Page 1 of 2 Why Pyongyang clings to its weapons
By Andrei Lankov
The recent missile test (or was it rocket launch?) once again put North Korea
in the limelight - as was, no doubt, intended by Pyongyang's strategists. The
launch produced an expected wave of chest-beating, vague (and meaningless)
diplomatic threats and rhetoric, but nothing of substance. Even the United
Nations Security Council failed to approve a resolution which would strengthen
Finally, North Korean claimed it is leaving the six-party talks "forever".
There are good reasons to doubt whether this decision is permanent - in all
probability, it will be reversed for a hefty fee. Nonetheless, it is a major
blow to the optimists who still believe
the North Korean nuclear issue can be solved somehow, sometime.
The nuclear issue seems to be the heart of the controversy, while long-range
missile launches are essentially a sideshow. It will take many years before
North Korean missiles pose any credible threats to the country's neighbors
(with the obvious exception of South Korea). Right now, North Korean missiles
are unreliable, unwieldy, have very low accuracy and take days to be prepared
for launch. On top of that, the North Koreans have not developed a nuclear
device that is small and light enough to be mounted as a warhead.
Nuclear weapons seem to be an altogether different issue. Even without workable
delivery systems, North Korean generals still can find a way to smuggle a crude
nuclear device to, say, a Japanese or American port. The stockpile of
weapons-grade plutonium is a potential threat, too. Finally, nuclear
proliferation clearly constitutes a greater danger than the proliferation of
However, the new wave of the never-ending "North Korean crisis" also makes us
wonder: what can the US and, more broadly speaking, the world really do about
North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities? The honest answer is not much,
or even nothing.
The rationale of the North Korean nuclear program
North Korean leaders are sometimes presented in media as madmen, as people
driven by some irrational (or ideology-motivated) desire to look dangerous and
create trouble. It is not the case. Their penchant for seemingly irrational and
erratic behavior is illusionary: actually North Korean leaders know exactly
what they are doing. They are not madmen or ideological zealots, but remarkably
efficient and cold-minded, perhaps the most perfect Machiavellians of the
modern world. Alas, this time their calculations seem to indicate that
de-nuclearization will be a mistake.
To start with, the decision to go nuclear was not made overnight. The North
Korean nuclear arms program was conceived in the late 1950s, began in earnest
in the mid-1960s, and acquired military dimensions around 1980. In other words,
the program has a long history, it is a result of decades of sacrifice and hard
From its inception, the program has served three distinct political goals. Each
goal is important for Pyongyang, although their relative importance kept
changing over time.
First, North Korea needs nuclear weapons as a powerful strategic deterrent.
They are sincerely afraid of a foreign attack, and after Iraq and Afghanistan,
such a fear can hardly be dismissed as paranoid and unfounded. The Pyongyang
rulers believe - and ostensibly with good reason - that no nuclear-armed
country will be invaded by any great power.
Second, the Pyongyang leaders need the nuclear weapons as a blackmail tool
(well, an aid-maximization tool, if one prefers). Despite the bombastic
propaganda, North Korean diplomats are painfully aware that their country is
not a major international player. In terms of population size and economic
significance, the closest analogue to their country is, of all places,
Mozambique. Therefore, the major reason why the international community pays so
much attention to North Korea is its nuclear and, to lesser extent, its missile
In other words, the existence of nukes means that every time North Korea has
trouble getting aid, it starts making threatening noises. The North Korean
strategists are afraid that without nuclear weapons, the world would become far
less willing to satisfy their demands - and they are probably correct. Even if
the surrender of nuclear weapons was likely to be rewarded with a large
compensation payment, this lump sum money would not last forever. Meanwhile,
the existence of nuclear weapons creates the opportunity for systematic and
Last but not least, the nuclear program has domestic importance. The nuclear
test, held in a remote mountain area in October 2006, has actually been the
only visible "success" of Kim Jong-il's rule. Pyongyang's propaganda now
insists that the suffering and destitution of the past 15 years were a
necessary sacrifice, voluntarily made by selfless North Koreans to safeguard
their country and nation against enemies (above all, the "blood-thirsty
Yankees" who dream about wiping out the entire Korean race). Surrender of the
nuclear weapons would render this suffering and death meaningless.
These three goals are important to the regime, and it would agree to abandon
these goals only under serious pressure or if seduced by sufficiently
attractive incentives. Alas, no such incentive is in sight, and no pressure is
likely to work either.
Why sticks are not big enough
The talk about the "red line" which should be drawn in dealing with North Korea
implies that in some cases the US and the "international community" will
exercise enough pressure on the country so it will have no choice but to
surrender its nuclear program.
To start with, no military action against North Korea is thinkable. Air raids
against nuclear installations (akin to the Israeli air raid on Iraq's
nuclear-research center in 1981) will not be of much use. It is too late.
Plutonium and nuclear devices are safely hidden in underground facilities.
Destruction of research facilities in Yongbyon or elsewhere is not going to
have a serious impact - after all, these facilities have fulfilled their
mission. North Korea does not need many nuclear devices, it has produced enough
to serve its political goals.
A large-scale invasion by ground forces is definitely a non-starter. If
Americans and their allies chose to invade, they would likely win, but it is
certain that the price of such victory would be very high.
An invasion would also encounter grave political problems, as South Koreans are
unlikely to join such an undertaking. Actually, it is a rational choice: the
South Korean public would prefer to live with the (very small) possibility of a
North Korean nuclear strike rather than start a war in the vicinity of their
major population centers. Unless faced with a clear and immediate danger, no
South Korean government would (and should) be enthusiastic about joining such a
hypothetical American invasion. But without South Korean support, land
operations become very difficult.
One also cannot rule out that in the case of a US invasion that China and,
perhaps even Russia, would cautiously support the North Korean armed forces
with arms, ammunition and intelligence. Neither country is going to back a
North Korean attack against the South, but in a hypothetical case of an
invasion by the Americans, the North Koreans would be seen as victims of an
aggression (with some justification, one should admit). It is likely that China
would undertake some measures to make the situation even more difficult for
their American rivals.
However, the major obstacle for an invasion is the North Korean army. It is
badly trained and equipped, but it has been subjected to decades of
brain-washing, has developed massive underground fortifications, and invested
much in guerrilla training. The mountainous terrain of the country also favors
defenders. On the final count, the US technical superiority would probably be
decisive, but the political, financial and human costs of such a victory would
be prohibitively high.
In this situation, sanctions appear to be the only realistic option. But their
usefulness also is doubtful. First of all, sanctions are difficult to impose,
since China and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Russia, would be unwilling to
partake at a truly rigorous (read: efficient) sanctions regime.
However, in the improbable case of Chinese and Russian reluctance being
overcome, the sanctions would still not likely influence Pyongyang's policy.
Normally, sanctions work in an indirect way. Sanctions do not exercise direct
influence on the lifestyle of the elite - those people still ride their
Mercedes and drink their Hennessy cognac. It is the common population whose
life becomes more difficult and challenging if the country is