North Korea's Weapons Quest

June 1, 2005 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Regions: Asia Tags: Gaza StripWest BankZionism

North Korea's Weapons Quest

Mini Teaser: With nuclear weapons, North Korea aims to finish what it started: the Korean War.

by Author(s): Nicholas Eberstadt

Why, exactly, was the declaration by North Korea that it possessed nuclear weapons--and would hold on to its nuclear arsenal "under any circumstances"--greeted with such shock and astonishment around the world?

Pyongyang's claim in February to have joined the world's nuclear weapons club was not exactly a sudden, bizarre and inexplicable whim. Quite the contrary. That announcement represented the entirely logical culmination of decades of steady, deliberate effort and careful, methodical progress on a multifaceted program of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)--including work not only on nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles. To misunderstand this basic truth is to be blind and deaf to the fundamentals of North Korean strategy--an ignorance America and its allies can scarcely afford in the dangerous days that are likely to lie ahead.

When Western commentators have speculated about the motives underlying the North Korean quest for nuclear weapons and other WMD instruments, they have often dwelled upon the theme of "blackmail": that is, the dividends Pyongyang reaps from international military extortion. But this is a highly incomplete explanation of Pyongyang's abiding interests in WMD programs. North Korea's WMD project is aimed at rather more than simply cadging deliveries of food or fuel when the wolf is at the door. Indeed, the purposes of its WMD programs are so closely wedded to purposes of state that they can be described as integrally fused into the very logic of the North Korean system. That strategy, and the logic undergirding it, may be intuitively unfamiliar to those of us with modern, "globalization era" sensibilities. But until we appreciate the thinking that animates North Korea's WMD quest, we will face the prospect of ever more unpleasant and expensive surprises from Pyongyang.

What Is North Korea For?

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a state unlike any other on the face of the earth today. It is a political construct specially built for three entwined purposes. The first purpose is to fulfill a grand ideological vision: the reunification of the now-divided Korean Peninsula under the unfettered "independent, socialist" rule of the Pyongyang regime--in other words, unconditional annexation of present-day South Korea and liquidation of the government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) so that Kim Jong-il and company might exercise total command over the entire Korean race (minjok in Korean).

If that sounds preposterous and utterly impracticable to us, understand that things look very different from Pyongyang. North Korean statecraft has been predicated on that very vision for over half a century. To this day, the Sunshine Policy and all the rest notwithstanding, Pyongyang grants diplomatic status to only one "government mission" from Seoul: the legation of the so-called National Democratic Front of South Korea (Hanminjon), an invented resistance group supposedly based in the South that regularly uses North Korean airwaves to denounce the Republic of Korea as an illegitimate colonial police state.

The second purpose is to settle a historical grievance, namely the failure of the famous June 1950 surprise attack against South Korea--an assault that might well have unified all of Korea on Pyongyang's terms but for America's unexpected military intervention in defense of the ROK. In Pyongyang's telling, it is only American imperialism that has permitted an otherwise rotten, unstable and irredeemable ROK government to survive since 1950. The total-mobilization war state that Pyongyang has painfully erected over the decades (at the cost of, inter alia, the North Korean famine of the 1990s) is a response to this grievance and an instrument for fulfilling this vision.

The third purpose is to conduct a war, and that war is not some future theoretical contingency. Rather, in the view of North Korean leaders, their country is at war today, here and now. This may help to explain why the DPRK, with its population of more than twenty million, has for years fielded an army of a million-plus soldiers, a military force that currently ranks as the world's fourth largest--larger even than Russia's. Although we are sometimes inattentive to it, the historical fact is that the Korean War's battles were only halted through a cease-fire agreement, the Armistice of 1953. There has never been a peace treaty bringing the hostilities to a formal and conclusive end. The Korean War is, from the DPRK's standpoint, an ongoing war--and North Korea's leadership is committed to an eventual, unconditional victory in that war, however long that may take and however much that may cost.

