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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 15, March 30, 2013

North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition: Issues and Challenges

Sunday 7 April 2013

by Sudhakar Vaddi

The Korean Peninsula has again become a volatile region and two recent incidents have sent a strong message to the international community that peace is at stake. Tension escalated after North Korea’s controversial rocket launch in December and its third underground nuclear test on February 12, 2013. Both acts led to the Security Council resolutions 2087 and 2094 which debarred the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from testing or using nuclear or ballistic missile technology and from importing or exporting material for these programmes. The Communist nation was already reeling under the UN sanctions imposed after the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and the latest measures may further hit it hard. North Korea, in response, has announced renuncitation of non-aggression agreements between the two sides in Korea and also declared its abandonment of the Korean War Armistice Agreement after the start of the US-South Korea joint military exercises.

Moreover, Pyongyang also demanded the Security Council to dismantle the American-led UN Command in Seoul and move to end the state of war that exists on the Peninsula since the last six decades. All these developments have pushed the region to the brink of a war.

Why is North Korea repeatedly looking for the nuclear option against the US? Where is the origin of the crisis? Is Pyongyang really a threat to the international community?

In order to understand these questions certain historical facts and internal dynamics have to be understood clearly. In fact, the Western media always portrayed that North Korea is irrational, aggressive, nuclear-obsessed and dangerous. However, the North Korean nuclear weapons programme can’t be dealt with while ignoring the unfinished issues of the Korean War and the division of the Korean Peninsula.

Left Nationalism in Korean Peninsula

Before the division of the Korean Peninsula, the majority of Koreans represented a tradition of struggle against Japanese oppression till the end of World War II. This tradition persisted in the Korean People’s Republic (KPR), a national government, created by, for, and of the Koreans, that was already in place when US troops landed at Inchon in September 1945. The new government comprised of Leftists, who had won the backing of the majority partly because they had led the struggle against Japan’s colonial occupation, and partly because they promised relief from exploitation by the landlords and capitalists. The erstwhile USSR, which occupied the north of the country until 1948, worked with the KPR in its occupation zone, but the US suppressed the KPR in the south, worked to decimate the Leftist forces in its zone, and backed the conservatives who were not supported by the Koreans for their oppressions and collaboration with the Japanese.1

By 1948, the Peninsula was divided between a northern government, led by the guerrillas and activists who fought to liberate the country from Japanese rule, and a southern government, led by US-installed anti-communist forces backed by the conservatives. Kim Il Sung, grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, was a guerrilla leader who fought against the Japanese forces. The two Koreas, namely, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), started their new life in dependence of their military and political protectors, the United States and the Soviet Union. In this context, the Korean War cannot be described as an inter-Korean conflict initiated by Pyongyang in 1950 rather, it was a war strongly characterised by the systemic confrontation between communism and capitalism.

As Bruce Cummings stated, the Korean War originated from multiple causes. The fact is that after the liberation from Japanese occupation, the US took over most of the political and administrative structures previously established by the Japanese in the south, whereas in the north, the Japanese administrative system was totally destroyed by the Soviets.2 Therefore, many Koreans saw the US policy with critical eyes. This fact played a major role in the North Korean agitation, blaming the United States as being of the same brand of imperialists as the Japanese, justifying the following war as one of liberation from the new imperialists. The North represents the traditions of struggle against foreign domination, both political and economic, while the South represents submission to and collaboration with foreign powers. Significantly, there are no foreign troops stationed in North Korea, unlike in South Korea.3 The North Korean troops have never fought abroad, but South Korean troops have participated in the 1955 Vietnam War and the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars as well.

