Rejecting High-Risk Coexistence with North Korea

Much remains murky regarding the technical details of the two nuclear tests conducted by North Korea in October 2006 and May 2009. What is clear, however, is that the second test was considerably bigger and far more sophisticated than the previous one, allowing the North Koreans to take another step toward operational deployment. Indeed, if North Korea has succeeded in improving the reliability of its implosion technology and miniaturizing nuclear devices for missile delivery, it will be well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapon state.

The emergence of North Korea as a state armed fully operational nuclear weapons would have a profound impact on the deterrence structure in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, Japanese foreign and security policy will need to be adjusted to the newly “reloaded” status of North Korea.

On the Brink of Full Nuclear Deployment

In order to become a nuclear weapon state fully operational deployment of nuclear warheads, a country has to meet four basic prerequisites: (1) sufficient quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, (2) precision implosion technology (weaponization), (3) miniaturization technology (to enable the weapon to be mounted on a missile warhead), and (4) accurate missile guidance and reentry technology.

We have known for some time that North Korea had amassed weapons-grade plutonium by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods removed from the 5-megawatt experimental reactor at its Yongbyon complex. (Pyongyang reported having 26 kilograms in 2008, while US think tanks estimate that it has accumulated somewhere between 28 kilograms and 50 kilograms, enough for 5 to 12 nuclear weapons.) However, until now few believed that North Korea had sufficient technological expertise to reliably detonate a nuclear device a precision implosion or to miniaturize it and mount it on such a missile.

But the much-increased yield of the North Korea’s recent nuclear detonation (10–20 kilotons) compared the 2006 test has convinced many observers that the North Koreans have not only improved the precision of their implosion technology but have overcome a major technical hurdle to miniaturizing a nuclear device. In fact, analyses by the US Institute for Science and International Security and the International Crisis Group have concluded that North Korea is already capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on a Nodong missile.1

Taken together, such analyses suggest that North Korea’s nuclear capability is on the brink of the operational deployment stage, if not indeed there already. Tokyo needs to avoid prolonged ambiguity in its assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capability. It needs a clear estimate in order to formulate a new set of policies.

North Korea and the Steps to Nuclear Armament

Before tests As of test no. 1 As of test no. 2
Removal of nuclear fuel rods

Preprocessing of spent nuclear fuel

Accumulation of weapons-grade plutonium

High-precision implosion technology

×

Miniaturization technology

×

△→○ (?)

Missile guidance/reentry technology

△→○ (7/2006)

◎ Certain ○ Almost certain Unknown

“Déjà Vu” Fatigue

Since the beginning of 2009, North Korea has moved rapidly through successive phases in the development of missile and nuclear weapons technology, by launching a modified Taepodong-2 missile on April 4 and conducting its second nuclear test on May 25.

Yet the overall reaction, including that of the general public and the media, has been relatively muted in Japan and elsewhere. It would seem that the world has grown accustomed to and weary of Pyongyang’s pattern of generating a crisis in order to gain leverage in its negotiations, and sees this as no more than a continuation of the same old diplomatic game. What kind of “game” have we played?

North Korea’s behavior is understandably regarded as a game because there is every reason to believe that Pyongyang’s basic goal is to maintain its regime. We can assume, as long as Kim’s decision making is rational, that the probability of any adventurism on the part of Pyongyang is low. The track record of Pyongyang’s negotiating behavior also suggests that the North Koreans have carefully avoided escalation into a full-scale military confrontation.

But the United States has been dragged into the game as well. North Korea’s conventional capability to attack Seoul and US forces in Korea cannot be ignored, and this has constrained Washington’s willingness to conduct either surgical air strikes or full military intervention, despite the fact that Pyongyang has long since stepped over the “red line” (former Defense Secretary William Perry). this capability, North Korea has succeeded in raising the cost of any US military operation on the Korean Peninsula, and the United States has pursued multilateral negotiation instead.

