Case study - The danger of proliferation. North Korea, an example

In April 2012, a formulation was included in the constitution of North Korea that the country “is in possession of the atomic bomb” (North Korea officially declares itself as a nuclear power). In 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016, the authoritarian state have carried out a nuclear test. Due to the encountered technical problems, it remains unclear whether North Korea does indeed possess the technology capable of detonating a nuclear warhead. In 2012, North Korea owned an estimated 24 to 42 kg of weapons-grade plutonium which it had separated in its nuclear reprocessing facility from spent fuel rods. Consequently, North Korea is in possession of weapons-grade material for four to eight (plutonium) atomic bombs (Siegfried S. Hecker/Robert Carlin, 2012). The country is also constructing a uranium enrichment facility in which, according to North Korea's leadership, fuel rods are to be produced for further, planned, civilian nuclear power plants. In principle, the uranium enrichment facility would also be capable of producing weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons?

One reason why North Korea wants nuclear weapons is the threat perception of its Stalinist leaders since the end of the Korean War in 1953. They felt and still feel that the country and their regime is threatened by South Korea with which it had waged a bloody war for three years (1950–1953) and by its ally the United States. Influential parts of the political elite in the United States and South Korea are calling for a regime change in North Korea. There are still 30,000 US soldiers positioned in South Korea. There is also no peace agreement between the United States and North Korea or between the two Koreas.

The weak economic and alliance policy is an additional factor. Against this background, Pyongyang's attempt to develop nuclear weapons can be viewed as the "cheapest kind of deterrent"—a quote from the German Korea expert Patrick Köllner—against a forced regime change by the militarily superior alliance of South Korea and the United States.

The fact that North Korea wants to use its nuclear potential as a 'bargaining chip' to obtain political, security-political and economic concessions from the United States and South Korea may be a second reason for the nuclear weapons programme. North Korea repeatedly declared its willingness to negotiate and even to give up its nuclear programme under the right conditions. It appears that the North Korean leadership is following both options: Nuclear weapons as a deterrent and as a bargaining chip. It is questionable, however, whether indeed Pyongyang would be prepared to completely renounce its nuclear weapons programme in return for a peace agreement, security guarantees, diplomatic acceptance by the United States and economic support.

History of the conflict

Diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea from wanting to possess nuclear weapons started as early as in the 1980s. Since then, the international community has been sliding from crisis to crisis, broken by phases of temporary détente. But this is not only the fault of the leadership in Pyongyang.

In 1985, North Korea became a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that prohibits the possession of nuclear weapons. But it refused to have its nuclear plants inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency until, in 1991, the United States withdrew their nuclear weapons from South Korea. Only a little later, it was discovered that North Korea was operating a reprocessing plant in Yongbyon capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. At that time, US President Bill Clinton was considering a military attack on North Korea but refrained from doing so as a military retaliation by North Korea with conventional weapons would have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in South Korea.

After negotiations, the United States and North Korea entered into an agreed framework in 1994. With this, Pyongyang committed itself to close down the nuclear reactor and the reprocessing plant. In return, it was planned that it should receive oil deliveries and two light water reactors. After George W. Bush had become President of the United States, he put this agreement on hold in 2002 after he stated in his State of the Union Address that North Korea was part of the 'axis of evil'. With this, the promised construction of two light water reactors in the country was out of the question. So, after eight years, North Korea started to produce plutonium again. It expelled the IAEA inspectors and cancelled its membership of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Renewed diplomatic attempts were hindered by the stance of the then US Vice President Dick Cheney who, in 2003, in the context of North Korea declared: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it" (Glenn Kessler, 2004). In 2005, during the Six-Party Talks between China, Russia, Japan, the United States, North Korea and South Korea, North Korea finally consented to its denuclearization in return for the provision of energy. Yet shortly afterwards, Washington imposed sanctions on the most important foreign trade bank of North Korea. As a response, Pyongyang dropped out of the negotiations and carried out its first nuclear test in 2006. Only after the Bush administration had taken back the sanctions against the bank in 2007 did North Korea commit itself again to its denuclearization, stopped plutonium production and destroyed the cooling tower of its reactor.

In 2009, however, the by now conservative government of South Korea, supported by the United States, refused the pledged supplies of oil as it considered the verification measures promised by North Korea to be insufficient. Only a little later did the United States impose further sanctions on North Korea as, contrary to China and Russia, it considered the fact that North Korea attempted to fire a rocket to launch a satellite into space as a breach of the agreement. North Korea again withdrew from the denuclearization agreement and, in 2009, conducted another nuclear test and several missile tests.

In early 2012, shortly after the transition of power in Pyongyang to Kim Jong-un, the son of late Kim Jong-il, North Korea declared that it was prepared to cease its nuclear and long-range missile tests, to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and to invite IAEA inspectors back into the country to monitor the nuclear facilities. In return, the United States agreed to supply North Korea with 240,000 tonnes of food. This deal, however, did not go ahead as Pyongyang shortly afterwards attempted to launch a non-military observation satellite into space. Despite the fact that the launcher exploded soon after the launch, the United States considered this a ballistic missile test violating the arranged agreement.

The relationship between Pyongyang and Washington was one factor shaping the nuclear poker on the Korean peninsula. The other was the changing quality of the relation between the two Koreas. The sunshine (détente) policy of former South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008) was followed by the confrontational policy of the conservative Lee Myung-bak, whose term ended in February 2013.

Dangers resulting from the North Korean nuclear programme

There is concern that the North Korean nuclear programme may induce South Korea and Japan to produce nuclear weapons in turn. Such a proliferation of nuclear weapons would significantly compromize stability in Asia. Even though North Korea possesses weapons-grade plutonium and is working on a warhead, neither South Korea nor Japan has shown any desire to develop nuclear weapons. Such development is not considered to be necessary in terms of security policy, as both are under the nuclear umbrella of the United States. The reference to the North Korean danger by South Korea and Japan, but in particular by the United States is "often exaggerated" as Peace Researcher Hans-Joachim Schmidt comments. According to Schmidt, the intention is to "covertly justify their armaments regarding China".

Possible solutions

The US strategy (and at times that of South Korea) to confront and isolate North Korea has not had the desired effects. It seems that this will not change in the future, either. To address the risks of nuclear proliferation in the region and the danger of military escalation with conventional weapons, a return to diplomatic negotiations, for instance in the framework of the Six-Party Talks but also in bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea or between the two Koreas, is the only possible way forward. The United States and South Korea ought to take up Pyongyang’ expressed willingness to negotiate and ascertain whether and how the North Korean nuclear weapons programme can be frozen or even turned back in return for economic, political and security policy propositions. Such a negotiating strategy that is based on cooperation may well open up new avenues after the presidential elections in the United States in 2016 and South Korea in 2017.

Sources and further information:

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