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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

A. Nikitin: Consequences for International Security of North Korea's Nuclear Program

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) gave notice on January 10, 2003, of withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That same year was marked by a coalition of Western countries led by the United States using force against Iraq aimed at a political regime change. Thus, Washington illustrated what could happen to countries that try to obtain nuclear weapons for deterrence.

Almost 30 years have passed since North Korea first sought nuclear weapons—first plutonium based and later uranium based. The DPRK joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, semi-withdrew in 1993, and finally withdrew in 2003. These actions resulted in two nuclear crises (1993–94 and 2002–03). The case of North Korea shows that nuclear blackmail brings some results, regardless of whether nuclear weapons are ultimately obtained.

In the earlier stages, North Korean rulers considered nuclear weapons to be an additional factor in the balance of military power on the peninsula. After the U.S. and Western coalitions overthrew regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq through military means, nuclear weapons started to be perceived as a “last resort guarantee” for the preservation of the North Korean regime.

Nuclear weapons as ‘regime protection’

The regime-protecting function of nuclear weapons is different from the classic deterrence function. Instead of deterring an opponent’s nuclear strike, nuclear weapons are intended to prevent political and conventional military pressure on a country; they are a decisive bargaining chip a regime can use to preserve its existing political leadership. As was made clear in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Iraq in 2003, the Western coalition led by the United States was not waging a war against “a country” or “a nation” as such. Neither population centers nor industrial sites were targeted. The target of the military campaign was to overthrow and remove political leadership—the Taliban in Afghanistan and the highly authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

For a powerful nuclear country to use nuclear weapons for a “surgical strike” is improbable; it would lead to numerous innocent victims among the civilian population and turn world opinion against the superpower, while leaders of the targeted regime might survive hidden in shelters. For Milosevic in Yugoslavia or Hussein in Iraq to have even very limited nuclear capabilities of their own at the moment when they are attacked would not deter an opponent’s strike. Rather, by threatening nuclear “punishment” for a coercive or intrusive nonnuclear attack against them.

To exercise such a “punishment” would be socially, militarily, and morally unacceptable for a Western coalition. It would be unable to restrict the impact of its nuclear or chemical weapons to limited contingents of troops or military supplies; rather, the whole population would be struck. Only the fear of such an event (which requires not only developing nuclear weapons but diplomatic skill regarding their use) can prevent superpowers from open pressure on a Third World regime or declaring war on it.

The system of alliances keeps countries that are either real (Afghanistan, Iraq) or potential (Iran, Syria, North Korea, etc.) targets from threatening the actual territory of the United States or UK, which are leaders of regime-changing coalitions. Instead, the regimes may (and do) threaten more easily reachable “smaller brothers” of the big powers. For example, in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was striking Israel with missiles and chemical weapons. Also, North Korea sent “signals” by launching a test ballistic missile in the direction of Japan in the late 1990s and by aiming its arsenal at not only U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan but also South Korean cities, including Seoul, with its millions of inhabitants living just forty kilometers from the border.

Densely populated areas in South Korea, Japan, and even Russian Vladivostok could be held hostage by Pyongyang if serious military pressure is placed against the North Korean regime. It should be remembered that during the 1993–94 crisis, the United States deployed South Korean Patriot missiles and sent an aircraft carrier fleet to North Korean shores.

The campaigns against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against Hussein’s rule in Iraq have motivated countries such as North Korea and Iran to think of obtaining nuclear weapons either secretly or openly as guarantees against intrusion into their political affairs and territory. Both in North Korea and Iran, “nuclear uncertainty” has already cooled the rhetoric of some Western hawks.

Even in Pakistan, a country with a pro-American military elite and mostly anti-American Islamic clergy and public, some Pakistani military officials consider nuclear weapons to be a deterrent not only against India on the border in Kashmir but against potential American willingness to place Islamic Pakistan (with its reputation as a “paradise for terrorists and fundamentalists”) into the “queue” for regime change.

The October 16, 2002, announcement by the United States that North Korea acknowledged a secret uranium-enrichment program served as a deterrent. In December 2002, Pyongyang removed monitoring devices from its nuclear plant at Yongbyon and expelled UN inspectors. Behind the curtain of secrecy, the first nuclear devices may be assembled any day. Recognition of this uncertainty effectively stopped any talk of a military campaign against the North Korean regime. Between 1990 and 2004, expert estimations that North Korea already possessed nuclear weapons circulated several times. On February 22, 1990, the KGB addressed Report N 363-k to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Entitled “On the Issue of Creation of Nuclear Weapons in the DPRK,”1 it warned: “Elaboration of the first explosive nuclear device is finished in the Yongbyon nuclear research center. Testing is currently not planned, in the interests of hiding the fact of production from the world community and international controlling agencies.”

