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Outposts of Tyranny: North Korea

Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston
East Asia Program Director at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; 1:00 PM

In January, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider her nomination for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice named the nations of Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Burma, North Korea, and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny."

Rice's nomination speech may have given an insight into her foreign policy agenda for the next four years. "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom," she said. Rice Stays Close to Bush Policies In Hearing (The Post, Jan. 18) Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston, Director of the East Asia Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, was online Tuesday, April 19, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss North Korea's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and the U.S. policy towards the communist country.


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In 2003, Dr. Pinkston directed the research and production of the North Korea Country Profile for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a comprehensive open-source overview and assessment of North Korea's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. He has written on Korean political economy and security issues, and also served as a Korean linguist in the U.S. Air Force.

This is the fourth in a six part series focusing on the nations Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named "outposts of tyranny" and the specific issues that have caused tensions with the U.S. Authors, journalists, representatives from foreign policy think tanks, and professors will take questions from readers. A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Daniel Pinkston: Greetings from Monterey. I'm Daniel Pinkston, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. Today we're going to discuss Korea and Northeast Asian security issues. This topic is particularly relevant given the recent shutdown of the 5MW(e) nuclear reactor in Yongbyon-kun, North Korea. I look forward to today's discussion.

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Annapolis, Md.: Hi--

I understand that the main reactor at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear power plant has been shut down. As I understand it, the fear is that the spent fuel rods, which contain plutonium, are being removed in order to remove and process the plutonium.

I apologize for my ignorance, but if this was true and they are now recovering the plutonium from the fuel rods at Yongbyon, how close would this step place the North Koreans to achieving their goal of a working nuclear weapon?

Daniel Pinkston: Yes, the reactor has been shutdown, but we are still not sure whether it has been shut down because of technical problems, or to discharge the spent fuel rods and reprocess the plutonium. The reactor was turned on 25~26 February 2003, and the rate of burn up depends on how the reactor was operated. If they extract the fuel rods, they will have to place them into a temporary storage pond to cool them off, and then extract the plutonium at their reprocessing facility. If they reprocess, this would give them enough plutonium for about 4-6 nuclear bombs.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you find your attempts to raise the issue of North Korea's WMD hampered at all by our experience of the Bush Administration's Iraqi Threat Hoax during the 2001-3 time frame? Is the public more hesitant to get alarmed by the prospect now that "the boy has cried wolf"?

Daniel Pinkston: I don't think the Bush administration has much effect on my activities, but I believe Iraq experience has damaged U.S. credibility. For example, Chinese officials have been skeptical about U.S. claims regarding North Korea's uranium enrichment program.

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Wheaton, Md.: Would you agree that it is only a matter of time before North Korea sells nuclear weapons to Al Quaeda, Hamas or some other terrorist group?

Daniel Pinkston: I think it is extremely unlikely, but the the probability increases if Pyongyang is able to expand its nuclear arsenal; the marginal deterrent value per weapon decreases as the arsenal expands. But there are a number of information problems and transaction costs problems to conclude such a deal. Nevertheless, it's still possible. However, I would argue that a transfer to another government is much more likely than a transfer to non-state actors.

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Munich, Germany: China, as North Korea's most important neighbor and benefactor, has not shown much interest and initiative in putting pressure on North Korea to return to the multi-nation disarmament talks. Presumably China doesn't want to lose a key ally in the region, even at the risk of a Japanese build up of nuclear weapons.

What chance is there of convincing North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program without the support of China?

Daniel Pinkston: Extreme pressure is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In fact, pressure alone will only convince Pyongyang to accelerate the program. States will do whatever they feel is necessary to feel secure. Another necessary condition, in my opinion, is credible negative security assurances, and I believe the U.S. is the only country capable of providing any security assurance that would make Pyongyang secure enough to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Maybe we are beyond that point now, but the only way to find out is to talk to Pyongyang, and it appears the Bush administration is not interested.

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Annandale, Va.: Americans have been "misinformed" by the Bush Administration as to the threats posed by Iraqi WMDs. North Korea is a "closed society" where the information flow is even more limited than that of Iraq. If the Bush administration decides to carry out a military attack on North Korea with the stated objective of eliminating the nuclear threats posed by this so called "outpost of tyranny." How can the Americans and the world be certain that the administration's logic for carrying out the attack is based on solid intelligence?

Daniel Pinkston: First of all, the cost of using military force against North Korea would be extremely high. And there would be no public or governmental support in China or South Korea for the use of force unless there is clear evidence of imminent North Korean hostile action. The North Koreans know this, and I do not believe they would take provocative actions to sway the Chinese and South Koreans to support U.S. military action. If the U.S. were to use force unilaterally, either without the support of South Korea or without informing Seoul, it would be the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance, and U.S.-China relations would be severely damaged. This would be very costly to the U.S., and the chance of success for such a military operation is near zero. We don't know where the nuclear materials or nuclear weapons are.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: Do you think that the remaining five countries for table can be coordinated well to persuade North Korea to abandon nuclear material? South Korea, one of the U.S.-allied countries in the table, is quite biased to U.S. policy toward North Korea. But according to a recent poll in South Korea, South Koreans believe the U.S. is the biggest threatening country to Korean Peninsula and they do not agree that North Korea's nuclear bomb is a threat to them directly but just for self defense against U.S. possible attack. Also they would reject any possible pressure to North Korea, even economic embargo through UN security council.

