North Korea's Nuclear Program

David Kang
Co-author, "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies."
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; 3:00 PM

North Korea recently fired a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, reminding its neighbors once again of its desire to intimidate and the potential consequences of its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. denounced the action while expressing cautious hope that the six-party talks with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, which have been stalled since June, would be resumed. This was the most recent in a series of similar tests conducted by North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Il has openly expressed hostility toward the U.S. What is the significance of this most recent move? What is the status of North Korea's nuclear program?

David Kang , co-author of "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies," and an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, was online to take your questions about North Korea.

Read the latest news: Rice to N. Korea: U.S. Can Defend Itself.

A transcript follows.


Seattle, Wash.: Should I consider investing in a bunker?

David Kang: No, no bunker! North Korea has no weapons capability that has been tested that can hit the U.S. -- they conducted a failed test in 1998, and since then have not tested an inter-continental ballistic missile. Beyond that, however, North Korea is fairly well deterred by the U.S. Condi Rice is absolutely right that we have the capability to deter the North -- they have been deterred since 1953 (52 years), and we don't see any indications that this is lessening.


Pasadena, Calif.: Hello, David. Do you think Kim Jong Il is a "rational actor" when it comes to nuclear weapons? My concern is that he has been willing to allow about 2,000,000 of his own people to starve to death rather than make any changes which would threaten his power. Doesn't this suggest that a policy of "engagement" may not work?

David Kang: Kim Jong-il may be a brutal dictator, but he is also calculating and rational. Kim has also not launched a suicidal war, because as I mentioned just now, he has good reason to think that he would face determined opposition from the U.S. and South Korea. Dictators do not survive without being sophisticated politicians, and Kim Jong-il is no exception. Kim Jong-Il has kept power for ten years despite intelligence assessments that his leadership would not be able to survive his father's death in July 1994 through the end of the calendar year. Just because Kim is rational, however, does not mean he is not dangerous, however. The question of whether allowing starvation in his own country threatens his survival is a good one: all dictators want to survive. Kim has made the conclusion that disarming his nuclear program without security assurances from the U.S. is more risky than not. An engagement strategy now is focused on precisely that issue: how to change his calculation from one of losses to one where North Korea is better off without nuclear weapons than with them. To my mind, the strategy of carrots and sticks works better than just the sticks.


Alexandria, Va.: Good Afternoon,

In your opinion, does the DPRK wish to become and remain a nuclear power or are they simply using their capabilities as a bargaining chip that they would be willing to give up if the economic and security guarantees were offered? Secondly, wouldn't an assumption of the DPRK's intention, forge the Bush administration's strategy of dealing with Kim? Do you believe that the U.S. government has already made such an assumption and that it is currently shaping U.S. policy?

David Kang: I believe North Korea would bargain them away for credible (and that's the important part) security assurances from the U.S. They certainly say so, and we have certainly not tried to test that. However, I think that the Bush administration thinks they won't ever give them up, and that drives the Bush administration's policy towards North Korea. The problem with the earlier agreement (the 1994 Agreed Framework) was that both sides didn't live up to their side of the bargain. In the U.S. we focus on North Korean transgressions (the 2nd uranium project), but unfortunately the U.S. didn't fulfill it's side, either. The reactors we agreed to build were years behind schedule, The U.S. has also not opened a liaison office in Pyongyang, and has not provided formal written assurances against the use of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review still targets North Korea with nuclear weapons. All were stipulated in the framework, which you can download at So I think we have to test them sincerely with an agreement before assuming it won't work.


Arlington, Va.: Most discussions over the danger of current Korean Peninsula crisis assume that North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons will lead to the domino effect of nuclear proliferation in East Asia; in other words, Japan, South Korea and then Taiwan are very likely followers in pursuing nuclear weapons and thus a nuclear arms race is in the making. Taking into account domestic politics of each and every country, plus the international pressures, to what degree does this domino-effect scenario go too far?

