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PDF North Korea’s Nuclear Test: Motivations, Implications, and U.S. Options

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The Right Way to Coerce North Korea

Co-author Vipin Narang, in his book on nuclear strategy, essentially punts on North Korea by claiming it was unclear what its nuclear strategy—if any—was at the time of writing. What seems to have deterred the United States from attacking North Korea after the discovery of the hidden enrichment program was the fear that the North had reprocessed enough plutonium from its sheltered pursuit days for several nuclear bombs—not just the conventional threat to South Korea. In general, academic theories of nuclear proliferation sorely missed the mark when it comes to North Korea.

It is only one case, to be sure, but it is clearly an important one. However, this sober assessment is not meant to suggest that we should abandon our efforts to theorize about the causes and process of nuclear proliferation. Of the 30 or so states that have begun nuclear weapons programs, 10 succeeded in acquiring them.

U.S. weighs options after North Korea's latest nuclear test

In other words, it is still a relatively uncommon event, and our theories are necessarily probabilistic. Nevertheless, it is notable how few theories gave North Korea a good chance of acquiring the bomb. So what can we learn from this outlier? It is important to note here that an outlier case does not disconfirm any theory. All of the theories discussed above make significant contributions toward explaining and predicting certain cases of nuclear proliferation.

With that said, it is useful to examine what adjustments to our theories might be advisable based on the North Korean case. We believe the North Korean case illustrates several dynamics worth incorporating into academic theories of proliferation.

First, it shows that the threat of preventive war, even when perceived as credible, has limits as a counterproliferation tool. At several points, North Korea viewed the threat of an American attack as credible, and yet it continued its nuclear program, or else only agreed to limits on that program after receiving significant inducements in the case of the Agreed Framework. Second, it shows that states can still successfully play a cat-and-mouse game of plausible deniability with hidden programs—as South Africa and Pakistan once did with enrichment programs, and North Korea did with both its reactor and its uranium enrichment program.

It is hard to imagine North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons absent Soviet and then Chinese shelter. While China does not relish a nuclear-armed North Korea, and has become increasingly more disturbed by North Korean behavior over time, it has, for the most part, not been willing to use intense pressure against North Korea over this issue. China fears a North Korean regime collapse that would result in large refugee inflows and the possible stationing of U.

Fourth, even poor states with domestic political pathologies do not need substantial foreign assistance to successfully acquire nuclear weapons. The point of this exercise is not to dismiss any theories of nuclear proliferation, but rather to take stock of how to adjust these theories in systematic ways to account for how North Korea succeeded, while fully conceding that the proliferation process is unpredictable and probabilistic and that outliers will always exist.

It is a worthwhile endeavor to see how the academic community could have better predicted North Korean nuclearization—because there will likely be other proliferators like North Korea in the future.


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For one thing, the North Korea case demonstrates that supply-side measures like export controls are insufficient, even against countries with poor economies. Nuclear technology is 70 years old, and North Korea has demonstrated it is possible to construct the facilities needed to produce fissile material indigenously, based on open-source information.

This is true not just for the gas centrifuge, as Kemp has demonstrated, but also for the plutonium path to the bomb that North Korea followed. Moreover, the fact that North Korea indigenously developed a nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility in secret, rather than publicly constructing them under the guise of a nuclear energy program, allowed its nuclear program to make greater progress before the international community could react effectively.

A second policy implication is that early detection and policy intervention are crucial if nonproliferation success is to be achieved. Compared to other proliferators, North Korea was relatively successful at concealing its nuclear capabilities and intentions. Partly for this reason, strong international pressure was only mobilized in the early s, when North Korea was quite close to acquiring fissile material for nuclear weapons.

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Indeed, one could argue that even the Agreed Framework came too late, in that North Korea may have already obtained enough plutonium for a couple nuclear devices. The failure of early detection gave policymakers little margin for error, making it easier for North Korea to succeed in its nuclear quest.

Third, international sanctions have important limitations when dealing with extremely isolated countries like North Korea. Unilateral U. This is consistent with research on nonproliferation by Etel Solingen and Nicholas Miller, whose theories predict North Korean resilience to economic and political pressure, although they focus on outcomes rather than the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

However, U. Moreover, despite its recent cooperation at the United Nations, China has repeatedly dragged its feet on implementing sanctions over the years, dramatically increasing its trade with North Korea between and Fourth, if export controls and sanctions are unlikely to succeed against isolated adversaries like North Korea, and if credible threats of force have been insufficient in the past, more attention should be given to inducements and diplomacy as possible solutions.

Although North Korea violated the spirit of this agreement by starting a secret enrichment program, the United States also failed to fully live up to its end of the bargain by repeatedly delaying delivery of the promised inducements. Fifth, and relatedly, the North Korea case highlights the fragility of nonproliferation bargains due to changes in the domestic and international political landscape, a dynamic that makes such bargains hard to reach in the first place.

The Agreed Framework—the closest the international community came to preventing North Korea from acquiring a credible deterrent — ultimately was hampered by domestic opposition in the United States by Republicans, who opposed the agreement and later slowed its implementation. The fate of the Agreed Framework, along with the U. This leaves us, unfortunately, with an unhappy conclusion: The sort of diplomatic bargains that are needed to deal with proliferators like North Korea will be increasingly difficult to reach and sustain.

Why does North Korea face sanctions?

The biggest theoretical lessons from the North Korean example are the following: 1 that our theories may overestimate the power of preventive war threats in deterring states from pursuing nuclear weapons, 2 that determined leaders, even in dysfunctional authoritarian regimes, are not always doomed to fail in this pursuit, and 3 that even poor countries can succeed at acquiring nuclear weapons based on indigenously developed technology. The policy implications are equally grim. Given enough breathing room, even a poor a state that wants nuclear weapons badly enough can acquire them, defying sanctions and threats of force— particularly if it has an ally to shelter it from a strong multilateral coalition.

While offering inducements to adversary proliferators may stand a better chance of success, this is politically challenging for countries like the United States; moreover, the credibility of American diplomatic assurances is increasingly shaky. Given the various pathways to the bomb and the geopolitical fractures that proliferators can exploit, we should not assume that what has so far been a rare event—nuclear proliferation—will always continue to be so. This article was originally published in Texas National Security Review. South Africa acquired nuclear weapons in the late s and gave them up in the early s.

Wit, Daniel B.

Ending the Threat Without Going to War

Poneman, and Robert L. An agreement on inspections was never reached. Korea Nuclear Inspection Begins; U. Also see Pollack, No Exit, Rinehart, and Mary Beth D. Norton and Co. Carter and William J. Follow the conversation— Sign up to receive email updates when comments are posted to this article. The World Unpacked is a weekly foreign policy podcast, hosted by Jen Psaki, that breaks down the hottest global issues of today with experts, journalists, and policymakers who can explain what is happening, why it matters, and where we go from here.

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What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea | Council on Foreign Relations

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. North Korea's intentions surrounding the nuclear test remain unclear. Some argue that the purpose and timing of the test were aimed at gaining concessions from the Obama and Lee administrations. Others argue that the timing points to a power struggle within North Korea for the successor to Kim Jong-il who is very ill.

For years, analysts have debated on the rationales and motivations behind North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Some argue that Pyongyang was seeking to strengthen its bargaining position and therefore it might accept nuclear disarmament in exchange for political and diplomatic recognition, economic assistance, and security guarantee. Now it appears that Kim Jong-il's regime has no intention of giving up its nuclear arsenal.

Instead, it is currently demanding that it be recognize as a nuclear weapon state, no matter what incentives the outside world may offer. This has enormous implication for the international community and the policy options of the major stakeholders.