2003 February 21 Friday
Why North Korea Pursues WMD Development

In a June 2000 paper entitled "North Korea's Strategy" Stephen Bradner explains why North Korea develops missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

The Pyongyang regime appears to consider its WMD and long-range missiles as fundamental to survival and too important to give up. Four points would seem to be clear.

First, these capabilities enable the regime to bargain and blackmail for what it needs rather than having to beg.

Second, while WMD and missile programs are important in this regard, it would be a mistake to imagine that is all they are, and to underestimate the importance attached to the programs per se and the regime's determination to pursue them. Such programs do not spring into existence overnight. Recruitment of nuclear specialists began in the 1950s. North Korea began assigning specialists to Yongbyon in the 1960s.26 All of this occurred long before North Korea had cause to anticipate economic failure or the need for a negotiating "card" to cope with the consequences of such failure.

Third, WMD and long-range missiles appear integral to Kim Jong Il's notion of making North Korea a "great and powerful state." Simply, he thinks great powers have such capabilities while weak states do not. In this respect, he will almost certainly consider these capabilities central to his own historic mission and, therefore to his notion of his own identity. He and his regime have always been bent on achieving these capabilities. It will hardly be easy to force them to "revert" to a posture that strips them of these capabilities, a posture that has never been theirs.

Fourth, these capabilities should be seen against the background of what has been happening all across Asia, from Syria and Israel, to the subcontinent, to China, and to North Korea itself, as second- and third-tier states develop asymmetric counters to western conventional military superiority. All of this is cogently captured in Paul Bracken's Fire in the East, in which he argues that as we transition not into the post-cold war era but into the post-Vasco da Gama era, Asian states are for the first time in five hundred years developing capabilities that will enable them to strike back at western states which try to impose their will by state-of-the-art military technology.27 These new capabilities will enable North Korea, among others, to hit our bases in the Pacific and, ultimately to strike at the homeland, raising the costs and hazards of our interference to dictate outcomes of our choosing far from home. As Bracken points out, Asian states are pursuing these new weapons, especially enhanced missile range and accuracy, not just to create random mass destruction, but rather to exert leverage, by force and threats of force, toward specific political objectives. If one asks what Pyongyang's specific political objective is vis--vis the U.S., the answer is not long in coming. They have been telling us week in and week out for decades about the need to get USFK off the Korean peninsula.

North Korea's WMD development effort is not a recent response to its economic problems. North Korea's deteriorating economic condition and South Korea's growing economy together strengthen the motive for the North Korean regime to do WMD develpment. But the regime already had compelling reasons to do so.

Containment is not a viable long-term option for the US strategy toward North Korea because North Korean missile and WMD development programs will only make it an increasing threat both from a growing potential to launch direct WMD attacks on the US and its allies and also thru its ability to sell WMD technologies and even actual weapons to other governments.

US attempts to organize a total cut-off of aid to the North Korean regime may fail because China may be willing to continue to prop it up. If sufficient economic pressure can not be brought to bear due to Chinese reluctance then an alternative strategy becomes urgent. The best strategy is to develop ways to get information about the outside world into the hands of the North Korean people. The pursuit of this strategy should be pursued with enormous vigor. Methods should be developed to smuggle large quantities of books and small radios into North Korea. It is essential to break the isolation of the North Korean people.

Update: If you want to read more about the problem of North Korea read my Axis of Evil category archive.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 21 02:13 AM  US Foreign Preemption, Deterrence, Containment

John Moore said at February 21, 2003 9:27 AM:

As usual, an outstanding analysis... scary, but true.


Joe Katzman said at February 22, 2003 12:05 PM:

You and my colleague Trent Telenko seem to be converging on this issue... but how do you square your Plan B with your earlier article that said deposing the North Korean regime by means other than force was not realistic?

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2003 12:32 PM:

Joe, Let me give a bit more flesh to Plan B so that everyone else knows what we are talking about. It would require a massive effort on the part of the CIA and like agencies to make the North Korean people know how much worse off they are than the rest of the world in combination with giving them lots of information about other ways to look at love, life, family, government, philosophy, politics, economics, and all that.

Okay, first off we have to make a huge effort to do so. I'm not hearing the kinds of things that would suggest that there is an on-going effort on the scale required. If, say, people in South Korea, Japan, and China were reporting that plastic wrapped floating Korean language books and radios were occasionally floating up on their beaches I'd believe that there was a massive CIA and KCIA effort to litter the North Korean beaches with information and tools for getting information from the outside world. Well, I'm not hearing that. I'm not reading in defector reports (and I've been googling on this) that there is a big black market for books and radios. I haven't seen any firm indicators that there are attempts to give reading materials to North Koreans working in embassies and trade missions abroad. I could go on but you get the idea.

North Korea would be a hard place to penetrate with information if we were making a huge effort to do so. Even if we tried we might not succeed on the scale required. But it seems prudent to try given the other alternatives. You have to understand that I'm not optimistic about any of the alternatives. But the propaganda approach ought to be tried on a massive scale.

To even have a chance of creating large scale opposition to the regime the effort would have to result in many millions of North Koreans getting into their hands books of pictures of people in wealthy foreign cities, pictures of South Koreans on picnics, pictures of suburbs and rural farm houses, and assorted writing about life everywhere else in combination with everything from Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Milton Friedman, Hayek and novels by many writers. Plus, there should be radios that can be recharged mechanically or photovoltaically, that come with ear pieces so that they can be listened to without others finding out about it.

We need the full court press. Will we get the full court press? I doubt it.

The tragedy of this is that information from the outside world would be a powerful tool to use for the overthrow the North Korean regime. In that sense it is an easier target than Iran where there are still plenty of devout Muslims who know what the outside world is like and recoil from it. Secular ideologies are easier to defeat if one can get the information thru to the people living in a tyranny. Yet I do not see the US government making a large enough effort to do this.

Gregory Eckersley said at April 22, 2003 7:40 PM:

I agree with your analysis, but it seems there are
some deeper issues here.
Any modern technically competent or wealthy state
seems to be in a position where it can quickly acquire WMD's. Does this mean that it is in our interests to keep any potentially dangerous state
( including democracies !? ) from sufficient means
to become a threat? Is the answer to reduce the number of small sovereign nations, impoverish them,
or greatly restrict their sovereignty?

Randall Parker said at April 22, 2003 7:52 PM:

Greogry, There are even non-democratic states that have no motive to develop WMD. For instance, I do not expect the regime in Burma to embark on WMD development. I'm not worried about sub-Saharan Africa or any country in the Western Hemisphere. We do not need to worry about every non-democratic state and very few democratic states are a problem. Most do not have the sorts of intentions that we need to worry about.

If we make examples of a few states that are doing WMD development that will deter many others from even starting down that road.

Alex said at February 16, 2005 12:54 PM:

I would just like to say how helpful this analysist has been to me. I was assigned a homework project on North Korea. I was to learn about its WMD program and this has helped me much. Thanks again Mr. Parker, I hope you keep this type of thing up because it really helps others understand things.

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