North Korea’s nuclear program is one of the most serious threats to political stability in Northeast Asia and, more broadly, in the Asia-Pacific region. At this time, there may be no realistic chance of resolving the problem. In the long term, the nuclear program may destabilize the situation in the region: it is quite likely that the program will lead to a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula or to the beginning of a nuclear arms race in the Asia-Pacific.

North Korea began to show interest in a nuclear program in the late 1950s, and since the early 1980s, it has been developing a program at an accelerated pace, primarily prompted by the country’s strategic position.

Unlike other countries of the socialist camp, North Korea did not maintain particularly close relations with the Soviet Union. Even though the existence of the socialist bloc generally guaranteed the country’s security up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Korean leadership sought to create its own strategic security system independent of Moscow and Beijing as early as the 1960s.

Given the weakness of the North Korean economy and its ever-growing lag behind the economy of its main strategic adversary—South Korea—the North Korean leadership decided to stake everything on the development of nuclear weapons.

The collapse of the socialist camp at the turn of the 1990s made the nuclear program a top priority for the North Korean leadership. By the early 1990s, it had become obvious to the international community that intensive work was under way there to develop nuclear weapons. The result was a foreign policy crisis, which was resolved in 1994 by the signing of the so-called “Agreed Framework” in Geneva.

Under this agreement, North Korea pledged to suspend its nuclear program and submit its main nuclear facilities to international control (in particular, the large nuclear research center in Yongbyon near Pyongyang). As compensation, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), an international consortium led by the United States, South Korea, and Japan, pledged to build light-water reactors unsuitable for plutonium production in North Korea, and also to regularly supply crude oil to the country before the construction of these reactors was completed.

The Agreed Framework worked until 2002. It was generally adhered to by the parties, although the construction of a light-water reactor proceeded much more slowly than originally envisaged. The delays occurred largely because the United States and other key KEDO participants then hoped that the Kim family regime would collapse in the near future.

But U.S. intelligence services received information around 2002 that North Korea was continuing to work on enriched uranium-based nuclear weapons, although it had frozen its plutonium work. North Korea initially denied the allegations, but in 2010 its authorities took an American delegation to a huge enriched uranium production center, which had by then been operating for quite a long time, in effect admitting to the accusations made by the United States.

In any case, U.S. allegations about the North Korean uranium nuclear program led to the demise of the Geneva Agreed Framework in 2002. By that time, the economic situation in North Korea, which had experienced a catastrophic famine in the late 1990s, had begun to improve, so the country required less economic assistance. As a result, it did not make any efforts to renew the agreement, and resumed work on its military nuclear program.

Current Capability

In October 2006, North Korea conducted its first successful nuclear tests. Since then, the country has held six nuclear weapons tests and a thermonuclear weapon test in 2017.

It has also been working on creating nuclear delivery vehicles. Since the 1990s, North Korean military forces have been equipped with Nodong missiles, which have a range of 1,200–1,500 kilometers, and since the late 1990s, the country has been actively developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The first, partially successful launch of a North Korean satellite, for which a close analogue of an ICBM was used, took place in December 2012. In 2017, North Korea tested two types of ICBMs capable of hitting targets in the continental United States: Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15. North Korea has therefore come very close to becoming the third state after Russia and China capable of striking the mainland United States.

Specialists disagree on the size and real combat readiness of the North Korean nuclear arsenal. In general, it is believed that the country has about 30 to 60 weapons, some of which are made using weapons-grade plutonium, and some using enriched uranium. This number also includes several thermonuclear weapons.

Currently, most experts believe that North Korea has not fully mastered the technologies necessary to create a full-fledged ICBM. Nevertheless, work in this direction has been very active, and a full-fledged ICBM with the necessary warheads could probably be created in the next few years.

Strategic Objectives

At present, North Korea considers nuclear weapons to be the most important guarantee of the preservation of the existing regime.

Pyongyang believes that security guarantees that could theoretically be given by the U.S. government cannot be trusted, since it is very likely that the next administration could declare that these guarantees “are not in the interests of the United States” and unilaterally abandon them. The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran concluded during the Obama administration aptly illustrates this possibility.