Later, open reports by the Russian External Intelligence Service (SVR) in 1993 and 1995 gave much more skeptical estimates of the status of plutonium-based nuclear production in North Korea. In 1995 an open SVR report postulated:

The current scientific-technical level and technological equipment at the nuclear centers in DPRK do not allow North Korean specialists to create a nuclear explosive device ready for field testing.2

A 2003 report by the CIA estimates that the DPRK “probably produced enough plutonium for one or possibly two nuclear weapons.”3

There is an obvious interface and mutual assistance between North Korea and Pakistan. North Korea helped Pakistan by testing and then selling to Islamabad Nodong ballistic missiles and technology, while Pakistan in turn assisted North Korea with nuclear weapons technologies (although the latter is denied by Pakistan). This cooperation is important, because while India’s active arsenal is mostly based in fighter-bombers, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal depends on missiles for delivery.

Iran has received assistance in the nuclear sphere from China (sale of fissile materials), the Soviet Union/Russia (enrichment technology and reactors), and a series of unnamed European countries (Germany is reportedly among them). Some stages in this multiple international assistance have not been clearly detected. In Iran, for example, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found particles of highly enriched uranium and some technology used in the enrichment cycle that could not have been developed by the Iranian scientists themselves.

Tracing other flows “with a little help from friends,” some Russian experts believe that North Korea’s initial clandestine plan was to create nuclear devices with weapons-grade plutonium obtained from the old Soviet nuclear reactors,4 but the North Koreans underestimated the difficulties of plutonium-based technology.

Other Russian experts clarify that the IRT-2000 nuclear reactor the Soviets supplied to North Korea in 1965 produced plutonium of an isotopic composition that could not be used for military purposes.5 Instead, the North Koreans were using plutonium produced by British-elaborated gas-graphite reactors of the “Calder Hall” type. A five-megawatt reactor of this type was installed in Yongbyon in 1986. Construction began on a fifty-megawatt reactor in 1984 and on a 200-megawatt reactor in 1989. The aim was for them to become operational in 1995–96, but because the Agreed Framework with the United States was signed in 1994, construction was not finished. The only operational reactor between 1986 and 1994 was able to produce an estimated seven to ten kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, 6 and it was stopped three times (in 1989, 1990, and 1991) for a total of 150 days, supposedly for the removal of plutonium.

Developing nuclear program

It is true that the USSR agreed in 1985 to supply North Korea with two reactors with a combined power of two thousand megawatts. But considering Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the Soviet Union made the DPRK join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a condition for the deal. Pyongyang signed the treaty in 1985 but did not sign the agreement about IAEA safeguards until 1992.7 Thus, signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty did not block Pyongyang’s military nuclear program for another seven years. The new Soviet reactors were never supplied to the DPRK. After the creation of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, known as KEDO, in the mid-1990s, Russia offered to become a donor of light-water reactors allowed to North Korea by the Agreed Framework. This offer was rejected for economic reasons.

After the agreement on safeguards was finally signed in 1992, the North Korean leadership continued its covert nuclear program while allowing limited inspections. When it was caught with undeclared plutonium facilities, Pyongyang decided to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. After relatively successful bargaining with the United States, it got a compromise Agreed Framework document on October 21, 1994. The Agreed Framework temporarily permitted North Korea’s accumulation of plutonium, but allowed it to receive only “selective” status under the treaty.

Not all North Korean nuclear sites were placed under safeguards; it denied inspectors access to two potential storage sites and allowed only external monitoring of some other sites. The current highly enriched uranium-based technology (which, by American estimates, started in 1995) may, in the opinion of some Russian experts, have led to covert production of one or several explosive devices (weapons-grade highly enriched uranium devices are relatively simple to produce, if the producers will settle for untransportable, so-called dirty nuclear devices with unpredictable yield). Such devices may not be called weapons in the traditional sense of the word. They are not tested, not set into a carrier, and not packed into a solid protective transportable cover. But they may be assembled and used in place, for example in one of the hidden tunnels below the DMZ near Seoul.8 Such devices may be used without prior testing.

In 1945 the United States dropped two such weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without preliminary testing of those specific types. The only serious obstacle to the creation of a “dirty” nuclear device was the absence of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium in the hands of the Iraqi or North Korean regimes. Now both North Korea and Iran have access to the technology for indigenous production of highly enriched uranium.

