DPRK Briefing Book: Confronting Ambiguity: How to Handle North Korea’s Nuclear Program

DPRK Briefing Book: Confronting Ambiguity: How to Handle North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Phillip Saunders
Arms Control Association
March 3, 2003.

One of the challenges in dealing with North Korea is assessing the true intentions behind its nuclear weapons program. Have North Korean leaders decided that nuclear weapons are essential to the regime’s survival, making a negotiated deal impossible? Or is the nuclear weapons program a bargaining chip that North Korea is prepared to trade away for the right price? The question is hard to answer. One problem is that reliable information about the internal dynamics of North Korean decisionmaking is scarce. A second problem is that North Korean leaders have strong incentives to conceal their true intentions in order to maximize their bargaining power and to minimize international reactions to their nuclear weapons program.

A review of the 1993-94 nuclear crisis illustrates this point. By 1993, U.S. officials were concerned that North Korea had secretly reprocessed spent fuel from its 5 Megawatt research reactor at Yongbyon to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon. The United States considered military strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities, but ultimately decided to negotiate. The 1994 Agreed Framework called for North Korea to abandon construction of two gas-graphite moderated nuclear reactors, freeze reprocessing of spent fuel from its research reactor, accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of its declared nuclear facilities, and eventually come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement by allowing the IAEA to reconstruct the operational history of its research reactor to verify that no nuclear material was missing. In return, South Korea, Japan, and the United States agreed to participate in an international consortium that would construct two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors and supply North Korea with heavy fuel oil to produce electricity until the new reactors were operational. The United States also agreed to provide formal assurances against the use or threat of nuclear weapons against North Korea and to take steps to lift economic sanctions and improve political relations.

The Agreed Framework capped North Korea’s ability to produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons, but did not answer the question of whether North Korea had enough plutonium to make nuclear weapons. North Korean negotiators rebuffed U.S. efforts for immediate special inspections that would answer this question. A key North Korean objective in the 1994 negotiations appeared to be to maintain ambiguity about its nuclear status for as long as possible to maximize its bargaining power. If inspections revealed that North Korea did not have enough plutonium for nuclear weapons, the United States would take North Korea less seriously, reducing Pyongyang’s negotiating leverage. Conversely, if inspections revealed that North Korea already had sufficient plutonium to build weapons, the United States might not agree to a deal. The compromise struck in the Agreed Framework required IAEA special inspections that would answer questions about North Korea’s nuclear history before key components of the two nuclear reactors would be delivered. This allowed North Korea to maintain ambiguity about its nuclear capabilities–and bargaining leverage over the United States–for an additional eight years. (The U.S. Intelligence Community concluded in the mid-1990s that North Korea had probably produced one or two nuclear weapons with secretly reprocessed plutonium.)

This background information is helpful in assessing North Korea’s goals in the current crisis and its longer-term nuclear intentions. The current crisis began in October 2002 when U.S. officials confronted North Korea with evidence of a uranium enrichment program (which is a second path to the development of nuclear weapons). North Korean officials reportedly admitted the existence of a nuclear weapons program and began a series of steps to pressure the United States to negotiate directly, despite the U.S. government’s insistence that it would not “reward bad behavior” with concessions. North Korea’s stated objectives are to obtain U.S. recognition of North Korea’s sovereignty, security assurances, and no hindrance of the North’s economic development. North Korea officials have stated that despite withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), North Korea does not intend to produce nuclear weapons “at this time.”

Four scenarios should be considered in examining North Korea’s nuclear intentions:

1) North Korean leaders have decided that nuclear weapons are essential to their security.