The part played by China in this game has become the pivotal one. For its part, Beijing has not only consistently opposed tough sanctions, lest they push the North Korean regime to some rash action or bring about its collapse, but has continued to supply its neighbor food and energy assistance, thus helping the government to keep social chaos at bay.

These positions by key players have created a fundamental structure in which no effort is made to pursue a solution through intense diplomatic and military pressure, despite Pyongyang’s repeated failure to honor its commitments. Now North Korea seems to have gained confidence in its ability to maintain such a “tacit balance of power” China and the United States. China in particular seems to prefer “ ” North Korea’s nuclear capability over any pressure tactics that could back Pyongyang into a corner.

Unfortunately, this tacit balance has come at a high price. Over the past seven years North Korea has steadily piled up weapons-grade plutonium, building its stockpile at the rate of 1.2 weapons worth of material each year, and continued nuclear testing has allowed it to make substantial technological progress toward weaponization. The North Koreans have also systematically developed their delivery capability by carrying out testing on a variety of missiles, including the Taepodong-1, Taepodong-2, Nodong, Scud-C, and short-range missiles.

If effective nuclear armament becomes the reality for North Korea, Pyongyang will have dramatically augmented its attack capability vis-à-vis South Korea, Japan, and US forces in the region. For Japan, which lies in range of North Korea’s 200–320 (estimates vary) fully deployed Nodong missiles, this will require a drastically elevated threat assessment. The policy of North Korea is exposing Japan to an unprecedented security risk. A sense of déjà vu regarding this “same old game” seems to have created a strange complacence among us. However, we can neither ignore nor trivialize the fact that in the process of playing this game, North Korea has boosted its military capability to unacceptable levels.

Strategic Convergence for Denuclearization

The time has come for Japan to seriously reconsider the policy of that has brought us to such a pass. In the joint statement of the fourth round of the Six-Party Talks (September 2005), all parties agreed to the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization, defined as “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” The diplomatic vicissitudes of the last three years and nine months demonstrate how difficult it is to achieve this goal in a timely fashion. In the aftermath of the declaration, the initial aim of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” was gradually downgraded until, by the final years of the George W. Bush administration, all that remained was the tentative goal of freezing and disabling North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Now, in the wake of a second nuclear test, even such modest hopes have been dashed. It is time we recognized that we cannot reach the goal of a denuclearized North Korea by following the path of .

Is there a viable policy alternative to ? Since any acceptable alternative must address the major concerns of Japan, the United States, and China in relation to North Korea’s nuclear program, let us begin by reviewing those concerns individually to identify the strategic objectives we need to achieve while pursuing the overarching goal of denuclearization.

In terms of Japan’s defense and security policy, the immediate objective is to prevent the effective nuclear armament of North Korea; as noted previously, fully deployed North Korean nuclear weapons in striking range of Japan would have a profound significance for this country’s defense policy. Washington’s priorities, we can be fairly certain, are to prevent North Korea from transferring nuclear-related material to third parties and to ensure that Pyongyang does not develop the capability to launch a missile attack on the US mainland. China’s primary policy objective is to avoid triggering either a violent response from Pyongyang or an internal collapse (opening the door to a massive influx of refugees into China and possible deployment of US forces along the Chinese-Korean border).

No alternative to is likely to find acceptance unless it achieves the convergence of all these strategic objectives.

Intensified Pressure on Multiple Fronts

If we want Pyongyang to make the strategic decision to abandon nuclear arms, we must create a situation in which it has no other viable option. And the only way of creating such a situation, as I see it, is to bring four types of pressure to bear: (1) military pressure from the United States, (2) economic pressure from China, (3) rewards/compensation (security assurances, normalized relations, energy assistance, etc.) agreed on in the six-party talks, and (4) economic and financial sanctions adopted through UN Security Council resolutions. Because we have seen that (3) alone does nothing but sustain , it is essential to combine all four forms of pressure and to ratchet up this pressure on several fronts if we hope to achieve denuclearization.

