The following is the first part of a five part series on U.S. policy options towards a nuclear North Korea. It will be organized as follows:
Part I: Background
Part II: Unknowns, Assumptions and U.S. Objectives
Part III: Option 1: Strategic Neglect
Part IV: Option 2: A Regional Nuclear Rebalancing
Part V: Option 3: Comprehensive Negotiations
Part VI: Option 4: Containment & Deterrence
Part VII: Discussion & Recommendation
And without further ado, Part I.
North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test shocked the world but its interest in nuclear power and weapons dates back to the 1960s. The DPRK has been a regional threat since the Korean War’s armistice in 1953, but its proliferation activities, ballistic missile program, development of WMD, withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, and nuclear test in 2006, has made the DPRK a major international and U.S. national security threat. By the 1970s, the DPRK had already separated some uranium and began constructing plutonium facilities in the 1980s. In the past, the DPRK has sought to further its program from China, the USSR, East Germany and elements within Pakistan showing a long term commitment to this goal which was not entirely dependent on regional or international circumstances at the time. Despite having defense pacts in 1961 with both the USSR and PRC and therefore being covered by two nuclear umbrellas, the DPRK continued on with its nuclear program. Furthermore, it was not a purely reactive one either, highlighted by the fact that its interest and pursuit of nuclear weapons predates the ROK’s nuclear research in the 1970s. After fifteen years of Soviet pressure, it finally signed the NPT in 1985.
Despite the removal of US tactical nuclear weapons from the ROK in 1991 and the joint ROK-DPRK declaration of the Korean peninsula as a nuclear free zone, and having one of the largest conventional militaries in the world, the DPRK pressed forward towards a nuclear capability. All of this indicates its pursuit of a nuclear capability is not solely determined by security concerns. It threatened to withdraw from the NPT in 1993 and even after the 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and DPRK, Pyongyang continued its covert pursuit of nuclear weapons. After the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, the DPRK seemed to comply with recent negotiations yet began uranium enrichment around 1998 leading to its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. In response, the Six Party Talks began shortly thereafter but have made little progress due to the competing interests of the parties involved, the DPRK’s unwillingness to commit to disarmament and its testing a nuclear bomb in October 2006.