This scenario argues that North Korean leaders feel threatened by superior U.S. military capabilities and by U.S. talk about “regime change” and “pre-emptive strikes.” North Korean leaders may have concluded that nuclear weapons are the only way to guarantee regime survival in the face of potential U.S. nuclear threats. (This scenario is consistent with U.S. intelligence assessments that North Korea produced one or two nuclear weapons in the mid-to-late 1990s.) If this is the case, there is probably no peaceful settlement that can stop or roll back the North Korean nuclear weapons program unless North Korean leaders change their minds. The United States, South Korea, Japan, and China must either take military action to destroy North Korean nuclear facilities and stockpiles, or learn to live with North Korean nuclear weapons by relying on deterrence and missile defenses to prevent their use. North Korea’s pursuit of multiple pathways to nuclear weapons and efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles indicates that the regime has devoted considerable resources to developing deliverable nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, North Korea has passed up a number of opportunities to accelerate its nuclear and missile programs. If North Korea had not signed the Agreed Framework, it could have continued operation of its research reactor, completed construction on its 50 Megawatt and 200 Megawatt reactors, and reprocessed the spent fuel to produce plutonium. By now, the regime could have had enough fissile material for at least 150-200 nuclear weapons. North Korea also declared a unilateral moratorium on flight tests of long-range missiles (although static engine testing has continued). This restraint appears inconsistent with a decision that operational, deliverable nuclear weapons are essential for North Korean security. (However it might be explained if North Korean leaders feel that one or two nuclear weapons are sufficient to deter the United States from attacking.)

2) North Korean leaders are willing to negotiate their nuclear and missile programs away for a deal that guarantees their security and sovereignty.

This scenario argues that North Korean leaders feel threatened by superior U.S. military capabilities and by U.S. efforts to keep the North Korean regime isolated economically and politically. North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to create the leverage necessary to build a new relationship with the United States that will ensure the regime’s survival and create a better environment for economic reforms. The nuclear weapons and missile programs are intended to strengthen North Korea’s weak bargaining position and force the United States to agree to a new relationship.

Evidence for this scenario includes repeated statements by North Korean leaders about their willingness to negotiate deals with the United States to restrict their nuclear and missile capabilities and to curb missile exports. The Agreed Framework, the missile flight-test moratorium, and talks with the Clinton administration about a missile export deal are indicators of North Korea’s willingness to take actions which limit its WMD capabilities. From this perspective, North Korea’s efforts to develop a highly-enriched uranium capability are an effort to develop a new bargaining chip to trade for economic and security concessions. It is even possible that these efforts were intended to be discovered by the United States in order to be bargained away. (North Korea’s previous success in persuading the United States to increase food aid in exchange for inspecting a suspect nuclear facility at Kumchangri–which turned out to have no nuclear equipment–suggests that a nuclear bluff is a possibility.)

On the other hand, North Korea’s demonstrated willingness to cheat on international agreements (including the Agreed Framework) makes a future deal very difficult to negotiate. Stringent verification measures would be required because there is no trust on the U.S. side. Moreover, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China would all like to see North Korea pursue significant economic and political reforms. The door to better relations that would support North Korean economic reforms is wide open, but North Korea has been reluctant to walk through it, possibly due to fears that too much openness might undermine the regime’s political survival. Security threats are arguably unnecessary to achieve better relations (and may in fact undercut efforts to improve relations and prospects for economic cooperation).

3) North Korean leaders want BOTH nuclear weapons (as an ultimate security guarantee) AND better relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Under this scenario North Korean leaders have sought to keep their options open by pursuing WMD programs while simultaneously seeking better relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea. One possibility is that North Korean leaders view their nuclear and missile program as a hedge in case North Korea is unable to negotiate acceptable terms with the United States. If the United States puts an acceptable offer on the table, then North Korea would be willing to give up its nuclear and missile programs. If the United States does not deliver an acceptable deal, then North Korea will proceed to develop an operational force of missiles armed with nuclear weapons.

Another possibility is that North Korean leaders planned to cheat all along. Agreements to restrict WMD development programs and exports were intended to gain monetary benefits and to buy time until North Korea could develop an operational nuclear weapons capability. Alternatively, North Korean leaders may believe that the United States, Japan, and South Korea are willing to overlook a small, ambiguous North Korean nuclear weapons capability and improve relations anyway. South Korea’s “sunshine policy” and Japan’s recent efforts to move toward normalization of diplomatic relations despite concerns about North Korean missiles provide some support for this belief.

