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North Korea's Nuclear Program

20 March 2012: North Korea and the U.S. recently struck a deal in which the DPRK will cease nuclear tests in exchange for nutritional food aid. Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for North East Asia, discusses whether this represents a real opening in efforts to denuclearise North Korea. 8:16

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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Kimberly Abbott. The United States and North Korea have struck a new deal in which the US has pledged to provide food aid to North Korea in exchange for a moratorium on nuclear testing. I’m speaking today with Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for North East Asia, about whether this presents a genuine opening for the denuclearisation of North Korea.

Dan, can you start by telling me why this is important?

It’s important for a couple of reasons. First, on the security side, a test moratorium at least caps or delays the program. Of course, North Korea could do a number of other things. They could work on other parts of the delivery systems, the missiles without flight tests, but flight tests are very important, you have to test all of the systems to see if they work. They need more tests to verify the warhead design. If they do not test then at least they will not be able to verify and test the credibility and reliability of their systems.

Secondly, on that issue, I think there is a real concern that North Korea could conduct a proxy test for Iran, for example. I think the cost of a test for Iran would be very high, the political cost. I don’t know Iran’s intentions, but if they do desire to acquire nuclear capability, testing would be very costly. For North Korea, they’ve already conducted two nuclear tests. The marginal cost of a third test is pretty low. Certainly, China would be upset about it, but they’re not really going to do anything.

We’ve seen a lot of cooperation in missile development, in particular, between North Korean and Iran. There’s speculation about, and many people believe, that they’ve cooperated on warhead development and design, which makes sense. So, if Iran were to ask North Korea to conduct a proxy test, now that North Korea is working on uranium enrichment to produce fissile material, then this would have direct applications for Iran and they could become a de facto nuclear power without conducting a test, if North Korea were to share that test information, design, data and so forth. So I think we really want to prevent that type of outcome or scenario.

It seems that with this renewed attempt at dialogue, North Korea might be looking at scaling back this program. What do you think the likelihood is of that?

It’s impossible to know that for sure. There are two parts of any test, testing any weapon systems, nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and so forth. First of all, you have to be technically ready. There are a number of very difficult scientific and engineering steps that you have to take. So where they are on that developmental timeline, we don’t know exactly, so they might not be ready to test anyway. But they could continue to work on it, and if they aren’t technically ready to test until, let’s say, next year, then they could make these types of political commitments in the short term and there could be political gains through diplomacy. But we don’t really know that.

Now, if they’re ready to test now and they are restraining themselves, then that’s a positive development. A lot of people have scoffed at or mocked the North Koreans for their previous tests, their long-range missile tests that have failed. But from an engineering perspective, every time you test, it enables the engineers to go back and gives them an opportunity to look at and resolve those problems.The more we can slow this down or cap these tests, I think that’s a positive development.                       

So what kind of reaction should we expect if they do decide to test again? If we do see something like we saw with the military show of force against South Korea in November 2010? What kind of regional action do you think we would expect to see?

This  is politically very unpalatable. Everyone wants to have control or the ability to completely influence that outcome. If, internally, for domestic political purposes in Pyongyang, if they are very highly motivated and determined to conduct tests or to acquire these capabilities, there’s probably very little, if anything we can do about it. So, in that case, it’s very important to have backup plans, a fall-back position, very strong deterrents, very strong export controls and counter-proliferation policies, and to make sure that North Korea is deterred over the long term, and that hopefully in the long run that they will eventually open, liberalize, democratize, and so forth, but this is a very difficult and long process.

Should this be kept separate from the humanitarian issue?

I think so. It’s a very difficult problem. With the recent announcement of an agreement between the US and the DPRK, it seems pretty clear that there’s a quid pro quo: the provision of 240,000 tons of humanitarian nutritional assistance in return for this test moratorium.

I think we have to be very careful about politicizing humanitarian aid. Some people are very frustrated and opposed to the provision of humanitarian assistance and believe that it props up the regime, and of course, I agree that the food insecurity in North Korea is a result of polices in Pyongyang. However, the victims of this outcome are innocent people, the most vulnerable and weakest people in North Korean society: children, pregnant women, elderly, those who cannot acquire food. They have no control or leverage over the regime. If we continue that type of pressure or deny humanitarian assistance, there is not going to be any uprising in the streets or anything. It has no direct influence over policy.

I think over the long term that eventually North Korea will open and reform. I think the regime is very stable, but it is not sustainable forever. People have long memories.I think that there’s a lot of benefit and a lot to be said to providing the humanitarian assistance out of need.

What can China do?

I think China, and everyone else for that matter, can remind the North Koreans that it does not serve their national security interest, national security purpose in the long run, to act in belligerent ways.

The first thing is that North Korea is obliged to uphold the armistice agreement from the Korean War, the ceasefire agreement. That is a military agreement. It was signed by Kim Il-sung as commander of the Korean People’s Army back in 1953. It is binding on subsequent commanders. So the things that we saw in 2010, for example, the sinking of the Cheonan or the artillery attacks, these are armistice violations. This is directly violating the orders of Kim Il-sung, who signed this agreement. They should always be reminded of that. The Korean People’s Army, the senior commanders, should be reminded that the use of WMD, attacks against civilians and so forth, violate international law and that commanders could be prosecuted for these types of actions. For example, if you use chemical weapons against a civilian population, they would be prosecuted.

Those types of things should always remind them that there is a better way. They should open and reform. They should get along with their neighbors. North Korea is sitting in this very vibrant, very dynamic area of trade and investment, of high economic growth, and they’re cut off from this. If their leaders want a better future for their country and their people, they should tie themselves to this regional, economic engine of growth, and there is a path forward.The Chinese can encourage, continue to encourage them to do this, which they haven’t been doing.

Edited for print.

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