How will you evaluate the performance of China as the third party in the negotiations between North Korea and United States? Put into perspective, do you think that the United States would get a higher score in dealing with negotiations between China and Taiwan?

David Kang: I agree that the conventional wisdom is that if North Korea goes nuclear, so will Japan, and then South Korea, etc. But I'm a little skeptical of this. First, the official U.S. government estimate is that North Korea *already* has 2-8 nuclear devices. Many of us are withholding judgment on that, but certainly many smart people think North Korea is already nuclear. If that's the case, then Japan hasn't reacted with a nuclear program of its own. More importantly, I think the real issue for Japan is not the simple fact of a nuclear North Korea, but whether Japan feels threatened enough to actually arm itself in that way. Despite the 100km missile that North Korea just launched (I'll answer a question on that next), this is not actually that threatening to Japan. That is, few analysts believe that North Korea has any intention to take on Japan. So Japan's calculus is probably more influenced by its relations with the U.S. and China than with what North Korea does. Also, don't forget that Japan (and South Korea) are NPT signatories. They can always back out, but there would be significant costs to doing so. Furthermore, a nuclear armed Japan may find itself less secure, because it is scaring its neighbors. That's one reason even North Korea hasn't tested a device yet and removed all doubt in our minds.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Don't you think North Korea's intentions of launching a small missile to Sea of Japan are meant to show hostility more to Japan than to the U.S.?

I also personally believe security and emotional nationalism are unifying as well as segregating countries with the same cause, such as China and Korea's hatred towards Japan for their past historical WWII issues and Taiwan's problems of independence against China. China, North Korea's only ally, is economically and militarily more than ready for war along with North Korea's nuclear weapons. I predict as soon as China's economy starts falling and tensions start rising between countries in East Asia, there will be a major disastrous war if not another World War. Do you agree?

David Kang: North Korea has tested these short-range (100km, or 62 mile) missiles a number of times in the past few years. They don't even have the range to hit Japan, and are aimed mostly at South Korea. So it's not quite as destabilizing as we think it is. As to the issue of unresolved history, that's important, for sure. As to Japan and China getting in an actual military conflict in the future, that seems to be an unlikely scenario. The economic ties between the two states are deeper than they ever have been, and while they are trying to work out their political relationship, the economic relationship continues to thrive. But that's a short answer to an incredibly complex issue.


Detroit, Mich.: Do you think military action by the U.S. is a feasible option? (If North Korea is not able to deploy a nuclear weapon at this time, should not the U.S. consider this before it can?) Given that the leader of North Korea is willing to allow many of his citizens to starve while he pursues nuclear ambitions, it does not seem that this is someone with whom the U.S. will be able to reach a negotiated settlement.

David Kang: A number of you have posted questions along this line. No, the military option is not feasible, and no North Korea is not going to attack the south. (You heard it here first!). The basic reason is that war on the peninsula would have disastrous consequences for both sides. The capitals of Seoul and Pyongyang are less than 150 miles apart: closer than New York and Baltimore. Seoul is 30 miles from the de-militarized zone that separates the North and the South (DMZ), and easily within reach of North Korea's artillery tubes and missiles. Former commander of U.S. Forces Korea General Gary Luck estimated that a war on the Korean peninsula would cost the U$1 trillion in economic damage and result in one million casualties, including 52,000 U.S. military casualties. The result has not been surprising: although tension is high, the balance of power has been stable. Both sides have moved cautiously and avoided major military mobilizations that could spiral out of control. Thus, although we can deter the North, nobody wants to find out how the North would react if we struck first, or if we engaged in a selective strike. The risks are too great for either side to take. As for North Korea, even though they can do a lot of damage, ultimately they would lose the war, and North Korea would cease to exist. This is why they have been very cautious about ramping up tensions beyond the rhetorical level.