Daniel Pinkston: The poll you mention is from last year. In the most recent poll, Japan has replaced the U.S. as the country that South Koreans view as the most threatening. If you compare preferences over outcomes--all bad ones--the U.S., South Korea and China have different views. For South Korea and China, the order is 1. No war; 2. Stability; and no NK nukes. For the U.S., there are different opinions within the U.S. government, but for the most influential policymakers, it is probably 1. No NK nukes; and then either stability or no war. And yes, most South Koreans do not view North Korean nuclear weapons are a direct threat for two reasons: 1. South Korea is too close, and 2. Koreans will not use nuclear weapons against Koreans.

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Washington, D.C.: What odds would you give on the possibility of successfully garnering human rights concessions from North Korea in the ongoing nuclear issues discussions?

Daniel Pinkston: Close to zero. I don't think we can really approach this issue until the U.S.-DPRK relationship is normalized.

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Pasadena, California: How stable is North Korea's leadership? What probability would you assign to a change in leadership in the next five years? Do you see evidence of instability at the top?

Daniel Pinkston: I would say the government is very stable now, despite severe strains. Authoritarian states have leadership transition problems, and North Korea is an extreme case that has only experienced one transition, so transition processes have not been institutionalized in NK. That said, it's interesting that in the last 5-10 years, I have seen constant references to "Korean unification" in the North Korean media. It's very similar to what we saw in South Korea in the early 1970s when Park Chung Hee faced serious challenges to his leadership. It would not work in South Korea now, but it is a clever way of insulating oneself from domestic political challengers. Kim Jong Il has marketed himself as a progressive hi-tech reformer working hard to lead the country out of backwardness while providing for the nation's security as it undergoes reform and extreme shocks. At the same time, he has been identified as the leader working tirelessly for Korean unification. This is a very emotional issue for Koreans, and it makes it very difficult if not impossible to challenge him. How can you build a coalition to oust a guy who is working so hard for unification?

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Washington, D.C.: What options does the U.S. have if the 6 party talks break down for good?

Daniel Pinkston: It depends how they break down. If the U.S. bargains in good faith, and submits a credible offer that in the view of the Chinese should be accepted by Pyongyang, but Pyongyang rejects it, then the U.S. can refer the matter to the UN Security Council. But I don't believe we are there yet, so the U.S. can't count on Chinese and Russian support until then.

If the Chinese and South Koreans believe the U.S. shares some or most of the responsibility for the collapse of the talks, then U.S. credibility and interests in the region will be damaged.

Ultimately, the U.S. will have to resort to a containment strategy with or without cooperation from other countries.

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Baltimore, Md.: How many countries actually have active diplomatic relations with North Korea? I get the feeling it's a bit like Cuba, where here in the U.S. we have no contact, but plenty of people visit from other countries.

Thanks.

Daniel Pinkston: Sounds like a Google question;-)

I'm not sure about the total number, but I do know that the Swedish Embassy represents U.S. interests in Pyongyang. So if an American visits and gets in trouble there, he/she should contact the Swedish Embassy.

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San Francisco, Ca.: Although I know there's some disagreement on this issue, it seems to me -- I imagine it seems so to the administration also -- that North Korea has cheated on a prior agreement (Agreed Framework) on nuclear weapons. Wouldn't it set a bad precedent to offer Pyongyang rewards for this sort of behavior? Wouldn't it encourage further cheating to win further concessions, as well as similar behavior from other states?

Daniel Pinkston: Yes, North Korea has a severe problem with credible commitments. But Pyongyang has the same view about Washington, so we have to address the commitment problem on both sides. I don't think the two sides of this problem are comparable, but the reality is that Pyongyang will neither sign nor implement an agreement that they feel Washington will not uphold.

I agree, bad behavior should not be rewarded. But what's wrong with rewarding good behavior? If punishment is constant, and good behavior is not rewarded, then what incentive does Pyongyang have to cooperate?

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Anonymous: I heard a Congressman give a speech on North Korea after a recent visit. He said there's no way a regime would risk using nuclear weapons, because that would mean the end of that regime. That also implies that regime would never provide those sort of weapons to other parties, because they would be held responsible in that instance too. So even though North Korea seems irrational and unstable, I agree with the Senator that North Korea would not just launch a nuclear strike out of the blue, or even sell them to other organizations. Daniel Pinkston: North Korea seems extremely rational to me. I would argue they face an extreme security dilemma given the countries division, and they have a domestic institutional setting that exaggerates the external threat for political reasons. The leaders in Pyongyang are enjoying their lives for the most part and want to live and survive. Moreover, I would argue that in most cases, they are risk averse.

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Newark, Del.: What do you think are the odds in the next couple of decades we'll see the formation of an Asian Nato (PATO?) involving countries like the U.S., Australia, Japan, South Korea, and India to help deal with security threats from nations like North Korea and China as well as well as local terrorism?

Daniel Pinkston: There are a number of potential obstacles, but it is quite possible. The obstacles include the historical legacy and the current security architecture, which could quickly change if the U.S. position in East Asia is marginalized. On the other hand, the forces of globalization are driving East Countries to cooperate, and this should lead to greater cooperation in the security realm.

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Daniel Pinkston: Thank you very much for today's discussion. If you have any more questions, I encourage you to visit my organization, The Center for Nonproliferation Studies. You can also visit our North Korea Country Profile that we maintain for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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The "Outposts of Tyranny" Series
Iran
Burma
Belarus
Zimbabwe
Cuba

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