To achieve the optimum mix of sticks and carrots, a three-stage process is required. The first stage consists of using the sanctions under a UNSC resolution, the matter on which concerned parties are currently focused, to impose penalties and costs commensurate North Korea’s violations.

Given that the freezing of North Korean assets in the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao is widely considered the most effective of the sanctions imposed to date, it follows that stronger financial sanctions will have an effect. The new resolution should contain rigorous measures that freeze an even wider spectrum of North Korean financial assets and further restrict Pyongyang’s access to international financial institutions.

The second stage is China’s full participation in strict economic sanctions. As indicated above, China has maintained a circumspect posture on the imposition of sanctions on the grounds that driving Pyongyang into a corner could have the effect of eliciting an even stronger reaction or bringing down the regime. To persuade Beijing to take an active role, Japan, the United States, and South Korea will have to offer convincing reassurances to address these concerns. This means creating a framework for reassurance designed to minimize the specific risks that China wishes to avoid: (1) that an extreme reaction from Pyongyang will lead to a military confrontation, (2) that North Korean refugees will pour over the border into China, and (3) that the collapse of the current regime could have US forces occupying the entire Korean Peninsula and confronting China along its border Korea.

The key components of such a framework would include (1) agreement by top defense officials of Japan, the United States, China, and South Korea and on joint planning to prevent escalation of any military clash North Korea, (2) adoption of a trilateral plan by Japan, China, and South Korea for controlling borders and dealing refugees if a mass exodus were to occur, and (3) independent, parallel efforts by Washington, Beijing, and Seoul to devise plans and systems for maintaining order, securing nuclear weapons, and restoring government in the event that the current regime were to collapse. If these plans and systems can succeed in reassuring China, then we will have laid the groundwork for a more resolute application of sanctions by Beijing.

The third phase is military pressure by the United States. It is true that numerous ground troops stationed near the demilitarized zone and long-range artillery deployed in striking range of Seoul, a preemptive strike (surgical air strikes or an all-out offensive) against North Korea remains a difficult option. However, in the event that North Korea were to threaten belligerent action, it is of the utmost importance that the US-South Korean and Japan-US alliances demonstrate that they have the capability to neutralize that action instantly. One can easily imagine hostile action from North Korea in the form of efforts to prevent ship inspections, skirmishes at the line of demarcation, or attacks on US reconnaissance aircraft. A degree of military preparedness sufficient to control such situations is needed to ensure that they do not escalate into full-fledged armed conflict. To this end, it is important not only that the United States clearly demonstrate its security commitment to South Korea and Japan as a deterrence against escalation, but also that the US-South Korean and Japan-US military alliances enhance their readiness.

It will still be necessary to maintain a framework for compensating and rewarding Pyongyang. In the event that Pyongyang makes the strategic decision to abandon its nuclear weapons and begins taking steps in that direction, we must reward it in a manner commensurate its actions while incrementally relaxing the abovementioned sanctions. For this reason, we should leave the door open for an unconditional revival of the six-party talks and continue to honor the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration. It is vital to have at hand the means for rewarding a flexible approach whenever Pyongyang realizes that its hard-line policies have brought it to a domestic impasse.

A fundamental resolution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will require progressive intensification of pressure on multiple fronts as described above. Since each of these options entails risks, it is only natural that political decision makers would prefer to avoid them if possible. However, if we can agree that living a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable, then we must also agree to adopt a new policy framework capable of pressuring Pyongyang into making the appropriate judgment. For the Japanese government, too, the time has come for a strategic decision.


1. David Albright and Paul Brannan, “North Korean Plutonium Stock: February 2007,” in Country Assessments: North Korea (February 20, 2007) http://www.isis-online.org/publications/dprk/DPRKplutoniumFEB.pdf ; International Crisis Group, “North Korea’s Missile Launch: The Risk of Overreaction” (March 31, 2009) http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6030 .

神保 謙/Ken Jimbo

Ken Jimbo

  • SENIOR FELLOW

Areas of Expertise

International and Asia-Pacific security, East Asian regionalism, Japan’s foreign and security policy

Research Unit

External Relations