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Build It, and They Will Recompense: North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy

Sung-Yoon Lee

Sung-Yoon Lee is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and a Fellow with the National Asia Research Program. He can be reached at lee_sungyoon@hotmail.com.

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

NOTE: The title is borrowed from a remark—“Build them, and they will pay”—by Joshua Stanton, who writes for “One Free Korea,” http://freekorea.us/.


Rare is the moment when three or more North Korea watchers come together and see eye-to-eye on the North Korean nuclear problem. Jonathan Pollack, with his latest book No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, may have achieved that rarest of feats: creating a consensus among those interested in this deeply polarizing issue. The consensus here may not necessarily be Pollack’s main conclusion, which, using the author’s own words, can be summarized thus: “North Korea does not treat nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, and instead views these weapons as central to its identity and security planning.... The leadership thus remains locked in a nuclear mindset; it is unprepared to envisage longer-term survival of the extant system without retention and enhancement of its nuclear capabilities” (p. 207). The consensus would instead be that Pollack’s No Exit is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the decades-old North Korean nuclear issue in any language—in other words, the best.

Pollack begins with the formation of the North Korean state under Kim Il-sung in the 1940s and ends with a first-rate analysis of the current strategic environment in which the key players—North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States—find themselves. He traces the historical, ideological, and political backdrop against which Kim Il-sung built his unique and defiant regime; presents the major milestones in Kim’s political dealings with his patrons and adversaries alike; and guides the reader through the tortuous cycles of North Korean provocations and compensatory nuclear negotiations over the past two decades.

The result is a tantalizing array of original analysis and rich detail. The generalist will find North Korea’s defiant edge and success in building a nuclear arsenal at the cost of a dysfunctional economy curiously fascinating. The specialist will find that the book’s cogently presented historical details and insights make it a must-read for both personal gratification and research. And [ End page 178] for anyone teaching a college-level course on Korean politics or U.S.–East Asia relations, the book should be required reading.

In chronicling the North Korean leadership’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities over nearly four decades, Pollack accomplishes something he may not have intended, which is implicitly to undermine the “negotiationist” school of thought—that is, those who believe that negotiations would effect North Korea’s denuclearization. Pollack explicitly endorses neither the “collapsist” nor the “reformist” school thinkers—those who believe, respectively, in the eventual collapse of the North Korean regime and in the possibility of the regime adopting genuine economic reform and opening. With his analysis of North Korea’s past actions and strategic imperatives, Pollack effectively buries the notion that the United States and its partners, with the right mix of incentives and coercion, could achieve the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Given the ample evidence presented, it would be folly to argue against Pollack’s assessment of the current state of nuclear negotiations or his reading of the North Korean regime’s intentions: “Despite pursuit of nearly every imaginable approach to denuclearisation by the U.S. and others, this goal is now farther from realization than at any point since the signing of the Agreed Framework” (p. 190). He further explains: “The leadership…posits a ‘no landing’ scenario—that is, the perpetuation of the existing system based on the unquestioned power and authority of the Kim family and of the ruling elites that support it, retention of its nuclear weapons capabilities, and a measure of economic recovery” (p. 192).

Pollack ends the book with a sober call for efforts to contain North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons capabilities: “The ultimate goal remains nuclear abandonment by the North, but a more practicable objective is risk minimisation, both in relation to the DPRK’s extant weapons and in any potential transfer of technology and materials beyond North Korea’s borders” (p. 209). Some may find Pollack’s prescription a bit too passive and ultimately unsatisfactory. Yet it is hard to argue against the historical record—the apparent failure of nuclear negotiations with North Korea and the folly of pouring more blandishments into the pipeline that feed only Pyongyang’s palace economy.