One must also not forget the huge stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in the “old” nuclear countries. In Russia alone there are about 1,500 tons of highly enriched uranium outside of military complexes. Both the United States and Russia announced an excess of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium available for reprocessing in a safe form. On top of that, in civilian laboratories in 43 countries, there are 3,700 kilograms of highly enriched uranium under IAEA safeguards and an estimated ten times that amount in installations not under IAEA protection and supervision. Authoritarian regimes that dream about getting nuclear weapons may try to buy or steal the necessary quantity of fissile material in dozens of countries. An IAEA databank reports that there were more than four hundred cases of illicit trafficking in fissile material during the last decade, at least twenty of them involving weapons-grade plutonium. But North Korea’s successful clandestine program under the nose of KEDO and the IAEA has been the biggest challenge.

The first rumors about this program appeared in 1998–99. At the end of 2002, the CIA estimated that in one to three years, North Korea would be able to produce highly enriched uranium sufficient for six nuclear weapons.9 That summer, the U.S. government informed Japan and South Korea about North Korea’s clandestine nuclear program.

On October 16, 2002, high-level North Korean negotiators openly acknowledged the existence of such a program to U.S. delegates. It was Pyongyang’s attempt to seize the initiative and start a new spiral of nuclear blackmail. Roles and interests of involved powers What are the goals and motivations of Pyongyang? What is it seeking to achieve through risky nuclear blackmail? First of all, its goals are no longer limited to the inter-Korean balance of power. They include, above all, creating circumstances to deter the United States from attempting to use military force to change the political regime in North Korea by pushing its leadership into a corner or destroying it.

In January 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush attributed to North Korea the same “axis of evil” formula that led to the military defeat of Afghanistan and Iraq. Afterward, the American administration officials more than once stressed that placing Pyongyang in the same “basket” with Baghdad and Tehran does not mean that the United States had plans to use military force against the DPRK.

In principle, this is guaranteed by the so-called asymmetrical parity existing on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea possesses visible conventional superiority over South Korea, which is counterbalanced by the 37,000 American soldiers on Korean soil and by the presence of American nuclear guarantees to South Korea. In the presence or absence of North Korean nuclear devices, Seoul, with its multimillion population, would be a “hostage” destroyed in the first hours of any serious military conflict by North Korea’s conventional artillery, missiles, and tank armada. Massive use of American nuclear weapons is excluded from a zone forty kilometers from the South Korean capital. The high level of military alert, huge size, and realistic destructive capabilities of North Korea’s military machine differentiate the Korean case from the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The non-contact, high-precision strikes executed by the United States have motivated Pyongyang to seek a nonaggression pact with Washington or negotiate other forms of guarantee against the use of force. North Korea uses its unspecified nuclear capabilities as a serious bargaining chip to achieve this. Such a nonaggression pact offer sounds like a humane solution, but it would seriously undermine U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea.

In 1993, the United States increased its military presence in the region and on the seas. In March, South Korea and the United States undertook joint military exercises. Washington announced that it would introduce economic sanctions against Pyongyang (even if the UN did not impose sanctions) if the DPRK resumed testing ballistic missiles. The United States warned that it would intercept and inspect all vessels suspected of transporting missiles or nuclear material near the North Korean shores.

Pyongyang categorically refuses to bring Korean nuclear issues to the UN Security Council and insists on direct talks with the United States. It is interested in negotiating maximum international economic assistance in exchange for freezing—but not destroying—its unfinished nuclear program, as it did in 1994.

Japan has terminated economic assistance to North Korea until it addresses American and Japanese concerns. Japan does not exclude the possibility of joining the United States in imposing economic sanctions against North Korea.

Both China and South Korea oppose economic sanctions. China is a main trading partner of the DPRK. It provides significant food assistance to the DPRK and supplies free energy, which has been especially important after oil supplies provided through KEDO ceased in November 2002. Washington considers Beijing its primary mediator in its relations with Pyongyang. The diplomatic role of China, as well as of Russia, in such a situation is difficult and of dubious value.

Along with China and South Korea, Russia supported the idea of bilateral U.S.–DPRK talks and joined the Six-Party Talks. Russia, again like China, quietly objects to bringing the Korean “nuclear crisis” before the UN Security Council. Moscow is trying to achieve the status of another mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, although its capacity to do so is less than Beijing’s.

Russia advocates a so-called package deal that would mean returning to the Agreed Framework plus providing additional security guarantees to North Korea. This package deal supposes:

  • Confirmation of the Korean Peninsula’s nonnuclear status;
  • Strict observance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty;
  • Return to the Agreed Framework of 1994;
  • Constructive bilateral talks (between the U.S. and DPRK) and multilateral talks (including also South Korea, Japan, Russia, and international organizations);
  • Extension of security guarantees by the great powers (first of all, the United States) to the DPRK (guarantees may be modeled after those given by nuclear powers to Ukraine, when it joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty); and
  • Return to humanitarian and economic programs on the Korean Peninsula, including the trans-Korea railroad project. Korean nuclear weapons and the United Nations

The IAEA has made three reports to the United Nations stating that the DPRK violated its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. But after the DPRK’s formal withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Security Council could no longer address the case as a “violation” but as the more serious problem of “posing a serious threat to international security.” The latter determination may lead to collective sanctions, including collective, UN-mandated use of force. Obviously, when the UN Security Council was split on the issue of coercive actions against Iraq, it was not good to bring up the no less controversial issue of North Korea. But after UN resolutions on a post-conflict settlement in Iraq are adopted, it may be time for the Security Council to deal with the North Korean crisis.

