Friday, August 01, 2008

North Korea's Early 90's Nuclear Program

North Korea’s nuclear program and the crisis that arose in the early 1990’s should be seen in the geopolitical context of the time. Many different influences were coming to bear on North Korea during this time. 1) The Soviet Union had broken apart, and the remaining states were virtually bankrupt. 2) Even prior to the breakup, Gorbachev was wooing the South Koreans in order to gain capital resources for his own economy, which proved to be an alarming development to the North Koreans. 3) China was making overtures to South Korea as well, in order to gain access to their capital and markets. 4) The US viewed the breakup of the Soviet Union and looked forward to a break in the international diplomatic tension that had existed since the beginning of the Cold War. In fact, some analysts were talking about the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, meant essentially “the end of history.” Without the
US actively engaged, there would be little reason for anyone else to pay attention to North Korea and their needs. I will examine each of these factors in turn.

 45 years of a command economy and the accelerated arms race with the US during the Reagan years essentially bankrupted the Soviets. The size of the Soviet Economy and the deprivation that they forced their people to endure did provide for some measure of capital that the Soviet Union distributed to other Communist countries and proxies around the world in an attempt to spread Communist hegemony and push back US interests. However, this policy proved unsustainable as the US economy and defense budgets continued to grow even though the US was aggressively countering the USSR around the world and continuing to upgrade its conventional and nuclear forces. Gorbachev had learned his lesson about the inability of communism to keep up with the West and attempted various political and economic reforms to stimulate the economy. However, he essentially let the “Freedom genie” out of the bottle. Soon events took a course of their own, with the former Warsaw Pact asserting their own destinies which culminated in the tearing down the Berlin Wall. As the empire of the Soviet Union, there was no longer any rationale to support client states all over the world, so these clients were cut off. North Korea clearly felt threatened by not having their long-standing ally to support them against a resurgent South Korea and the might of the US stationed literally across the DMZ.

Even prior to the formal dissolution of the Soviet empire, Gorbachev was running around the world, offering to reduce tensions in exchange for capital. South Korea proved to be an eager audience for this approach. So even prior to the formal cutting of ties with North Korea because there was no longer a geopolitical justification for the Soviets to maintain their empire, the Soviet Union had turned to the South Koreas for capital and markets. North Korea attempted to counter this diplomatically with appeals to the brotherhood of socialism but was forced to confront the fact that ideological purity could not compete with capitalism. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il realized that North Korea could not rely on anyone else to provide their security, they would have to provide security for themselves.

China was also looking to the South Korea for money and markets and proved quite willing to throw North Korea aside to gain access to the ROK. Once again, even though the North Koreas appealed to socialist solidarity and shared enmity with South Korea and the US, the Chinese believed they needed South Korea to continue growing their economy. North Korea had their paranoid suspicions about being unable to rely on any one else for their security confirmed.
Victory in the Cold War lead many in the US to hope for a reduction in tensions around the world and a “peace dividend” that would allow political leaders to focus on domestic priorities. American leaders eagerly looked forward to the time when they would not have to think about and fund the responses to crises around the world. For North Korea, being ignored by the US would be s very dangerous thing. As the balance of power had shifted on the peninsula, the ROK army had developed capabilities in training and materiel that made them at least the equal of the DPRK in conventional forces. The lack of resources had caused the forces in the North to deteriorate relative to those in the South. The trends in that equation would continue to favor the South Koreans until the South had an overwhelming advantage. Given that eventuality, North Korea knew that the one safeguard they had to prevent the ROK from rushing North to finish the Korean War was the presence of the Americans. If the Americans lost interest in the Korean situation, seeing it as a vestige of a Cold War that had ended, then there was a significant chance the US would pull out. 

Such a withdrawal, blowhard KCNA pronouncements notwithstanding, would be extremely perilous for the North. Even short of an attack by the South, should the US pull out, there would be very little leverage to get the US back into negotiations for economic incentives . Given these considerations, since Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il were not willing to capitulate or make total accommodation with the South, the only logical course of action remaining was to build a nuclear weapon. Conventional wisdom has long held that states with nuclear weapons are immune from conventional attacks and that they get attention from great powers. North Korea’s overt pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the crisis it provoked bore out this wisdom. North Korea managed to get massive infusion of aid to stave off starvation, acquired capital from the South Koreans and kept the US engaged on the peninsula. The significance of the North Korean nuclear program which it pursued out of self interest showed other countries that having nuclear weapons is the best way to prevent regime change by the West. It is apparent that Pakistan, Iran and perhaps even Syria have learned this lesson.