A cursory reading twenty years ago of the nature of nuclear diplomacy and the basic dynamic of the Korean Peninsula should have produced the same conclusion. The former is international politics played, save for waging war or securing peace, at the highest level. The latter is the reality of a totalitarian regime incapable of economic self-sufficiency competing for pan-Korean legitimacy against a wealthy democratic government. That it is only in the past two years, in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear breakout, that such a view has finally become [End page 179] prevalent is the product of treating nuclear diplomacy like negotiating fishing quotas and, more pointedly, presuming that the impoverished North Korean regime, lacking a clear agenda of its own making, would be responsive to the positive stimuli bestowed on it by bigger powers. Historically, the United States has repeatedly made the mistake of underestimating ethnic nationalism and taking a patronizing view of East Asian dictators, only to regret it later—from overestimating Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Civil War to underestimating Kim Il-sung and Ho Chi Minh in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This book should remove all doubt that the North Korean nuclear issue is nearly coeval with the history of the North Korean state and essential to the state’s “defining imperative” of “system preservation” (p. 188).

No book is perfect, and Pollack’s is at times sketchy on historical detail. For example, the section on Khrushchev’s less than cordial relationship with Kim Il-sung (p. 41–42) is occasionally misleading. Noting that the Soviet leader never visited North Korea despite scheduling a visit in the late 1950s and another in 1960, Pollack goes on to observe that none of Khrushchev’s “successors as CPSU first secretary” ever did, either, and that “Vladimir Putin’s 2000 state visit to Pyongyang remains the only instance of a top Soviet or Russian leader travelling to the DPRK.” This may be true on the surface, but it also makes light of Premier Alexei Kosygin’s visit to Pyongyang in 1965 and the implications of that visit for Pyongyang-Moscow relations. In fact, Pollack does later note: “In the aftermath of Prime Minister Kosygin’s visit to Pyongyang in early 1965, Soviet arms deliveries began to increase, and a three-year trade agreement with Moscow was also signed” (p. 67). Kosygin may not have been the first secretary, but in the mid-1960s he was in a power-sharing arrangement with Leonid Brezhnev and active in handling top affairs of the state.

On p. 59, Pollack writes that “the treaties of alliance signed with Moscow and Beijing just weeks apart in July 1961 presumably provided Kim the external security guarantees that he had long sought from the Soviet Union and China.” Yet these two treaties, which heavily favored North Korea, were respectively signed in Moscow on July 6 and Beijing on July 11, just five days instead of “weeks” apart. The close proximity of time is not a matter of insignificance, as it reflects the complex trilateral maneuverings among Kim Il-sung and his two Communist patrons, similar to what took place in the spring and autumn of 1950—that is, in the lead-up to North Korea’s invasion in June and in the wake of its retreat following the Inchon landing in September. In fact, Pollack himself takes note of such manipulative dealings among Kim, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong (p. 42). [End page 180]

Further, referring to North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo in January 1968, Pollack writes that the event took place “only days after North Korean commandos came within several hundred metres of the Blue House in a failed assassination attempt against President Park [Chung-hee]” (p. 64). The seizure of the Pueblo took place on January 23, and the shootout near the Blue House between North Korean commandos and South Korean guards on January 21. Here, the author may have noted that both events in late January occurred on the eve of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the definite turn of tide for the United States in that war. Pollack also notes that North Korea shot down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft “in April 1969, which killed all personnel on board.” He may also have elaborated that the event took place on April 15, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, the most important date in North Korea. In view of Pyongyang’s propensity to provoke on major holidays—conducting its first nuclear test on the eve of the Korean Workers’ Party Founding Day on October 9, 2006, testing seven missiles on U.S. Independence Day in 2006, or conducting its second nuclear test on U.S. Memorial Day in 2009—taking note of such points is not a mere matter of triviality.

Last, on p. 14 Pollack asks, “Why and how has the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula reached this point, and what are the consequences?” [italics added]. “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is a term favored by North Korea, intended to mean, as North Koreans often explain, the abrogation of the U.S.–South Korea alliance and the end of the U.S. nuclear security umbrella for the South. Whether one speaks of the history of North Korea’s nuclearization or the prospects for Pyongyang’s denuclearization, referring to the subject at hand as “North Korea” rather than “Korean Peninsula” (except in specifically intended cases) would eliminate ambiguity.

Despite these small quibbles, and in view of the very real challenge posed by the absence of access to North Korean archives, Jonathan Pollack’s book on the nuclearization of North Korea is as good as it gets. [End page 181]