Cabin John, Md.: I just finished reading Thomas X. Hammes' book "The Sling and The Stone" and his assessment of our involvement one the Korean Peninsula can pretty well be summed up as "irrelevant". The 37,000 troops we have there aren't doing much to ensure the security of our South Korean allies, though it is certainly doing much to antagonize both South Korean domestic politics and North Korean policy.

Seeing as South Korea has outspent North Korea militarily by orders of magnitude for the last two decades, doesn't it make sense that we should seriously rethink our policy there and consider one that favors South Korean military self-reliance and sovereignty?

David Kang: You have a good point. There is a strand of analysts who argue that the U.S. presence is not necessary and actually harms our relations with our neighbors. Currently the US-ROK alliance is in real transition, precisely because the alliance was forged during the Cold War as a front-line stance against the Soviets, as well as North Korea. Now that South Korea can basically deter the North by itself, the US isn't as central to the defense of South Korea as it used to be. So it's not surprising that some rethinking or rebalancing of the troops is going on in both Seoul and Washington. However, I would add that the U.S. gains a lot by having forward deployments. Certainly if (a big if), we get involved in a potential Taiwan conflict, US troops in the region get there more quickly than if we have to airlift them from Guam, for example. Also, if we remove our troops from South Korea, U.S. deployments in Japan will come under increasing scrutiny. That may be fine, but the spillover of a withdrawal would mark a major adjustment of U.S. policy in the entire Asian region. We may decide to do that, but we haven't yet.


Munich, Germany: I was wondering if the recent problems between China and Japan had more to do with North Korea's nuclear aspirations than with Japan's colonial past.

If North Korea continues to increase its nuclear arsenal, wouldn't Japan feel compelled to invest in a nuclear arsenal as a counterbalance or deterrent? This potential nuclear build-up in China's backyard would certainly increase the tension in the neighborhood, and perhaps it already has.

David Kang: I think I mentioned a little while ago about why Japan will probably not go nuclear, so I won't repeat that here. But since China-Japan relations are so important, I'll take a minute to discuss those. You have a number of issues going on between China and Japan. Part is certainly unresolved historical issues. But it's important to note that they only rise to the surface occasionally. This is because both Japanese and Chinese political leaders are playing to their domestic constituencies, as well. Nationalism in both countries is an "easy win," and both leaders face domestic opposition to a number of their other economic and diplomatic policies. In Japan, Koizumi is not the big reformer people hoped he would be, and so playing to nationalists about "our islands" is a good way of gaining popularity. In China, the CCP's only claim to legitimacy is either economic growth or nationalism, so they play to that as well. But both sides are also cautious about letting the nationalism get out of hand, because it could so easily backfire on both leaderships.


Washington, D.C.: Why should the West help starving North Koreans if that just allows Kim Jong Il to spend his country's resources on nuclear weapons? I think hungry people would lead to a revolt.

David Kang: There are two issues here. The first is whether the international community has an ethical obligation to help the starving citizens in North Korea -- after all, they are the direct victims of Kim Jong-IL's regime. There is suspicion that the North diverts humanitarian aid to its military, but U.N. and World Food Program assessments found that actually most of it was actually going to its intended recipients. The second question is whether coercion or engagement will be more likely to lead to regime change. I tend to think that encouraging capitalism in North Korea is the most likely way to change that country. Capitalism is a powerful force, and when it is unleashed, it is very difficult to turn it back. This will also transform the mindset of all North Korean citizens, not just the leadership. Give North Koreans a taste of economic freedoms and outside ideas and the next generation will view their own leadership and the outside world in different terms. Engagement is also gradual, and allows us to bring North Korea slowly back into the world, to acclimatize the North over the years, and that can ultimately be more smooth than a shock or collapse. A decade ago, North Korea was the most closed society in the world. Since then North Korea has abandoned the centrally planned economy and now allows supply and demand to set prices. In my opinion, the U.S. should encourage these trends, not retard them.


