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T. Endo: Address to World Summit 2014

Address to World Summit 2014, Seoul, Korea, August 9-13, 2014

My topic is how to make North Korea a more reliable global stakeholder in the international community and in that context, what role Japan should play.

In the present world it seems to me there are two disturbing factors from the point of view of security in East Asia: the increasingly assertive stance of China, backed by economic as well as military might, and the persistence of North Korea in strengthening its nuclear and missile capabilities.

Missiles and nuclear capability are indispensable factors. We can’t separate one from the other. We have to think about both. Why is North Korea eager to develop nuclear and missile capabilities, despite its very poor economic conditions? I’d like to point out several factors behind its motive, not in order of priority. Of course there is a combination of military, diplomatic and political factors.

  1. One consideration is its balance of power with South Korea. Up to the 1970s, the North Korean economy looked superior to that of South Korea; but since the 1970s North Korea’s economy has declined, partly because of poor management of the economy, poor climate conditions and so forth. Together with that, its military capabilities also declined. The military balance between South and North has tipped in favor of the South. In order to recover that military balance, North Korea might have taken up nuclear and missile development. Since I am a nuclear engineer, I’m aware that nuclear missiles are not so expensive; perhaps conventional weapons might be more expensive than nuclear and missile development.
  2. Unfortunately in the present world, nuclear power gains one some national prestige. The United States and other nuclear states would never think of discarding their nuclear capabilities because that is part of their national prestige. Therefore, North Korea, being a very poor country, would like to have nuclear power for the prestige. Do you think the big countries would sit at the same table talk with North Korea if it didn’t have nuclear capability? North Korea might think so.
  3. North Korea may want nuclear power and missiles as a deterrence against the U.S. in particular. They noted the fate of Gaddafi in Libya and the fate of Iraq. Gaddafi was easily defeated by the U.S. and its allies.
  4. The North Korean regime is authoritarian, with power centered in one young man’s hands. The young man would like to keep the support of the military. Nuclear missiles might be a good way to strengthen the support of the military.
  5. Through brinksmanship for diplomatic incentives, North Korea has succeeded in getting something by having nuclear capability. These are all reasons behind North Korea’s focus on nuclear weapons.

What is the state of its nuclear weapons and missiles? North Korea has a long history of nuclear development and missiles. They have technological capabilities and have conducted three tests of nuclear weapons. They have a uranium-type warhead, a plutonium-type warhead, and maybe something else. North Korea developed missile technology by reverse engineering. Now they have short-range missiles and medium-range missiles and they may be developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Their firing is getting more accurate.

Although at this moment I don’t think North Korea has missiles that will reach the U.S. mainland, but sooner or later it may be able to do that. So it’s a race against time.

Unfortunately, the six-party talks, comprised of U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea, and Japan have had no success, and for almost eight years, they have remained suspended.

The U.S. and some other countries say that North Korea should abandon nuclear weapons, but it seems to me that it’s just words. What did we do? North Korea’s nuclear capability will be enhanced over the years to come.

Under what circumstances might North Korea abandon its nuclear adventurism? I will offer several theoretical assumptions, but I invite other people’s thoughts on the question:

  1. Theoretically, the regime in North Korea might change and a new one might abandon nuclear options. Regime change is easy to mention but how could it be accomplished? It’s up to North Korea, basically. Even if regime change would take place, one cannot be sure that a new regime would abandon nuclear development.
  2. A second assumption is a surgical strike. In the 1990s the U.S. considered the possibility of pinpoint bombing of Yongbyon [North Korea’s major nuclear facility], but the idea was dropped, for some reason. A surgical strike would surely incur retaliation from North Korea against South Korea and maybe against Japan because Japan is within range of North Korean missiles and they are getting more accurate. So strikes are not an easy option. Moreover, we don’t know where the uranium enrichment plants are located in North Korea. It’s a very mountainous country, and if they are dug in the mountains, it’s not easy to locate them.
  3. More sanctions are another possibility. In order for sanctions to be effective, China holds the key. At this moment China’s position vis-à-vis North Korea is very ambiguous. China has been providing North Korea with crude oil and foodstuffs.
  4. Another option is more engagement in order to alleviate North Korea’s perception of being threatened.

My view is that sanctions together with greater engagement are practical options.

Lastly, Japan’s role. It is nearly 70 years since the world war ended. Over the course of those years Japan tried to normalize relations with the countries in the world, one by one. But with two countries are relations are not normalized: Russia and North Korea. We established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1965 by way of joint declarations of the two countries, but a peace treaty has still not been finalized. We do have good relations with Russia.

The other country is North Korea. We normalized relations with South Korea in 1965 but not with North Korea. I was a negotiator in the normalization talks with North Korea, but it has not occurred yet. We have three hurdles to overcome:

  1. The abduction case. In the 1970s and 1980s, quite a few Japanese were abducted by North Korea. At this moment we are negotiating with North Korea over that issue.
  2. North Korea’s nuclear missiles. We need a solution to that issue if we are going to normalize relations with North Korea.
  3. We need to give some economic assistance to North Korea, but with the abduction issue and nuclear issue pending, can we give economic assistance of any magnitude to North Korea? Perhaps not.

In order for North Korea to become a partner, something has to be done. We wish to normalize relations with North Korea, and therefore, we expect North Korea to make a step forward. Other countries – United States, South Korea, Russia and China – could help us make North Korea a bit more forward-looking and become a responsible partner, at least in this part of the world.

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