How Real Is a Nuclear North Korea?
No. 1 2004 January/February

The conflict on the Korean Peninsula has a long history.
However, at this stage, marked by an aggravation of the
confrontation, is unique: North Korea presently finds itself
directly confronted by the United States. North Korea and the U.S.
are the main parties to the conflict. A workshop, held in November
2003 at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and
chaired by Academician Yevgeny Primakov, analyzed what was behind
North Korea’s decision to demonstratively resume its nuclear
program, together with the position of the U.S. on this issue. The
workshop also gave consideration to the interests and the ability
of the “second tier” actors – China, South Korea, Japan and Russia
– to influence the situation.


Military reasons. The North Korean leaders explain and justify
their nuclear program by security considerations. The experts who
took part in the workshop discussed three hypothetical scenarios:
South Korea’s military actions against North Korea; a U.S. military
invasion of North Korea; and North Korea’s military actions. The
main points of the discussion considered the degree of probability
of the above scenarios, and whether these threats are really behind
Pyongyang’s desire to possess nuclear weapons.

South Korea has always believed that North Korea poses a threat
to its regime, state system and territorial integrity. The present
military potential and combat capability of the South Korean army
are comparable to those of the North Korean army. The North Korean
army’s superiority in troop strength is compensated on the South
Korean side by their employment of more advanced weapon systems.
South Korea’s defense spending exceeds that of its northern
neighbor by over $10 billion. The might of the South Korean army is
also enhanced by many factors, such as Seoul’s active military
cooperation with the U.S., a strong U.S. military presence, its
cooperation with Japan in defense, and joint large-scale military
exercises with the U.S. and Japan.

At the same time, experts believe there is little chance that
South Korea will begin military actions against North Korea. Their
belief is based on the objectives of South Korea’s military
doctrine, together with the ongoing normalization of relations
between the two Korean states, which has improved in recent years.
The 2002 joint declaration between North and South Korea is another
factor that lessens the possibility of Seoul attacking North

The experts also point to the vulnerability of Seoul and other
densely populated areas in South Korea: the North Korean army has
over 12,000 artillery guns and over 750 missiles deployed on the
38th parallel. Another factor is the strong public sentiment in
South Korea against any hostile actions with regard to their
northern neighbor.

These arguments suggest that North Korea’s nuclear program was
not intended as a counterbalance against a potential South Korean

As regards the probability of a U.S. military operation against
Pyongyang, the experts agree that shortly after the George W. Bush
administration came to power in Washington, the U.S. began to
actively discuss probable military actions against North Korea with
a view toward liquidating the nuclear “threat” it presented.
However, the experts are presently divided over the degree of this
probability. A minority of the experts maintain that the
probability of a U.S. military intervention is very high. They rest
their arguments on the operation against Iraq, which expressed the
general line of the U.S. policy, and on the overwhelming U.S.
military superiority over the North Korean armed forces. Other
factors supporting the possibility of a U.S. military action
against Pyongyang include the large-scale U.S. military presence in
the region and new U.S. arms developments, including the program
for developing “clean” low-yield nuclear weapons.

A majority of the participants in the discussion believe that
there were no grounds to exaggerate the probability of a U.S.
invasion of North Korea because the U.S. is now involved in two
armed conflicts in different countries simultaneously (Iraq and
Afghanistan). Besides, there is little chance for a blitzkrieg
against North Korea, as U.S. manpower losses would then exceed
those in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts.

Therefore, the experts came to the conclusion that one of North
Korea’s reasons for the resumption of its nuclear program might be
Pyongyang’s wish to prevent U.S. military actions, which would
include, of course, pinpoint air strikes.

Regarding the possibility of a military attack by North Korea,
the experts point to the following factors. North Korea is a highly
militarized country with a great military potential, and its
military doctrine provides for offensive military actions against
South Korea, as well as the U.S. troops stationed there. At the
same time, it is highly improbable that Pyongyang will initiate
military actions against Seoul. Despite its outwardly ideological
approach, the North Korean leadership is realistic about a
potential war on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang is fully aware of
the high fighting efficiency of the South Korean army, which is
armed with modern control and weapon systems. The U.S. military
presence in South Korea is another deterring factor: the U.S. is
capable of stopping a North Korean offensive for as long as it is
required for bringing in additional troops (according to some
experts, a North Korean attack would inevitably lead to the
full-scale involvement of the United States in the war and
eventually to North Korea’s total military defeat).

