 2018 and to press the United States for concessions on the issues North Korea cares about, including sanctions relief and loosening the U.S.-ROK alliance.
The second factor in North Korea’s success is its relative isolation. Most governments that incur U.S. wrath might see negative consequences across any of a large number of leverage points. The DPRK, however, has limited exposure to American coercion since it decided nuclear weapons were worth the pain of enduring U.S.-approved economic sanctions. U.S.-DPRK trade is virtually zero, and the two countries do not have official diplomatic relations. Pyongyang is not a member of the World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, or Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Rather, North Korea’s economic well-being is mostly in the hands of China, which nominally shares the U.S. objective of denuclearization but in practice largely works to offset U.S. pressure on Pyongyang.
While there is room for the United States to toughen sanctions against the DPRK, Washington has demurred on the idea of completely freezing North Korea out of the international financial system because this would substantially harm many Chinese banks and raise strong objections from Beijing. Furthermore, many analysts doubt that any amount of sanctioning would by itself have persuaded the Kim regime from seeking to develop and deploy nuclear missiles.
The third factor in the DPRK getting the bomb despite U.S. disapproval is that the South Korean capital of Seoul is within DPRK artillery range. The North Korean army has thousands of cannon barrels and rocket launch tubes trained on the ROK capital, which is only about 35 miles from the border. Seoul is home to a third of South Korea’s population and about half of its wealth. There is little doubt that an all-out war would result in the destruction of the Kim regime and the absorption of the DPRK into the Republic of Korea. In the process, however, the DPRK would likely pour ordnance onto Seoul until the U.S. and ROK forces could locate and destroy the North Korean batteries. Seoul would be at risk of suffering fatalities estimated at from tens to hundreds of thousands, along with comparable damage to buildings and infrastructure.
Throughout the decades of crises involving North Korea, neither Washington nor Seoul has judged that the elimination of inter-Korean tensions was worth the likely devastation of the South Korean capital. This coincidental geographic situation has acted as a shield for the North, emboldening the regime to attempt to extort the South Korean and U.S. governments through bellicose rhetoric and occasional acts of violence. When the White House threatened in 2017 to prevent North Korea from getting a workable nuclear missile, Pyongyang judged correctly that U.S. contemplation of a preventive military strike against the DPRK would founder on the old fear of a retaliatory bombardment of Seoul.
One could interpret this as a case of U.S. failure or weakness. Even hegemons do not get their way on every issue. On the other hand, Washington demonstrated due consideration of the interests of its ally South Korea, even when the DPRK got close to deploying a weapon that for the first time could threaten the U.S. homeland. While some U.S. politicians were tempted, Washington did not sacrifice thousands of South Korean lives to avoid a decrease in American security.
Similarly, the degree to which this counts as a “win” for North Korea is questionable. The substantial resources Pyongyang spent on its nuclear and missile programs were at least partly wasted because neither Seoul nor Washington wanted to invade North Korea after South Korea became relatively wealthy. Kim’s trophy carries a high opportunity cost for ordinary North Korean people, who continue to struggle under both their own government’s mismanagement and sanctions imposed from outside.
Few observers will celebrate North Korea’s entry into the nuclear club as a victory for an admirable underdog.
Denny Roy is Senior Fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.