North Korea’s leadership has drawn lessons from Iraq and especially Libya. Pyongyang remembers well that the only authoritarian ruler of our time who abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for promised economic benefits was the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In the end, Gaddafi was killed as a result of civil unrest in his country, which was supported by the same states that at one time secured Libya’s agreement to discontinue its nuclear program. That lesson has not been lost on North Korea.

North Korea believes that nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles protect the country from a direct external attack, as well as from foreign intervention in a possible domestic political crisis, similar to the one in Libya. However, it cannot be ruled out that in the future, the North Korean nuclear program will also be used for offensive purposes: in order to ensure that the United States doesn’t interfere in a possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula unleashed by North Korea.

If the United States does not dare to come to the aid of South Korea for fear of a North Korean nuclear strike, then the North may have some chances of winning a new Korean War. For now, however, North Korean nuclear weapons play a primarily defensive role.

The very existence of a nuclear program significantly impedes the country’s economic development, both because of the costs associated with it and the international sanctions it has generated. It should be understood, however, that while important, issues of economic development aren’t the be-all and end-all for the North Korean elite, which encompasses just several hundred families and has transferred power on a hereditary basis for the last fifty to sixty years.

Their top priority is to maintain power under very challenging domestic and foreign policy conditions. Pyongyang believes that survival is more important than enrichment, and that economic growth makes sense only if the same elite remains at the helm.

Trump’s Policies

Even before his election as U.S. president, Donald Trump had emphasized that the North Korean nuclear program would be one of his key foreign policy issues. Indeed, from his first days in the White House, Trump has tried to radically reconsider the position of previous administrations. After 2007–2008, that position was generally reduced to ignoring the North Korean nuclear program while continuing to support the increasingly strict international sanctions approved by the UN Security Council.

In 2017, Trump made a number of unusually harsh statements on North Korea. In particular, he repeatedly hinted that the United States could resort to military force if it didn’t extract real concessions on the nuclear issue from North Korea within a reasonable time.

The Trump administration has also managed to get Beijing to make some changes to its North Korea policy. China has traditionally had a bifurcate policy on the North Korean nuclear issue. On the one hand, it takes an extremely negative stand on its neighbor’s nuclear ambitions. As one of the officially recognized nuclear powers, China by no means endorses the proliferation of nuclear weapons, considering it a long-term threat to its strategic interests.

On the other hand, the Chinese leadership feared that excessive economic pressure exerted on North Korea could lead to an economic and political crisis, and possibly to the fall of the Kim family regime, which would contradict Chinese foreign policy interests.

China is interested in preserving North Korea as a buffer zone, and is not inclined to welcome the unification of the Korean Peninsula under Seoul’s hegemony—and that’s exactly the kind of unification that a political crisis in North Korea and the fall of its regime could produce.

These interests have prompted China to support international sanctions that were specifically aimed at hampering the development of the North Korean nuclear capability and depriving the country of access to technologies necessary to develop its nuclear and missile programs. At the same time, China refrained from actively supporting sanctions whose primary goal was to harm the North Korean economy.

Soon after Trump came to power, however, China temporarily changed its position. Throughout 2017, Chinese representatives supported extremely tough UN Security Council resolutions introduced by the United States. The December 2017 resolutions amounted to almost a full embargo on foreign trade with North Korea. Under those resolutions, North Korea has lost the right to export goods that can be sold on foreign markets even in minimum quantities. In addition, Chinese border authorities and customs services have taken unprecedentedly harsh measures to enforce the resolutions.

Such conditions—very credible threats of military action from Washington and an actively enforced trade embargo from Beijing—forced the North Korean leadership to make some concessions in early 2018.

These concessions, however, were symbolic and reversible. In particular, in the spring of 2018, North Korea imposed a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests and ICBM launches and announced it was prepared to abandon nuclear weapons over time. It also claimed that it had exploded tunnels at a nuclear weapons test site, although this explosion was carried out in the absence of foreign observers, which casts some doubt on the significance of the step.

North Korea’s statements of its intention to abandon nuclear weapons should not be taken too seriously. These statements were mostly made in order to gain time and reduce the urgency of the unprecedentedly difficult situation that the country faced after the United States and China essentially formed a united front against it.