Pyongyang might hope for Chinese military aid, but the 1961
North Korean-Chinese Treaty of Friendship provides for such aid
only if North Korea is attacked by South Korea or the United

So the resumption of the North Korean nuclear program is not
intended for attacking South Korea, nor initiating armed actions
against the U.S. military base in that country.

Non-military reasons. According to the majority of experts,
Pyongyang’s major goal now is the political and physical survival
of the incumbent regime, and it is in this context that the
non-military objectives of the North Korean nuclear programs should
be considered. These objectives include overcoming the grave
economic crisis (this can be achieved through humanitarian aid
received in exchange for a decision to terminate the nuclear
program), attracting investment into the country, and solving the
energy shortage problem.

The North Korean leadership may also use the demonstrative
resumption of the nuclear program to strengthen the ruling regime,
as it can help mobilize society and ensure its loyalty for a long
period of time. To this end, Pyongyang is creating an enemy image
and maintaining the myth of “invincibility” of the North Korean
armed forces.


The experts remain divided over one of the main questions: Will
North Korea terminate its nuclear program if the U.S. meets its
demands? Some of the experts said that this will never occur under
the incumbent regime, and that Pyongyang has agreed to enter into
negotiations only to win time and present the world with a fait
accompli. Others, however, did not rule out the possibility that,
under certain circumstances, North Korea may terminate or freeze
its nuclear program.

The readiness to consider U.S. proposals on security guarantees,
expressed by North Korea in October and early November 2003, showed
that Pyongyang seeks the normalization of its relations with the
U.S. but wants the latter to make concessions. A treaty sought by
North Korea apparently will not be a non-aggression pact in its
classical sense. North Korea’s position before the second round of
negotiations is that it is prepared to accept that the U.S. only
sign the document without its ratification by the Senate. The
negotiating parties will face the difficult problem of “fitting” a
U.S.-North Korean agreement into the context of arrangements
between the six parties to the multilateral nuclear negotiations
(the U.S., North Korea, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China). On
the one hand, that would run counter to Pyongyang’s wish to
emphasize a bilateral nature of the agreement. On the other hand,
written obligations by all the six parties without exception would
be an additional guarantee for Pyongyang that the agreement would
be observed. Therefore it is not ruled out that North Korea will
ultimately agree on a compromise and that the treaty will be signed
in the 2+4 format and will stipulate special commitments for the

A majority of the experts agree that a multilateral package
agreement would be the only way to settle the crisis, as it would
meet the interests of all the parties. A good example here is the
1994 precedent when Ukraine was guaranteed security after it had
given up its nuclear weapons inventory and joined the
Non-Proliferation Treaty. So the Korean impasse can certainly be

Another factor that may prompt Pyongyang to give up its nuclear
program is its interest in reliable supplies of humanitarian aid
which formerly had met 30 percent of the country’s requirements.
The termination of humanitarian supplies put the North Korean
population on the brink of catastrophe. North Korean thermal power
plants also vitally need the fuel oil supplies stopped by the U.S.
on November 14, 2002.

While discussing the provision of lightwater reactors for two
nuclear power plants in North Korea under a project of the Korean
Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), several experts
expressed their belief that this issue is not a top priority for
North Korea at the present moment. Pyongyang’s reaction to the KEDO
Executive Board’s November 5, 2003 decision to shelve plans for the
development of the nuclear power plant was rather calm. In the
future, the energy problem can be solved through broad
international efforts.

Pyongyang may consider the solution of its economic problems as
good compensation for the termination of its nuclear program. Some
of the experts emphasize that North Korea’s move toward economic
reforms is inevitable, as the country would not survive without
them. The Vietnamese model of economic reforms may be the most
probable one for North Korea, but the initial stage of any sort of
reform would inevitably bring more hardships to the population. In
order to guarantee its survival, the incumbent regime will need an
additional “margin of safety” for the period of its reforms, which
cannot be obtained without outside economic aid.