Both the hedge scenario and the cheat scenario explain some aspects of North Korea’s behavior, such as the relatively small scale of its nuclear weapons program, its willingness to accept temporary limits on the size of its nuclear arsenal (while pursuing efforts to develop more advanced capabilities), and its eagerness to reach out to the United States, Japan, and (to a lesser extent) South Korea. These scenarios suggest that North Korean leaders either miscalculated the negative international response to their nuclear brinkmanship and cheating or feel that the negative consequences can be overcome once an agreement is in place.

4) North Korean leaders/factions disagree about whether nuclear weapons or a negotiated agreement with the United States is the best way to achieve security.

This scenario views inconsistent North Korean behavior as the product of the shifting strength of different domestic political factions. One faction centered on the military may feel that nuclear weapons are essential to North Korean security; another may feel that a negotiated agreement offers more security. Each faction has some ability to undertake international actions independently of the other. Struggle between these factions explains switches between cooperative and threatening North Korean behavior.

This scenario offers an explanation of why North Korea sometimes acts cooperatively to seek agreements and sometimes behaves in a bellicose manner to undercut negotiations. If the analysis is broadened to consider North Korea’s recent market-oriented price reforms, the factions may include those who benefit under the current system (the military, state-owned enterprises, senior communist party members) vs. those who see the need for fundamental changes in the North Korean system. This scenario offers a potential explanation for why North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment program. As some of the promised benefits of the Agreed Framework (such as provision of the reactors and progress toward normalization of relations with the United States) were delayed, the balance of power in Pyongyang may have shifted away from engagement and toward efforts to develop nuclear weapons to ensure North Korea’s security. (Alternatively, North Korean efforts to acquire uranium enrichment technology and production equipment from Pakistan earlier would suggest a decision to cheat on the Agreed Framework or to hedge against the possibility of its collapse.)

Although this explanation can explain uncoordinated and inconsistent North Korean behavior, North Korea’s negotiating style sometimes emphasizes careful efforts to control the atmospherics of a negotiation and to maximize pressure on a negotiating partner through carefully coordinated actions and statements. This kind of control is difficult to explain with a factional model. It is also important to note that dealing with a changing balance of power between factions may make it hard (or impossible) to get a negotiated deal that will last.


Each of these four scenarios explains some aspects of North Korean behavior. Which is correct? Unfortunately it is hard to tell, because North Korean leaders have strong incentives to conceal their intentions. If North Korean leaders have decided that nuclear weapons are necessary to assure their survival, then creating the impression that this decision was reluctantly forced upon them by U.S. unwillingness to negotiate may reduce negative international reactions. On the other hand, if North Korea is prepared to negotiate away its nuclear weapons capabilities, then it has incentives to appear reluctant and bellicose in order to strike the best possible bargain. The scarcity of reliable information about the internal dynamics of the North Korean regime makes it impossible to assess North Korea’s nuclear intentions based on inside information, while the regime’s strong incentives to conceal its true motives make it difficult to infer intentions from North Korean behavior. The four scenarios discussed above suggest that North Korea’s behavior is not irrational, and that there are some benefits to being unpredictable and hard to read in negotiations.

From the narrow perspective of negotiating tactics, North Korea may prefer repeated piecemeal deals in a crisis atmosphere to a one-time comprehensive deal, because its negotiating leverage would be greatly reduced if it gives up its nuclear option. However North Korea’s belligerent negotiating tactics may be costly if they prevent deals from being reached because its negotiating partners feel they cannot understand North Korea or trust its leaders to keep their agreements. If North Korea’s objective is to trade its WMD programs for a new relationship with the United States, its tactics may ultimately prove counter-productive. Competing assessments of North Korean intentions have already made it difficult for the United States to implement a consistent North Korea policy. North Korea’s ability to use its WMD programs to create a crisis atmosphere is an important source of leverage for a regime that has few diplomatic assets. However brinkmanship is a dangerous game, because there is always the possibility of sliding over the brink into war.