The Constant Pressure

North Korea is repeatedly being referred to as the most heavily armed country with the highest proportion of its population in the military and portrayed as a threat.4 According to Oberdorfer, a distinguished journalist, when the then President Jimmy Carter tried to withdraw US troops from South Korea, a report of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) forced the Administration to repeal its decision. The report claimed North Korea had substantially greater military force; one of every twentysix is serving in the military, which is the highest proportion in the military in any major nation.5 These new estimates were leaked to the press and this put a stop to the troops’ pullout. Years later, Carter wrote to Oberdorfer: “I always suspected that the facts were doctored by DIA and others, but it was beyond the capability even of a President to prove this.”6 The US and South Korea have maintained continuous pressure on North Korea through subversion, espionage, propaganda, economic warfare and threats of nuclear attack and military invasion.

The large scale US-South Korea joint military exercises with sophisticated weaponry against an isolated economy are not just acts of provo-cation, but also keep the regime of a famished nation on high alert. Constant military pressure forces Pyongyang to stand all the time on its toes and maintain high expenditures on defence (formalised in the country’s Songun, or “Military First” policy). Massive defence expenditures divert critical resources from the civilian economy, resulting in slow economic growth. At the same time, trade and financial sanctions cause further harm to the economy. Economic dislocations disrupt food supplies; make life harsh for many North Koreans.7

Unlike the previous leaders including his father Kim Jong Il, who gave prime importance to the “Military First” policy, Kim Jong-un has tried to make some initial structural changes by keeping the Workers’ Party of Korea’s hold over the military. He sought to do this by appointing Choe-Ryong Hae as a Director of the People’s Army’s General Political Bureau, a top military position that was given to a person without any military background; but later Choe was demoted to the post of a General, thus showing that the leader was unable to give-up on the “Military First” policy in the light of the constant provocative pressures from the US.

There is no gainsaying the fact that no region in the world has been exposed to the nuclear threat so directly and for so long as the Koreans.8 “For over half-a-century since early in the 1950s, the US has turned South Korea into the biggest nuclear arsenal in the Far East, gravely threa-tening North Korea through ceaseless manoeuvres for a nuclear war. Washington has worked hard to deprive North Korea of its sovereignty and its right to exist by doing tremendous damage to its socialist economic construction and the improvement of the standard of people’s living.”9 The US has repeatedly pondered over, planned and threatened the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea.10 In February 1993, Lee Butler, head of the US Strategic Command, announced that the US was retargeting hydrogen bombs aimed at the old USSR on North Korea (and other targets). The continued threats and its energy needs forced Pyongyang to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003.11 In April 2010, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta refused to rule out a nuclear attack on North Korea, saying: “All options are on the table.” On February 13, 2013, Panetta described North Korea as “a threat to the United States, to regional stability, and to global security. The US military will take all necessary steps to meet our security commitments to the Republic of Korea and to our regional allies.”12

Pyongyang could barely be anything but suspicious and fearful. Suspicion and fear, on the part of a state as well as of an individual, is likely to be expressed in belligerence. In particular, North Korea has faced the threat of nuclear annihilation for more than half-a- century. There is little basis for the view that it poses a threat of regional aggression. Obsessed with security and the search for an absolute guarantee of immunity from enemies, it has become a kind of “porcupine state”, resisting foreign bodies by stiffening its quills, rather than an expanding or rampaging one.

For those outside North Korea, it is a nuclear and missile threat to the entire world, but from inside, the overwhelming consciousness is that of a small country constantly bullied and threatened by larger and more powerful ones, and in particular facing nuclear intimidation far longer than any country on earth. That it has survived so long is in no small measure due to its focus on developing its “deterrent”. It has an understandable obsession with security, and is unlikely to yield its nuclear or missile cards unless and until it receives solid guarantees of a formal peace settlement and diplomatic normalisation.

Economic Sanctions

Right after the Korean War began in June 1950 till now, Washington has maintained an uninterrupted regimen of economic, financial, and diplomatic sanctions against Pyongyang. Since the last six decades, North Korea is the most sanctioned nation in the world.13 In recent years, US sanctions have been complemented by “efforts to freeze assets and cut off financial flows” by blocking banks that deal with North Korean companies from access to the US banking system.14 This has included the sponsoring of a United Nations Security Council resolution compelling all nations to refrain from exporting dual-use items to North Korea (a repeat of the sanctions regime that led to the crumbling of Iraq’s healthcare system in the 1990s).