All-round consultations and negotiations between the six listed
countries must convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program,
and the international community to lift sanctions against North
Korea and provide it with aid. These measures would ensure the
observance of the arrangements by Pyongyang in the future and would
make North Korea a recognized participant in international

A majority of the participants in the workshop agreed that if
the six negotiating countries meet military (non-aggression pact)
and economic conditions, North Korea may officially relinquish its
nuclear program. This does not mean, however, that Pyongyang may
never resume it sometime in the future. Secret nuclear developments
will hardly be possible since any agreement by North Korea to
terminate its nuclear program would demand that it open itself up
to rigid international control. However, future events will depend
on political processes in that country, as well as on the positions
of the second tier parties to the conflict.


Changes in the U.S. position. Under the Clinton administration,
the U.S. policy was aimed at normalizing relations with North
Korea: suffice it to mention the 1994 framework agreement or the
KEDO program. Washington sought to help North Korea solve its
energy problem and to normalize political relations between the two
countries through their mutual recognition. Although U.S. Democrats
and Republicans differed on the Korean policy at that time, on the
whole the U.S. pursued a policy of appeasement toward Pyongyang:
Washington made systematic concessions, lifted some trade
restrictions and resumed the negotiating process.

After the Republican administration occupied the White House,
the U.S. position became more radical. Negotiations with North
Korea were stopped. George W. Bush included North Korea in the so
called axis of evil, which he said was threatening peace and
security around the world. Bush seemed to be confident that the Kim
Jong Il regime was weak and that it would inevitably accept U.S.
terms “under the impression” of the U.S. military successes in
Afghanistan and Iraq. It was at that time that North Korea
toughened its position and declared it was withdrawing from the
Non-Proliferation Treaty and resuming its WMD program.

Meanwhile, the experts point to an evolution of the U.S.
administration’s views on the confrontation with Pyongyang.
Washington has given up its offensive rhetoric toward the North
Korean leader, resumed the negotiating process and is seeking to
ease tensions in its relations with North Korea.
Characteristically, during South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s
visit to the U.S., he was informed that the U.S. would not pull out
its troops from the 38th parallel. Earlier, Washington had declared
its plans to pull out from the demarcation line, which had been
taken as a sign of preparations for a military operation against
North Korea.

Whereas formerly the U.S. declined to give any security
guarantees to Pyongyang in order not to bolster Kim Jong Il’s
positions, now it has proposed that all the six parties to the
negotiations provide written security guarantees to North

The experts explain this change in the U.S. position by several
reasons: U.S. political setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq; the lack
of any immediate decisions there; the antiwar positions of many
countries; the serious objections forwarded by Japan and South
Korea – U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region – against a military
solution to the Korean problem; and the coming presidential
election in the U.S. Besides, Washington is not confident of an
easy victory in a war against North Korea, especially since this
would mean waging three wars simultaneously. All these factors have
caused Washington to renounce the military option for settling the
North Korean nuclear crisis. According to a majority of the
experts, this is a rather firm decision owing to the long history
of reasons supporting it.

The interests of the Bush administration. The experts differ on
the Bush administration’s priorities. Some give top priority to
geopolitical interests – Washington’s wish to consolidate its
positions on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan, while avoiding
tensions in its relations with China, especially considering the
1961 Chinese-North Korean treaty. The next priority for the U.S.,
the same experts state, is nuclear issues, above all the prevention
of an extension of the nuclear zone to Japan, South Korea and
Taiwan. The third highest priority is preventing the consolidation
of the Kim Jong Il regime, which would work toward a rapprochement
between the two Koreas according to a plan that has not been
crafted by the U.S.

Other experts believe that Washington’s main priorities are
preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the
consolidation of the North Korean regime. North Korea’s example
could prompt a large number of ‘threshold’ and ‘pre-threshold’
states to develop their own nuclear programs, which could lead to
their possession of nuclear weapons. Washington fears that North
Korea may share its technologies and nuclear weapon components with
other ‘problem states.’

