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The authors discuss North Korea’s nuclear program in the somewhat unexpected context of regime change as the only certain means to blunt Pyongyang’s threat to develop and possibly traffic in nuclear arms. With the failure of talks extending over more than a decade, read on about why the authors see dim prospects for solution of the problem. Ed.

by Ralph C. Hassig and Kongdan Oh

North Korea’s nuclear program got off to an early start with Soviet assistance in the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, the Kim regime was embarking on a nuclear weapons program with the construction of a large reprocessing plant to make weapons-grade plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. Meanwhile, Kim Il Sung assured the international community that his country had no intention of building a nuclear weapon, which he said would be useless in the face of a massive American nuclear arsenal. In the early 1990s, fearing that North Korea might already have reprocessed sufficient plutonium for two small nuclear devices, the United States began negotiating what was called the “Agreed Framework,” which would give North Korea a couple of proliferation-resistant light-water reactors (LWRs) and an annual delivery of a half million barrels of heavy fuel oil (ostensibly to compensate Pyongyang for energy forgone by halting construction of two nuclear reactors) in return for a freeze on the North’s nuclear program. The two countries also agreed to move gradually toward diplomatic normalization.

The LWR project fell far behind schedule. By 2002, one year short of the projected completion date, only the support buildings and reactor foundation had been completed. Meanwhile, it appears that around 1996 the North Koreans turned to an alternative means of securing weapons material by secretly launching a uranium-enrichment program. When they were confronted with evidence of this in October 2002, they first admitted and then denied such a program existed. The United States promptly stopped fuel oil deliveries and ordered South Korean contractors to halt construction of the LWRs. The North Koreans withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty and began reprocessing spent fuel that had been in storage since 1994, vowing to produce plutonium to increase their “nuclear deterrent force.”

By 2005, the North Koreans may have reprocessed sufficient plutonium to make eight or nine nuclear weapons, and in April of that year they told Selig Harrison, a visiting American, that “It is too late for them [the United States] to prevent us from making nuclear weapons, but it is not too late to work out verifiable agreements to prevent any proliferation.” Otherwise, “The United States should consider the danger that we could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists [and] that we have the ability to do so” (Kyodo World Service, April 9, 2005). Throughout 2005 and 2006, the North Koreans boasted of increasing their “deterrent force.” On October 9, 2006, they conducted their first nuclear test—although a very small one, to be sure.

The United States has been negotiating with North Korea for over a decade, in two-party, three-party, four-party, and most recently, six-party talks. The first round of six-party talks (also including South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan) convened in August 2003, a second round in February 2004, and a third round in June 2004. Before the talks resumed for a fourth round in July 2005, the North Koreans declared, “Now that the DPRK has become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, the six-party talks should be disarmament talks where the participating countries negotiate the issue on an equal footing” (KCNA, March 31, 2005). After a fruitless fifth round in November 2005, the North Koreans boycotted the talks

Before the first round of the talks convened, the North Koreans warned that the talks would succeed only if the United States made a “bold switchover” in its hostile policy toward the DPRK. This broad demand has been fleshed out, at different times, with specific demands for a non-aggression treaty, full diplomatic relations, removal of the U.S. “nuclear threat” (which seems to mean removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from the region and an end to the protection provided to South Korea by the U.S. nuclear umbrella), a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Korea, and abrogation of the U.S.-ROK security treaty. In addition, the North Koreans want U.S. restrictions on international trade and investment with the DPRK lifted and a pledge that Washington will not interfere in the DPRK’s domestic affairs, including its human rights policies. To judge by past practice, more demands are likely to follow.

Except for Japan, the delegates to the six-party talks have publicly taken the position that they held high hopes for a negotiated nuclear settlement, but their calls for a compromise solution suggest that China, Russia, and South Korea would be satisfied with another nuclear freeze. It is understandable that neighboring countries would prefer to let North Korea have a residual nuclear force rather than risk precipitating another Korean War. In any case, because Japan and the United States would be the most likely targets of Kim’s nuclear weapons, the security issues for them are somewhat different than they are for the other six-party delegate states.