The latest UN resolution No. 2094 imposes new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on various North Korean companies, individuals and the Foreign Trade Bank. Among all other institutions of North Korea, the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB), the country’s institution in charge of foreign banking transactions and foreign exchange, is one of the major targets of the sanctions. The measures bar it from doing business with the US banks and freeze all its assets under the US’ legal jurisdiction. The US already has executive orders imposing sanctions on more than 20 North Korean institutions, but the latest measures are different in that they target the country’s key foreign exchange bank.15

The decision to halt transactions with the FTB is expected to have severe consequences, since the business will have to migrate over to other banks. Moreover, the resolution also bans all countries from providing public financial support for trade deals, such as granting export credits, guarantees or insurance, if the assistance could contribute to the North’s nuclear or missile programmes.16 If the US dominated Security Council really wants to address the sufferings of the hungry population of North Korea, it should tackle the issue with much more maturity and compassion instead of imposing sanctions on the insolvent state. The latest sanctions have again pushed the long impoverished nation into further isolation.

Nuclear Politics and Western Allies’ Hegemony

Throughout the 65-year history of nuclear weapons, no nuclear power has been conquered. And no power has faced as much risk of conquest as North Korea experienced. The US threatened to use the Atomic bomb on North Korea during the Korean War in 1950.17 With the Americans contemplating the use of nuclear force during the Korean War, the nuclear issue touched ground in this region for the first time.18 The US thus exposed North Korea, during its infancy as a nation, to the fearsome power and enormous political value of nuclear weapons. The lesson was apparently not lost on North Korea’s leaders, and early US nuclear threats are one important thread in the tapestry of the Pyongyang’s motives for a nuclear programme.19 The US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed to the world that conflicts in the 20th century could be decided within seconds. This terrible experience left a deep impression on the North Korean Government and its population. The massive use of air-bombing during the Korean conflict by the US on North Korea resulted in not only the government in Pyongyang but also the North Korean population being always suspicious of the US policy on the Korean Peninsula. Even now the sorrows of the Korean War have a special meaning to the North Korean resentments against the US. On the other hand, countries that comply with demands to abandon their WMDs soon find themselves conquered by countries with nuclear weapons (Iraq and Libya).20 Pyongyang has also learnt a lesson from Beijing’s past experience. Under nonstop threats from the US and Britain, and the unlikely prospect of help from its socialist neighbour, the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) leadership decided in 1964 to develop independent nuclear arms as their “last resort” to deter a nuclear war and ensure their national survival, dignity and sovereignty. Once China became a nuclear power, no matter how poor they were and how difficult the conditions they faced, the illegal, unjust, and arrogant imperialistic threats and overtures from the US, the West, and the Soviet Union gradually disappeared. Moreover, the lesson North Korea drew from Libya and Iraq was that the only guarantee of peace in the Korean Peninsula is a powerful military, backed by nuclear weapons.21

Pyongyang strongly believes that nuclear arms have political utility in international politics. History reveals that no country exploits the political utility of nuclear weapons as vigorously as the US does. Washington threatened other countries with nuclear attack on more than a dozen occasions between 1970 and 2010, and on six of these occasions, the target was North Korea.22 Perhaps, nuclear weapons have political utility for countries which are always threatened by nuclear and other military threats. It raises the stakes for countries seeking to use their militaries for conquest, and therefore reduce the chances of military intervention. In such cases, a North Korean nuclear arsenal does not increase the chances of a war but reduces the likelihood of the US and its South Korean ally’s unilateral efforts to bring down the Communist Government in Pyongyang by force.

Beijing’s Policy Options on Pyongyang

Despite being Pyongyang’s only reliable ally, Beijing does not have many policy options at its disposal when it comes to influencing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Along with the US, China has also voted in the UNSC resolution against North Korea’s latest third nuclear test. China is deeply concerned that North Korea’s nuclear tests provide an excuse for the US to maintain large military bases in South Korea and Japan, and also for its anti-ballistic missile shield, which is not primarily directed against North Korea, but against China. Furthermore, by citing North Korea, Japan and South Korea could announce their own plans to build nuclear weapons.