Why Nuclear Weapons Matter

Against all odds, the North Korean leadership still attempts to support a vast conventional military force--long rehearsed for an anticipated reprise of June 1950--on a dysfunctional and failing Soviet-style economy. Despite the ingenuity and bravery of the soldiers of the North Korean People's Army (KPA), this conventional force cannot hope to prevail over the combined U.S.-South Korean alliance that awaits them on the other side of the DMZ. America's fearsome firepower--resources that could be trained on North Korea from land, air, sea and space--are by themselves adequate to guarantee not only the annihilation of the KPA, but the complete undoing of the North Korean regime. Thus, the neutralization and effective removal of the United States and the U.S. alliance system from the Korean equation remains utterly essential from Pyongyang's perspective.

That objective, however, cannot be achieved by the DPRK's conventional capabilities, today or in the foreseeable future. To deter, coerce and punish the United States, the DPRK must possess nuclear weaponry and the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them into the heart of the American enemy. This central strategic fact explains why North Korea has been assiduously pursuing its nuclear development and missile development programs for over thirty years--at terrible expense to its people's livelihood, and despite all adverse repercussions on its international relations.

Although Pyongyang rails against "globalization" in other contexts, North Korea's own conception of the uses of WMD are fully "globalized." Thanks largely (though not exclusively) to its short-range scud-style missiles and bio-chemical weapons, primarily targeted on South Korea, Pyongyang can always remind counterparts in the Blue House (South Korea's presidential residence) that the enormous metropolis of Seoul is a hostage to fate, to be destroyed in a moment on Kim Jong-il's say-so. Intermediate No Dong-type missiles capable of striking Japan (and American bases there) with nuclear warheads put Japanese political leaders permanently on alert to the possible costs of incurring North Korea's anger and the potential dangers of siding with the United States in a peninsular crisis. Finally, long-range missiles of the improved Taepo Dong variety may be capable of striking the U.S. mainland, now or in the relatively near future.

There is no indication, incidentally, that North Korean decision-makers view WMD as "special weapons" to be held in reserve. On the contrary, missiles and nuclear devices seem to figure integrally in North Korean official thinking and are already being used on a regular basis in North Korean statecraft, as the government's ongoing forays in "blackmail diplomacy" attest. Moreover, despite North Korea's emphasis on race doctrine, there is no indication whatsoever that North Korean leadership would hesitate to use such weapons on minjok in South Korea. Pyongyang did not blink at starving perhaps one million of its own people for reasons of state in the 1990s. It regards the South Korean state as a cancerous monstrosity, and those who support it as corrupt and worthless national traitors.

Several important implications flow from the DPRK's conception of and strategy for its WMD program. First, continuing and escalating international tensions are not accidental and unwelcome side-effects of the program. They are its central purpose. Simply stated, the DPRK's growing WMD arsenal, and the threats that arsenal permits the North Korean regime to pose to other governments, are the key to the political and economic prizes Pyongyang intends to extract from an otherwise hostile and unwilling world.

Second, WMD threats--especially nuclear and missile threats--have already been used by North Korea with great success as an instrument for extracting de facto international extortion payments from the United States and its allies, and as a lever forcing the United States to "engage" Pyongyang diplomatically and on Pyongyang's own terms.

Despite the North Korean regime's seemingly freakish face to the world, the leadership's ability to make subtle and skillful calculations is underscored by the bottom line in its negotiations with the U.S. government over the past decade. Between 1995 and 2004, according to calculations of the Congressional Research Service, Pyongyang secured more than $1 billion in foreign aid from the United States--a state the DPRK regards as its prime international enemy.

The greatest potential dividends for North Korean nuclear and ballistic diplomacy, however, still lie in store--and this brings us to a third point. For half a century and more, U.S. security policy has been charged with imposing "deterrence" upon Pyongyang. Shouldn't we expect that Pyongyang has also been thinking about how to "deter" the United States over those same long decades?

Nuclear weapons (especially long-range nuclear missiles) might well answer the "deterrence question" for the North Korean state, as former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry incisively recognized in his 1999 "Perry Process" report. Faced with the risk of nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland, he warned, Washington might hesitate at a time of crisis in the Korean Peninsula. But if Washington's security commitment to South Korea were not credible in a crisis, the military alliance would be hollow and vulnerable to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. North Korea's WMD program, in short, may be the regime's best hope for achieving its long-cherished objectives of breaking the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and forcing American troops out of the Korean Peninsula.

Essay Types: Essay