The Bush administration initially called for a “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, but because no one can imagine how to verify such an agreement, Washington simply stipulated that North Korea abandon both its civilian and military nuclear programs. Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea’s head delegate to the talks, responded, “Does it make sense if our country, not a war loser or a criminal country, should be denied peaceful nuclear activities?” (Yonhap News Agency, August 4, 2005). There is obviously a difference of opinion between Washington and Pyongyang as to whether the DPRK is a criminal state.

In the 1994 Agreed Framework, the North Koreans were permitted to postpone a full accounting of their nuclear program until the LWRs had been constructed. Whether Washington really expected the agreement to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability or whether the agreement was simply an expedient means to freeze the program until North Korea collapsed under the weight of its own political and economic problems is still being debated. In hindsight, it is evident that the agreement gave Kim Jong Il, who was recovering from the death of his father, several years to consolidate his rule. The defense sometimes offered for the 1994 agreement is that without it, North Korea would have accumulated a much larger nuclear weapons arsenal than it now has, but this argument can be countered with the argument that the Kim regime’s future might have been very different without political support and economic aid from the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

On September 19, 2004, in a joint statement signed by the six parties, the DPRK “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date” to the Nonproliferation Treaty, while insisting on “the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” On the issue of North Korea’s receiving LWRs, which the United States adamantly opposed, the statement said that the parties “expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactors to the DPRK.”

The hollowness of the agreement was self-evident, with its reference to “early dates” and “appropriate times,” and to make matters worse, first the Americans and then the North Koreans rushed to issue statements that effectively gutted the statement, with the United States saying that discussion of building LWRs could not begin until it was verified that the North Koreans had eliminated their nuclear program, and the North Koreans cautioning that “The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of the DPRK’s dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing LWRs” (Korean Central News Agency, Sept. 19, 2005).

Meanwhile, a U.S. inter-agency investigation of North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering culminated in the Treasury Department’s issuance of a ruling that the Banco Delta Asia in Macao, much favored by North Koreans, was a “primary money laundering concern.” BDA froze $24 million in North Korean funds, and banks around the world took the hint and avoided doing business with the North Koreans. Since then, North Korea’s precondition for returning to the talks has been a lifting of U.S. sanctions on the bank.

The Kim Jong Il regime justifies having a nuclear weapons program by claiming that its sole purpose is to deter a U.S. attack. Because such an attack would likely trigger a second Korean War, the North Koreans further claim that their nuclear weapons actually protect all Koreans on the peninsula. It would seem that if the United States signed a non-aggression pact and peace treaty and normalized diplomatic relations with the Kim regime, North Korea would no longer need a nuclear deterrent.

Yet it is difficult to find any American experts on North Korea who believe that the Kim regime would completely abandon its nuclear weapons program no matter what agreements were signed or inducements offered. Furthermore, even if North Korea did agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, including the uranium-enrichment program it denies having, verification would be virtually impossible given the secrecy that is the hallmark of the North Korean state. Agreeing to another nuclear freeze would reduce the amount of nuclear material North Korea can accumulate in the coming years, but such an agreement would also strengthen the Kim regime and perhaps encourage it to cultivate other threats. In the absence of an agreement, North Korea is likely to continue promoting its nuclear weapons program.

Whether talks with North Korea are bilateral or multilateral is not the issue: markedly different perspectives, policies, and values are what prevent a negotiated settlement from being reached. Nevertheless, we believe that talks with North Korea should be pursued, if for no other reason than to keep lines of communication open. The Bush administration is correct in its assessment that regime change in North Korea is the only way to eliminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Calling the goal “regime behavior change” might make it more politically acceptable, but since the regime has been relying on its military for over half a century to keep the Kims in power, behavior change is unlikely to happen.

The regime can be changed by foreign military intervention or by domestic instability, perhaps pushed along by foreign influences, and there are undoubtedly risks in changing a regime, as the Iraq case demonstrates. A prudent and responsible way to work toward regime change is to devote more resources toward convincing the North Korean people that their own government is their worst enemy. This will take time, but if the United States had started such an operation in 1994, instead of throwing support to the Kim regime, the job might already have been done. End.

October 19, 2006

Republished by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Inst., 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For further information contact Alan Luxenberg at


Ralph C. Hassig is a Washington-based consultant on North Korea and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. He is the co-author, with Kongdan Oh, of North Korea through the Looking Glass (Brookings, 2000).
Kongdan Oh is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The authors made a presentation on Sept. 7 to FPRI’s Asia Study Group.


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