Some Russian politicians have suggested that the DPRK and the United States have an “equal responsibility” for the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula. But in principle, such an approach contradicts Russian strategic international interests, which are connected with strengthening the United Nations in general and the Security Council, where both Russia and China have veto rights. Comparing the UN’s ability to act with Russia’s ability to become a serious mediator in the Six-Party Talks with the DPRK, it is clear that acting through the UN would give Russia a greater role, more influence, and an opportunity to act as a global power.

At the same time, North Korea has a relatively strong “diplomatic weapon” it could use against the United Nations: it could proclaim itself to be a nuclear power. Then the UN would have to either immediately apply the strongest collective sanctions (which would be very dangerous for all sides, because then Pyongyang has promised it would withdraw from even the 1953 armistice, which would put the peninsula on the brink of war) or recognize the DPRK’s de facto status as a nuclear power (regardless of the status of its nuclear program) and swallow the fact that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is powerless against proliferators and nuclear blackmail.

Can the international community accept the conditions imposed by Pyongyang (no inspections, no sanctions, nonaggression guarantees by great powers, and foreign aid and energy assistance)? That would be a very dangerous precedent. If the real or even nonexistent nuclear weapons serve a “regime protection” function that would give a clear signal for further nuclearization of other state and nonstate international actors.

Already, the death of the 2003 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty can be considered a by-product of North Korea’s nuclear blackmail. The United States would be motivated to create a missile defense system in Alaska to intercept potential North Korean ballistic missiles delivering nuclear weapons.

If North Korea succeeds in its nuclear program (either technically or diplomatically), it is almost inevitable that Japan or South Korea (or both) will begin creating its own nuclear weapons. For technically developed nations, like Japan, that possess large quantities of fissile materials, it would not take long to create modern nuclear weapons with modern carriers. That would, in turn, inevitably motivate China to modernize and enlarge its existing nuclear capabilities, which in turn might cause India to modernize its nuclear arsenal, especially considering the technical and political ties between the DPRK and Pakistan. A regional nuclear arms race would explode in Asia.

Thus, it is very important for the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea to unite in face of the North Korean nuclear crisis. A UN Security Council resolution, even without mentioning sanctions, could be very useful, because it would coordinate the approach of all the leading powers. Such a united approach is necessary to demonstrate that the international community absolutely cannot accept the nuclearization of North Korea.

In the long run, settlement of the crisis should include multilateral security guarantees to the DPRK and South Korea from the United States, China, Japan, and Russia in exchange for a full and unequivocal cessation of its nuclear military program. Such guarantees could be supplemented with a program of broad international economic assistance to the DPRK in order to break its diplomatic, social, and cultural semi-isolation and bring it back into the family of the international community as an equal and respected nation.


1. Published in Arguments and Facts, Moscow N 10, March 1992.
2. “Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Problems of Extension,” Open Report of the External Intelligence Service for 1995,
3. Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, July 1 through December 31, 2001–January 7, 2003,
4. Presentation by Major-General (ret.) V. Belous at a seminar in Moscow Carnegie Center, December 25, 2003.
5. Y. Fedorov, “Korean Nuclear Problem,” Analytical Report of the Institute of Applied International Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (2003): 5.
6. Four kilograms of plutonium might be enough for the production of one 20-kiloton nuclear weapon in a highly developed nuclear facility. A less technically developed nuclear facility requires more nuclear material for the same purpose.
7. Without such an agreement on safeguards, which becomes a legal basis for IAEA inspectors’ work at a country’s nuclear facilities, signing the NPT has only propaganda value.
8. One such tunnel was discovered and inspected by South Koreans; several more reportedly exist and may be used for transporting weapons, including nuclear ones, underground relatively far into South Korean territory.
9. D. Pinkston, S. Lieggi, “North Korea’s Nuclear Program: Key Concerns,” Monterrey Institute of International Studies, CNS, January 17, 2003,

Source: From a paper presented at a conference on "Innovative Approaches to Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia: Focus on the Korean Peninsula," May 26-28, 2005, Moscow, Russia, co-organized by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace and the Russian Political Science Association. Dr. Alexander Nikitin is president of the Russian Political Science Association and a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

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