Linking U.S. interests with the termination of the North Korean
nuclear program, the experts express the view that the U.S. wil
continue its policy toward a package solution provided Pyongyang
does not decline it. The U.S. has begun to realize that the
six-partite mechanism serves the interests of settling the

Some of the experts maintain that in order for North Korea to
terminate its nuclear program, Washington may have to make
additional concessions, such as recognizing North Korea’s
sovereignty and lifting economic sanctions. One of the reasons for
a possible recognition of North Korea’s sovereignty derives from
Washington’s fear of North-South unification, which may have
unfavorable consequences for the whole of the region and for U.S.
interests in particular. Besides, the U.S. is unable to completely
isolate North Korea from the rest of the world because of the
special positions of China and South Korea. These nations may
resort to unsanctioned fuel and food supplies to North Korea in
order to prevent an inflow of North Korean refugees.


The interests of all the countries involved in the Korean
conflict coincide on two major points: none of them wants a
military clash between the U.S. and North Korea, or the development
of a nuclear program by Pyongyang. This concurrence of interests
helps the “second-tier” play a constructive role in settling the
North Korean nuclear crisis.

There are many grounds for believing that China is very much
concerned over the threat of nuclear proliferation in the region.
It is particularly worried by the possibility of Japan or Taiwan
acquiring such weapons – this may well happen if North Korea
successfully fulfills its nuclear program. On the whole, China is
interested in the conflict’s settlement. In January 2003, it
supported the International Atomic Energy Agency’s resolution,
placed pressure on Pyongyang to make it return to the 1994
framework agreements, and agreed to continue the negotiations in
the six-partite format.

According to the experts, any military solution of the conflict
would run counter to the interests of China which opposes the
consolidation of U.S. positions in the region and fears the
possible consequences of large-scale military actions on the Korean
Peninsula: an inflow of refugees, together with ecological and
humanitarian catastrophes.

China wants to be a major participant in the settlement of the
conflict and in the negotiating process. Beijing really has a wide
array of instruments for influencing the situation, and many
potentialities for exerting influence on North Korea.

Japan is not interested in the unification of the two Koreas,
nor does it want the emergence of an economically and militarily
strong unified state. Japan opposes the development of nuclear
weapons by North Korea. Tokyo is not at all interested in a
military solution to the Korean problem, which may have ruinous
consequences for Japan because of its close proximity to the Korean
Peninsula. The United States has a great influence on Japan’s
position, and this factor must be taken into consideration.

Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has proposed extending
a moratorium on North Korean ballistic missile launches, limiting
spy activities by North Korean ships in Japan’s territorial waters,
and permitting international inspectors into North Korea to verify
whether Pyongyang has really frozen its nuclear program. Some of
the experts suggest that these moves by the Japanese prime minister
are prompted by his allied commitments to the U.S.

Japan’s ability to influence North Korea is outwardly limited:
Pyongyang has even less respect for Japan than for any of the other
second tier state, be it China, Russia or even South Korea, and it
has repeatedly proposed excluding Tokyo from the negotiating
process. Relations between Japan and North Korea have been
aggravated by the kidnapping of Japanese nationals by North Korea’s
special services, officially admitted by Pyongyang. Koizumi cannot
ignore Japanese public opinion which has taken a very active
position on this issue.

However, on September 17, 2002, there was held a rather
sensational meeting of the two countries’ leaders, where Koizumi
expressed Tokyo’s readiness to provide easy-term economic aid to
Pyongyang as compensation for the termination of its nuclear
program. This aid may reach an estimated U.S. $13 billion. Tokyo
has also expressed its readiness to provide 400,000 tons of food
aid to North Korea.

Some of the experts emphasized that North Korea holds its major
financial assets in Japanese and Chinese banks. There is a large
community of ethnic Koreans in Japan, and some of them remain loyal
to North Korea. These factors should be taken into consideration in
assessing the degree of Japan’s influence on Pyongyang.

Some of the experts note that Japan’s influence on the U.S. is
not big, but a majority disagree, saying that Washington has to
reckon with Japan’s position in pursuing its policy toward North

South Korea seeks to prevent the conflict over the North Korean
nuclear program from evolving into an armed clash, as a war would
result in humanitarian and ecological catastrophes for the
peninsula. Possible unfavorable consequences of such a war, coupled
with heavy material losses and instability, may bring about a grave
economic crisis in South Korea. This is why Seoul is interested in
relaxing tensions on the peninsula. A series of economic projects
may help achieve this goal: they would help involve North Korea in
closer cooperation and serve as a foundation for a more
constructive dialog between the two Korean states.