This united front quickly disintegrated, however, in the face of the trade war against China launched by Trump, which led to a dramatic softening of China’s position on North Korea. Since the summer of 2018, the Chinese authorities have returned to their traditional position and turn a blind eye to economic transactions between North Korea and small Chinese companies and smugglers.

Faced with less pressure from China, North Korea is no longer as amenable to making concessions. But even if the United States and China had continued to coordinate their efforts for a long time, North Korea would not have been likely to completely abandon its nuclear weapons, since it considers nuclear capability an essential condition for preserving the current regime.

Long-Term Threats

The North Korean nuclear issue has a significant and clearly negative impact on security in Northeast Asia.

First, there is the small but real possibility that the mere existence of a North Korean nuclear program could provoke an armed conflict between the United States and North Korea, which could escalate into a war in Northeast Asia. Although President Trump himself currently holds a contradictory and not always intelligible position on North Korea, his administration is clearly dominated by hardliners.

These hawks believe that the North Korean nuclear program is a direct threat to the United States, and that its elimination requires radical measures, including military action. Even if the U.S. leadership does not intend to enter into a direct conflict with North Korea, the “maximum pressure policy” promoted by the hawks could provoke a crisis that could spin out of control.

The second threat associated with the North Korean nuclear program is the proliferation of nuclear weapons in East Asia. It’s a distant threat at this time, and further developments will mainly depend on the domestic political situation in South Korea and Japan, the two countries that are quite likely to react to the emergence of a nuclear North Korea by creating their own nuclear arsenal.

The idea of acquiring a nuclear arsenal remains extremely unpopular in Japan, both among the general population and the political class. In South Korea, polls regularly register significant majority support for acquiring nuclear weapons. However, the idea remains unacceptable to the political elite, both on the right and the left.

The conservatives on the right believe that maintaining a military-political alliance with the United States should be at the core of South Korea’s political strategy. They understand that creating their own nuclear deterrent would elicit a negative reaction in Washington and lead to a sharp deterioration in relations between South Korea and the United States. The conservatives see this turn of events as disastrous. They pin their hopes on an alliance with the United States and on the American nuclear umbrella.

The South Korean left (or rather, left-wing nationalists) have a negative attitude toward nuclear weapons per se. In addition, there is a widespread belief among the South Korean left that North Korean nuclear weapons do not pose a direct threat to South Korea because they are directed exclusively against an external enemy (i.e., the United States) and will never be used against “Korean brethren.”

Nevertheless, it’s possible that South Korea’s anti-nuclear stance may change in the long run, and both the left and the right may reconsider their stance on nuclear weapons. Such developments would significantly increase the likelihood of Japan and subsequently Southeast Asian states also starting to develop nuclear weapons.

None of the existing nuclear powers would want that to happen, but China would be particularly affected, since most countries that could theoretically acquire their own nuclear deterrent capability would do so specifically to contain China.

Possible Solutions

Despite periodic statements about Pyongyang’s alleged readiness to abandon its nuclear weapons, it should be recognized that North Korea is likely to remain a nuclear power in the foreseeable future. Neither threats nor promises of economic benefits will force the North Korean political elite to abandon nuclear weapons, which they consider to be the key to their own political and possibly even physical survival.

It appears that the only rational way to solve the North Korean nuclear problem would be a compromise agreement that allows the country to keep a certain number of nuclear weapons. Such an agreement should also stipulate the freezing of the nuclear program and possibly the physical destruction of some of its key equipment (for example, uranium-enrichment centrifuges).

Of course, such a compromise agreement would deal a serious blow to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, which could be mitigated by assurances that recognizing North Korea as a “small nuclear power” is only the first step toward its complete nuclear disarmament that must take place in some distant future.

Unfortunately, such a compromise option is not currently acceptable to Washington, and no agreement on the nuclear issue is possible without active U.S. participation. The U.S. political elite believes that the de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status would threaten the entire system of nuclear nonproliferation.

In addition, some in the United States hope that a combination of economic pressure, military threats, and promises of financial and other assistance could force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. As stated above, such expectations are naive. They do, however, exist and contribute to Washington’s attitude toward the North Korean problem.

The North Korean nuclear issue is therefore unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. In all likelihood, it will continue to create problems for the entire Asia-Pacific region, triggering regular crises.

This material is a part of “XXI Century Strategic Stability” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Andrei Lankov