Who is Behind the North Korean Nuclear Curtain?

Who is Behind the North Korean Nuclear Curtain?

Washington underappreciates Beijing’s culpability in Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation efforts at its own peril.

North Korea’s nuclear capability poses a serious danger to the Republic of Korea (ROK). Such is the South Korean fear that, according to some polls, more than 70 percent of South Koreans want Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons capability—a military option that is prohibited by the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As an alternative, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol recently suggested that the United States deploy theater nuclear forces at a U.S. military base in South Korea while also enhancing joint Seoul-Washington military planning and cooperation. The threat from Pyongyang is, after all, an incentive for Seoul to secure a stronger U.S. deterrent commitment. Washinton rejected the former idea but worked to implement the latter.

This, however, does not touch the root of the problem: what are the chances the North Korean nuclear capability can be rolled back? Many observers continue to believe the North Korean nuclear programs were developed to protect Pyongyang from what the North refers to as a “hostile policy” of U.S. antagonism. The continued U.S. military presence in the ROK and the annual military exercises Seoul and Washington direct on and around the Korean peninsula is also often cited by the North as justifying their continued nuclear deployments. In addition, Pyongyang sees the cooperative military relations between Japan and the ROK as evidence of a joint effort by the two countries to harm North Korea.

In short, to the extent the United States and its allied military presence in the region is scaled back, the conventional wisdom is North Korea will be more susceptible to making concessions.

But what if such assumptions are incorrect? What if a more in-depth examination of the origin of this North Korean nuclear military capability produces a much different answer? After all, the North’s nuclear weapons are only one of the two net additional nuclear weapons states that have emerged since 1962. Did North Korea, an impoverished country with little advanced technology, get nuclear weapons because it feared being attacked by the United States? Or was the North Korean nuclear program part of a strategy to push the United States out of the region, initiated by China in 1982 as part of its one-hundred-year plan to be the world’s number one military and economic hegemon?

China’s Longstanding Nuclear Proliferation Endeavor

Siegfried Hecker, writing in his new book Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program, examines this very issue and produces two claims. He concludes that a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea was in the cards but U.S. hawks, pushing for regime change, were responsible for mistakes that deep-sixed a possible disarmament agreement. He further elaborates, as other observers have, that the Chinese were not responsible for the North Korean nuclear programs and cannot be looked to for a resolution of the problem.

Both claims are not correct.

Understanding the fallacy of the second claim—that there was no Chinese role in the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons—illustrates why the first claim is erroneous as well.

The evidence starts in 1982, when the Chinese government decided to spread nuclear weapons technology to rogue state allies in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Libya. This effort was done in secret as it was contrary to China’s obligations under the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which obligates its 191 signatories not only to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons but to also work toward eventual general and total disarmament, including conventional and nuclear weapons.

China began with Pakistan. The full development of the atomic bomb in Pakistan was subsequently the work of A.Q. Khan. Pakistan reportedly received the actual atomic device blueprints from the Chinese. Khan, known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, eventually created a network—what one might call it “Nukes ‘R Us”—that, with the coordination of China, spread nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

This network was fully discovered when nuclear centrifuges made in Malaysia as part of the Khan network were being transferred to Libya were intercepted by the Italian and U.S. navies. A manifest on the shipping crates was addressed to the son of Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gadhafi.

The interception led directly to a confrontation with Libya over the extent of its nuclear program, which was then subsequently dismantled by the United States with the assistance of Great Britain, and remarkedly also with the cooperation of Tripoli. The successful effort proved the viability of the 2003 U.S.-created Proliferation Security Initiative, which Washington hoped could be duplicated with other rogue state nuclear programs.

But can such counter-proliferation efforts truly be successful without China’s full cooperation? The extent of the Chinese involvement in the Khan network and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology has remained unappreciated, despite Tom Reed’s 1969 book, The Nuclear Express. Reed detailed the Chinese push to arm its allies with nuclear weapons, which succeeded in programs in Pakistan and North Korea (Iran remains an open question)

China’s Motivations

Why would China undertake such a foreign policy initiative? The answers are multifold, but are consistent with other Chinese activity, especially in the Western Pacific.

China’s ambitions to be the world’s military hegemon, as detailed in Michael Pillsbury’s The One Hundred-Year Marathon, requires the U.S. military power in the Western Pacific to be diminished.

Enabling North Korean nuclear capability was designed to cause friction and conflict within the U.S.-ROK alliance, as ROK elements might begin to question the American willingness to deal with the increased threat to the region. If China could create doubt in the government of South Korea about whether the United States would keep its deterrent commitment to protect the ROK, maybe Washington would forgo even trying, or the ROK would try and go it alone. 

American observers such as the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow took the bait and proposed that all U.S. military forces in the ROK be withdrawn so the United States would not be involved in any possible war on the peninsula. With U.S. forces still in the ROK, the theory was the North would hold at-risk U.S. cities as a means of leveraging against American support for the South Korean government in the event of a war.

David Asher at the Hudson Institute has put together a briefing—(to access, use passcode Nv2&35tD)—on the extent to which multiple dozens of Chinese government and military entities and individuals have been established for the sole purpose of sustaining and advancing the North Korean nuclear program. The founder of Sayari Analytics, a financial-intelligence firm, Asher has previously identified the Chinese and North Korean entities responsible for cooperative nuclear activities and thus targeted by the U.S. for economic sanctions.

There is sufficient evidence to make it undeniable that the North Korean nuclear weapons program is very much a joint cooperative program of the first order, established by China many decades ago to facilitate the development of a North Korean nuclear bomb.

In this context, China’s strategy is understandable: start undermining U.S. security guarantees for American allies in the Pacific and hopefully begin a process of unraveling overall U.S. military presence in the region. This is not necessarily limited to the Indo-Pacific: China is seeking military basing rights from Iran in the Persian Gulf region. What better way to counter the U.S. Middle East military presence as well as to intimidate U.S. allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia?

China is Not Innocent

The recent summit between the U.S. and Korean presidents has, however, indicated that the Chinese strategy may be backfiring. Over the past few administrations, the U.S. military alliance with the ROK and Japan has been strengthened. The latter two countries have also significantly increased their military spending as well as the development of advanced military technology.

Given the possible development of a ROK or Japanese indigenous nuclear weapons capability would markedly undermine Chinese hegemonic ambitions, Pyongyang’s nuclear threats might also be a catalyst to push the Chinese government to put an end to North Korean nuclear proliferation. The last thing the Chinese government wants is multiple additional nuclear weapons powers in the region—a proliferation that might very well occur due to Beijing’s missteps with respect to creating a North Korean nuclear threat.

When added to the current nuclear weapons states now in the region—Russia, China, the United States, and North Korea—there could be upwards of seven or more nuclear-armed powers in the region. The chances of accidental, inadvertent, or deliberate use of nuclear weapons would increase exponentially, and with it, the resulting fracturing of the world’s top economies, to say nothing of the potential death of more than a billion people.

The counter and non-proliferation efforts of the United States and its allies have successfully prevented what Israeli ambassador to the United States Dori Gold once predicted might be a cascade of new nuclear weapons states if not just North Korea but Iran also went nuclear. While Washington and its allies were successful in ending an actual nuclear weapons program in South Africa, and nascent programs in Iraq (1991) and Libya, (2006) as well as in Brazil and Argentina decades ago, North Korean proliferation remains, as well as potentially Iran. To bring those programs under control and eventual termination will require a hard-headed analysis of their origin and purpose. It is here that the notion that China is an innocent party leads us down the wrong road and toward possible catastrophe.