South Korea is coming to realize that there are pan-Korean
interests, primarily the peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas and
their subsequent “soft” reunification into a confederation. Other
issues of mutual interest include the reunion of Korean families
separated as a result of the 1950-1953 war, the return of prisoners
of war, as well as South Korean fishermen captured at sea by North
Korean coast guards. However, the ideological differences, the
unceasing informational confrontation, and the buildup by both
Koreas of their military potentials, all stand in the way of a
rapprochement. These factors reduce Seoul’s capabilities for
influencing Pyongyang.

At the same time, the experts point out, South Korea does have
certain capabilities for influencing the U.S., but these
capabilities have been reduced by the two countries’ differences on
some issues, specifically on the ways for solving the Korean

What are Russia’s interests on the Korean Peninsula? These are
lasting peace in the region; a nuclear-free status of the
peninsula; and a peaceful reunification of the two Korean states,
provided that a united Korean state would be friendly toward Russia
and other neighbors.

Also, Russia is interested in broadening its cooperation with
the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, as it seeks to boost its
economic growth rates, develop East Siberia and the Far East, and
attract investment into those areas. Moscow needs economic
interaction in the region. Continued tensions on the Korean
Peninsula would prevent it from achieving these goals.

Some of the experts believe that Russia’s influence on the
situation on the Korean Peninsula is not great, largely owing to
its weak economic presence in the region. Yet, this influence has
been increasing to some extent owing to Russia’s political presence
there. In particular, Russia acts as a motivator of the
multilateral negotiating process. Other major factors include the
Russian-North Korean Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborly
Relations and Cooperation, and personal contacts between the
Russian president and the North Korean leader. Besides, North Korea
itself is interested in Russia’s role in settling the conflict, as
Pyongyang seeks to “balance” somewhat its relations with China.

Russia should now take an active part in the multilateral
efforts in order to work out a single approach to the peaceful
settlement of the Korean conflict. On the one hand, it should
counter Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and on the other, offer to
North Korea security guarantees and a concrete economic aid program
if Pyongyang unconditionally terminates its nuclear program.


Scenario 1. The nearest future will witness very slow
negotiations, accompanied by the secret development of the North
Korean nuclear program. Such a situation will most likely cause
other countries to look for and use alternative levers to pressure
North Korea. At the same time, neither China nor South Korea will
allow Pyongyang’s complete isolation. Russia will not stand to gain
from North Korea’s isolation, either.

The development of the situation according to this scenario
would result in the softening of Pyongyang’s position and, in the
long run, in the success of the negotiations. The experts agree
that the negotiating process will be most effective if it involves
the six negotiating countries. The European Union, too, can be
involved in the discussions.

Scenario 2 (less probable). Already in the nearest future,
Pyongyang will accept the package agreement, drafted with the
participation of the United States, which gives top priority to the
termination of the North Korean nuclear program under strict
international control.

Scenario 3 (least probable). A military variant for the
development of the situation. North Korea knows perfectly well that
it would most likely suffer a defeat in a direct armed conflict. As
a result, the incumbent ruling regime in Pyongyang would have to
go. To the U.S., a military variant is undesirable, too, especially
considering the difficulties it is now having in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Moreover, a military variant would run counter to
George W. Bush’s interests in view of the upcoming presidential
election in the U.S. (the popularity ratings of the U.S. president
and his administration have already gone sharply down following the
developments in Iraq).

Considering various possible scenarios for developments on the
Korean Peninsula, one should take into account possible changes in
North Korea. These changes may be gradual, radical or
evolutionary-radical (a rather long evolution with a radical

The experts agree that more probable are gradual evolutionary
changes, which have already begun in the North Korean economy.
However, if Pyongyang attempts to slow down these changes, one
should not rule out an evolutionary-radical scenario, which is
highly improbable, though. The experts rule out radical changes,
considering the peculiarities of the North Korean regime and
national traits of the people.

The participants in the situation analysis included Director of
the Moscow State Institute of International Relations Anatoly
Torkunov, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences,
and Professor Valery Denisov, as well as  post-graduate
students of the Moscow State Institute of International