Silver Spring, Md.: Are there any more real hardliners waiting in the wings after/if Kim Jong-il goes away? Is he surrounded by fellow zealots?

David Kang: Good question. We really have no idea. One thing people often overlook when advocating the overthrow of Kim is that whoever replaces him may be harder to deal with. At least Kim has fairly firm control over the country, if a hardline military figure replaces him, the situation could even get worse. Unfortunately, we have such poor information about the inner workings of the regime in Pyongyang that rumor and speculation rule the day. There is currently lots of speculation among analysts about whether one of Kim Jong-il's sons might be in line to follow him, but this is just guessing.


Anonymous: A few years ago there was a spate of stories about South Korean public resentment of U.S. troops (and their occasional bad behavior). Haven't heard anything in a long time now.

Is it just crowded out by other news? Or has South Korean public opinion concluded that if they keep pushing for a withdrawal of U.S. forces, they may get it (and, possibly, regret it later)?

David Kang: South Korean public sentiment about the U.S. is fairly divided. The large protests have subsided, but opinion polls still show that many South Koreans views the U.S. as the one most likely to start a war on the peninsula, not North Korea. On the other hand, there is increasing recognition that the US is a fairly stable ally in the region, especially given the difficulties the states themselves have in their own relations. Certainly the South Korean leadership has been emphasizing the strength of U.S.-ROK ties. For example, South Korea has the 3rd largest contingent of troops in Iraq (3,000), after the U.S. and the U.K.


London, United Kingdom: In your opinion, why is the U.S. more concerned at this time with Iran, when North Korea has proved itself to be more of a nuclear threat? They seem more willing to negotiate and less inclined to use force against the North Koreans, even though they have said outright that they possess nuclear weapons and left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There has been no tangible evidence that Iran has nuclear weapons and it has let United Nations inspectors in under its obligations in the NPT.

David Kang: I think there's a number of things going on. The range of options for U.S. policy towards North Korea is very limited. As I wrote above, war and real hardline measures are simply too risky. Alternatively, the Bush administration has said it will not negotiate or pursue economic engagement with the North. That leaves very little room in the middle -- so we see lots of tough rhetoric but not real options after that. I wouldn't characterize the US as willing to negotiate with the North, rather I'd say they're willing to negotiate if the terms are right, and the U.S. has set a pretty high hurdle for engaging in real negotiations (North Korea needs to disarm first). With Iran, the U.S. for now is willing to let the process play itself out, although there are a number of analysts who believe that the Middle East is so important that the U.S. has to get involved in Iran somehow.


USA: It is so obvious: North Korea wants food and security guarantees, not war and destruction. They're all bark, no bite. But after Iraq they have discovered that having the bomb is a hell of a lot better then not having the bomb. So what I am getting at here is this: in the Bush administration's zeal to disarm Saddam of weapons he never had, has the White House indirectly spurred North Korea to arm itself?

David Kang: That's a genuine concern. Given the Iraq example, it's hard to see why the North would trust the U.S. not to invade if it disarmed. We're at a stalemate with the North: we say disarm first, then we'll discuss rapprochement; the North says why not have rapprochement first, then we'll disarm. So the US is in the position of hoping that pressure works, even though as I mentioned earlier, we don't have a lot of options for pressure.


David Kang: Thanks everybody for participating in this, I enjoyed it very much. My own conclusion is that little progress is envisioned in solving the nuclear issue, due to the fact that America's attention is almost entirely focused on the Iraq situation at the present time. And even if the US does pay sustained attention to the North Korea issue, their mutual distrust is so deep that the prospect of either side giving an inch is remote at best. In other words, the issue has not got out of the starting gate, and the current stalemate is likely to continue in the future, for two main reasons. First, there is very little room to pressure North Korea. War, and even sanctions, are likely to find little support in the U.S. or the region. Second, North Korea has generally responded to pressure with more pressure. Pressure has not worked in the past, and it appears unlikely to work in the future.


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