Three factors are central to North Korea’s success. This analysis draws on findings about the North Korean program from a recent New York Times article, as well as my recent book on the Iraqi and Libyan nuclear programs.
1. Kim Jong Un made nuclear weapons his top priority.
Authoritarian leaders may appear to pursue nuclear weapons with determination, but not all do so wholeheartedly. After succeeding his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011, Kim Jong Un made advanced nuclear weapons and their means of delivery his main goal. He redirected resources to the missile project, promoted science as the regime’s main priority, and carefully aligned his public image with science and scientists.
In contrast, my research shows that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi only inconsistently set developing nuclear weapons as their priorities. Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 — a time when the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was nearing a breakthrough. Had Saddam not invaded Kuwait at that crucial moment, bringing on the attention and opposition of the United States, Iraq would most probably have had nuclear weapons by the mid- to late 1990s.
Gaddafi’s approach to the nuclear weapons program was similarly ambivalent, reflecting long-standing divisions within the Libyan regime on whether nuclear weapons were a necessary or meaningful priority. Throughout the 1990s, Gaddafi pursued nuclear weapons while simultaneously reaching out to the United States offering to give up these capabilities in return for an improved bilateral relationship. Ultimately, he abandoned the program as part of a deal with the U.S. and Britain in late 2003 — a fateful decision, as North Korean officials frequently point out, as the United States and a NATO-led coalition backed an uprising that overthrew the Libyan regime in 2011.
Kim Jong Un’s determination also marks a departure from his father’s approach to the nuclear program. Kim Jong Il placed the nuclear program on an extended freeze during the 1990s, as part of the Agreed Framework negotiated between the United States and North Korea.
2. Kim Jong Un shielded scientists.
Autocrats — even fathers and sons — manage state institutions and scientists differently. Kim Jong Il governed primarily through institutions and did not seem to elevate scientists above other elites. Kim Jong Un has taken a more personal approach, subjecting key institutions to his control through extensive purges. But he has shielded scientists from these purges, and has given them exclusive privileges, including better food rations and new apartments.
Kim Jong Un has reportedly not killed scientists and has even developed a reputation for tolerating failures as part of the scientific learning process. He appears to have adopted a meritocratic approach to hiring scientists into the military programs and to selecting the new generation of scientific leaders. These efforts may have helped accelerate the missile program’s success in recent years.
Saddam also made Iraq’s nuclear program more meritocratic, overturning efforts by Baath Party members to oust non-Baathists from the program. Iraqi nuclear scientists enjoyed a host of privileges and received virtually unlimited resources despite a constrained Iraqi economy.
In contrast, Gaddafi in no way protected nuclear scientists: Their salaries were low, and they had to serve in the armed forces like every other citizen. The Libyan nuclear program had to compete with other institutions, notably the petroleum sector, for the sharpest minds. And because Gaddafi did not want to invest in higher education in science and technology — which he saw as a key source of regime opposition — suitable candidates were few. The regime did not seem to notice, let alone care, that nuclear scientists did not show up for work for extended periods. No wonder, then, that this nuclear weapons program went nowhere.
3. A little self-reliance goes a long way.
North Korea has developed the ability to produce nuclear weapons and missiles indigenously. The nation has had help along the way — hiring foreign scientists, buying and exchanging key technologies with other states and for-profit networks — but has gotten more benefits from these exchanges than Iraq or Libya did.
Why? One reason could be that, when China scaled back support for the nation during the 1960s, North Korea developed an indigenous foundation for nuclear power and weapons programs. This gave its scientists valuable experience and paved the way for a much more ambitious approach to nuclear weapons. Similarly, North Korea has taken its time developing know-how, materials and equipment for the ballistic missile program that advanced so remarkably in 2017.
Gaddafi took the opposite approach, outsourcing procurement of key technologies rather than developing these capabilities within the country. The Libyans felt cheated by their black-market nuclear suppliers, notably A.Q. Khan, who sold them old equipment that they struggled to operate. But their main problem was inadequate homegrown resources.
When Hussein ordered his scientists to start a nuclear weapons program after an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor in 1981, he instructed them to adopt technologies they could master and to avoid seeking external assistance, which might alert the outside world. They adopted old technologies that were inefficient in many ways but that Iraqi scientists could master themselves. After several years of trial and error, the Iraqis began to make progress. When Hussein’s son-in-law looked outside the country for help, against Hussein’s orders, the capabilities of the Iraqi program — and the experiences from past trial and error — made it well placed to benefit. But the efforts were cut short with the invasion of Kuwait.
States forced to rely on themselves may have to start with suboptimal technologies, but in the long run they are better prepared to succeed than nations that cut corners by buying nuclear technology off the shelf.
While authoritarian regimes seeking nuclear weapons face serious obstacles, particularly if they have weak state institutions, leaders choose different strategies for tackling those challenges. As these three cases suggest, those choices help explain why North Korea succeeded while Iraq and Libya failed.