Though China, along with Russia, voted for the UN resolution and called for its “full implementation”, it also emphasised the need to restart the stalled six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia.23 On the other hand, Beijing can rein in Pyongyang by shutting down all economic relations, but that would likely result in an exodus of refugees into China and also open up the danger of a pro-US regime being established on China’s border. So Beijing continues limited aid and trade with Pyongyang, using this economic relationship as a political lever against North Korea.

To conclude, even though the resumption of the six-party talks appears as an immediate option to bring Pyongyang to the negotiation table, in the real sense the replacement of the Korean War armistice agreement with a peace treaty is the only way to move away from the current crisis. So far on North Korea, Washington has tried to discredit Pyongyang on the basis of only the consequences but not the real causes of its policy. Hence, it is obvious that till the unresolved issues in the Korean Peninsula, such as the truce agreement, are settled and it is promoted as a peace treaty and demilitarisation of the region is attained through removal of American forces in South Korea, it is very difficult for North Korea to ward off fear and suspicion. Till then the international community and especially the United States must accept that its policy of exerting pressure will only lead to a further escalation of the situation in the region. 

1. Bruce Cummings, The Origins of the Korean War, Liberation and the emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947, (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1981), pp. 69-71.
2. Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2005), p. 238.
3. There are around 28,500 US troops still in South Korea who are protecting it from “North Korea’s threat”.
4. Eberstand, Nicholas and Judith Bannister, The Population of North Korea (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley, 1992), p. 14.
5. Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Indianapolis, 2001), p. 101.
6. Ibid., p. 103.
7. Tim Beal, North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power (Pluto Press: London, 2005), p. 17.
8. “Foreign Ministry issues memorandum on N-issue” Korean Central News Agency, April 21, 2010.
9. Korean Central News Agency, February 13, 2013.
10. Charles J. Hanley and Randy Hershaft, “US often weighed N. Korea nuke option”, The Associated Press, October 11, 2010.
11. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2005), pp. 488-489.
12. Choe Sang-hun, “New leader in South criticises North Korea”, The New York Times, February 13, 2013.
13. Dianne E. Rennack, “North Korea: Economic sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006, (accessed on March 10, 2013).
14. Mark Landler, “Envoy to coordinate North Korea Sanctions”, The New York Times, June 27, 2009.
15. Park Hyun, “New Unilateral US sanctions target north Korean banks”, The Hankyoreh March 14, 2013, (accessed on March 15, 2013).
16. UN imposes harsh new sanctions on North Korea, Peter Symonds, March 8, 2013, (accessed on March 12, 2013).
17. US was seriously considering particularly when Communist troops from North Korea and China regained control over Seoul in December 1950 during the Korean War.
18. Andreas Henneka, “Reflections on Korean history and its impacts on the US-North Korean conflict” ISYP Journal on Science and World Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006, pp. 19-27.
19. Michael J. Mazarr, North Korea and the Bomb: A Case Study in Nonproliferation (Harrisonburg, 1997), p. 16.
20. Stephen Gowans, “Why North Korea Needs Nuclear Weapons”, February 16, 2013, http://gowans.wordpress. com/2013/02/16/why-north-korea-needs-nuclear-weapons/(accessed on March 8, 2013).
21. Mark McDonald, “North Korea suggests Libya should have kept nuclear programme”, The New York Times, March 24, 2011.
22. Samuel Black, “The changing political utility of nuclear weapons: Nuclear threats from 1970 to 2010”, The Stimson Center, August 2010, of March 9,2013).
23. Park Hyun & Seong Yeon-cheol, “China vows to carry out UN sanctions on North Korea”, March 9, 2013, The Hankyoreh, (accessed on March 9, 2013).

A Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Sudhakar Vaddi is associated with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.

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