- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

No More Illusions of Denuclearization

Sue Mi Terry

Sue Terry is a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University. She previously served in the National Intelligence Council as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and as the Korea, Japan, and Oceania Director at the National Security Council. Dr. Terry was also the National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She can be reached at

This is one of five essays in the book review roundtable on Jonathan Pollack's No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security.

Much has been made of the motivation behind the United States’ development of nuclear weapons during World War II and the strategic implications of its unprecedented nuclear status in the war’s immediate aftermath and the postwar international order. Less attention has been paid, however, to the specifics of subsequent states’ paths toward the possession of nuclear weapons. The only notable exception is North Korea, the newest and most secretive member of the nuclear club, whose journey to that coveted status has been closely chronicled for two decades. Nuclear diplomacy vis-à- vis Pyongyang since the 1990s has been a mainstay of international politics, headlining international news and triggering heated debates in both policy and academic circles. And while few have presumed that diplomacy could entice other nuclear weapons states—Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, and Pakistan—into giving up their weapons, the notion that North Korea’s far more powerful neighbors could and should persuade the aid-dependent North Korean leadership to bargain away its nuclear weapons program has persisted.

Jonathan Pollack’s new book on the history of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons—No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security—should finally put that myth to rest. The author demonstrates with ample historical evidence and rigorous analysis that the North Korean leadership “does not treat nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, and instead views these weapons as central to its identity and security planning” (p. 207). Most North Korea watchers, except for the most optimistic assessor of U.S. negotiating skills (or the most patronizing assessors of North Korea’s), came to adopt this view in the wake of the North’s second nuclear test in May 2009. Pollack also makes a strong case that Pyongyang crossed the nuclear Rubicon in 2009 by chronicling the sequence of events following the breakout of the second North Korean nuclear crisis in October 2002 and leading up to the May 2009 test. But Pollack does much more than simply draw the conclusion that a nuclear North Korea is here to stay. He presents a comprehensive history of how and why the North Korean leadership secretly pursued nuclear weapons, [ End page 175] going as far back as the germination of Kim Il-sung’s nuclear aspirations in the 1940s and 1950s.

Chapter 2, dubbed “Nuclear Memories and Nuclear Visions,” is especially good in laying out the historical events that alerted Kim Il-sung to the charms of nuclear weapons. Pollack points out that during World War II, when Japan was the colonial master in Korea, “major chemical and industrial facilities linked to Tokyo’s clandestine nuclear-weapons programme were located in northern Korea, and Japan was…exploring for uranium and various rare earth metals in the northern half of the peninsula.” He goes on to write that “Moscow undertook uranium mining in northern Korea as early as 1946, presumably relying on Korean labour” (p. 44). During the Korean War, faced with intermittent nuclear threats by the United States, Kim Il-sung showed interest in nuclear science: “The DPRK National Academy of Science was established in 1952, with uranium exploration, basic research in nuclear physics and the training of nuclear scientists identified as early priorities.” In the postwar recovery period, Kim called for a “ten-year plan for science and technology...for a comprehensive survey of North Korea’s natural resources including uranium, and advocated an active programme of research in atomic energy, the training of scientific personnel, and pursuit of nuclear applications to the DPRK’s economic development” (p. 48).

Of course, statements of interest in nuclear science do not equal the technical ability or the concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons, and the author is careful not to read too much into these early signs of nuclear aspiration. Pollack dates North Korea’s serious nuclear development efforts to the mid-1970s—unlike some South Korean experts who see the 1960s or even the 1950s as the genesis of its nuclear program. As Pollack notes, there is no “documentary evidence to substantiate this assertion,” just defector testimonials (p. 48). At the same time, Pollack does describe in detail Pyongyang’s cooperative agreements with Moscow in the 1950s on the “peaceful uses of atomic energy and on research collaboration in nuclear science,” including the planning for the Yongbyon nuclear facility (p. 50). In describing Kim Il-sung’s relentless efforts throughout the 1960s and 1970s at the militarization of the entire nation and acquisition of nuclear technology by seeking aid from Moscow and Beijing, and simultaneously playing the two rivals off one another, Pollack builds a strong case for what should have been clear even at the onset of the North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s: North Korea did not embark on the nuclear path on a whim.

Pollack brings the North Korean nuclear issue up to date in his concluding chapter with a highly informed and balanced discussion of contemporary North [ End page 176] Korean interests and the strategic outlook on North Korea among regional powers. His observation merits extensive quotation:

    The North Korean nuclear issue is also a misnomer. It is the history of North Korea and of Kim Il-sung, who built a system premised on exclusivity and adversarial nationalism and dominated it for nearly a half century; the leaders and institutions loyal to him; and of Kim Jong-il, who inherited power and has sustained the system following his father’s death. Regardless of the precise number of North Korean nuclear weapons, their technical characteristics, or the size of the country’s fissile-material inventory, the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities are part of the legacy that Kim Jong-il plans to bequeath to his son, much as his father mandated the building of a nuclear infrastructure that he then passed to Kim Jong-il. (p. 184)

In effect, No Exit should put an end to the propensity among some North Korea watchers to find foreign scapegoats for the Kim family regime’s relentless and systematic pursuit of nuclear weapons. The nature of the Kim regime, its strategic calculus, and the nature of nuclear weapons all made nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang a very tall order. But over the past twenty years, depending on the political mood of the times, critics have looked for answers to the impasse in nuclear negotiations by blaming everyone except for the Kim regime: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, or South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Lee Myung-bak. Some might still find comfort in this practice; and on an important level, analyses of “what went wrong” certainly are integral to an understanding of this intractable issue. But upon reading Jonathan Pollack’s impressive book, we should all be able to accept now, at the very least, that the North Korean nuclear problem begins and ends with the North Korean state. As Pollack recommends (p. 209), this sobering realization should prompt policymakers in Washington, Seoul, and Japan—and, in an ideal world, even Beijing and Moscow—to do all they can to contain the spread of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal beyond the isolationist country’s own borders and, in the long run, to accelerate the decline of a regime that views nuclear weapons as essential to its own preservation. [End page 177]