Introduction to the Nautilus Institute's DPRK Briefing Book

The North Korean nuclear proliferation threat is a classic example of a complicated global problem. Like a badly tangled pile of ropes, each aspect of the Korean security dilemma is intertwined: the on-going division of the Peninsula and inter-Korean reconciliation, threat of nuclear proliferation and war, domestic downward spiral of North Korea, relations of the great powers to the Peninsula and to each other, weight of history and culture, and North Korea's barrier to regional economic integration. The more you tug on one strand to undo the tangle, the more other knots in the pile tighten.

The United States confronts several contingencies in the next weeks and months: that the DPRK deepens its nuclear opacity, declares itself a nuclear state (and maybe tests a weapon or two), or shifts back to sustained ambiguity as to its weapons capacities and intentions. The possibility remains that the regime could collapse altogether, thereby altering the tangle very quickly.

How has such a tiny state held out for so long against international trends toward globalization on the one hand and sustained American pressure on the other? The DPRK's strategic goals vary diametrically from those of the United States. The two antagonists align only in putting Korean reconciliation last in priority.

DPRK: Kim Jong-Il's goals US: George Bush's goals
regime survival de-linkage of WMD and terrorism
strong military de-nuclearization of the DPRK
nuclear weapons procurement stability (non-war) on the peninsula
economic recovery Korean reconciliation
Korean reconciliation  

American and North Korean political cultures are mirror images of one another. In the DPRK, political power is personalized, centralized, and absolute. In the United States, however, political power is bureaucratic, relative, devolved by constitutional design, and legal in foundation. These antagonistic, overarching goals and profound cultural antitheses are driving the two countries into a collision.

Some analysts argue that the United States is currently heading for a major failure in its nuclear non-proliferation and security policy in the Korean Peninsula. The Bush Administration holds the DPRK solely responsible for the failure of the October 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework, and states that the DPRK must dismantle all its nuclear activities with IAEA monitoring and verification before the US will negotiate. As a result, for better or worse, the DPRK is now hurling itself across the nuclear red line.

Many who engaged the DPRK and wrestled it to the ground in 1994 believe in straightforward solutions that can cut through the interconnected knots. For example, the United States should open a direct dialogue with the DPRK to settle the nuclear issue contingent upon the DPRK taking the first, unilateral steps: freezing and refreezing its enrichment and plutonium fuel cycle activities (including those that are currently being activated or reactivated) and allowing the establishment and re-establishment of monitoring of its uranium and plutonium activities, respectively.

In contrast, the Bush Administration's North Korea policy rejects this "narrow" approach. In fact, the Administration's policy eludes concrete identification, short of President Bush's January 2003 statement: "I believe the situation with North Korea will be resolved peacefully. As I said, it's a diplomatic issue, not a military issue and we're working all fronts."

This policy goal relies on various general principles applied to North Korea:

  • "Verifiable dismantlement of DPRK nuclear capacities before negotiations"
  • "No rewards for bad behavior."
  • "All options are on the table."

Some cynics describe this policy as an attitude; almost daily leaks and counter-leaks in Washington reveal the different policy currents. Despite the public rhetoric, the essence of the Bush Administration's position appears-at least in Pyongyang-as "regime transformation" and delay-not engagement and rapid resolution of the nuclear issue.

For its part, in late February-early April, the DPRK made strident reference to a "military-first" policy built around a "massive physical deterrent." In June, the DPRK explicitly declared that if the United States did not engage it and address its economic concerns, then the DPRK would rely on nuclear weapons.

Further, critics such as former Defense Secretary William Perry argues against the Administration's complacency about the possibility of DPRK's export of fissile material or other WMD-related weapons to possible state and non-state actors. Some policymakers in the Administration, however, appear relaxed about this trend, including the possibility of near-term nuclear tests-partly because such tests would reduce the fissile material available to North Korea. Policymakers in the hardline current appear to believe the following:

  • The more the DPRK plays with nuclear fire, the more it will hurt itself by alienating China and Russia.
  • The Kim Jong-Il clique is irrevocably committed to its corrupt economic base and to obtaining nuclear weapons at any cost, even of having an economy. Therefore, the only US policy options are either to induce a coup, squeeze it to collapse, or ratchet up pressure to force capitulation.
  • If the DPRK goes nuclear, then the US, allies, and friends will contain the DPRK until it disarms or collapses.
  • The only way to contain the DPRK, regardless of nuclear capacity, is for other states to share the burden and to maximize US leverage over Pyongyang, by architecting a global coalition-a building whose construction will require a lot of time and effort. This building is based on the principles of anti-terrorism, no criminal exports (drugs), non-proliferation, human rights, etc. and until its creation, the exact principle that will lead the engagement of the DPRK remains unknown.

Far from preparing to engage, therefore, the hardliners focus on blocking pragmatic moves by the State Department, specifically those that would engender an urgent bilateral deal (e.g. put a refreeze of plutonium first, followed closely by a freeze of enrichment). Provided that President Bush is not driving engagement from the top, if the hardliners succeed in maintaining the status quo, then they will win the policy battle by default.

Given the wildly divergent policy positions and heated rhetoric, we were struck by the lack of a collection and synthesis of contending policy analyses and the difficulty of obtaining key reference materials. This disorganized knowledge fosters ignorance and stereotypes and neglects hard evidence and tough analysis.

We offer the DPRK Briefing Book to enrich debate and rectify the deficiencies in public knowledge. Our goal is that the DPRK Briefing Book becomes your reference of choice on the security dilemmas posed by North Korea and its relations with the United States.

The completed DPRK Briefing Book will cover approximately two-dozen "Policy Areas," each containing issue briefs, critical analyses from diverse perspectives, and key reference materials. We will post Policy Areas over the coming months as they are completed.

We invite your comments and suggestions and appreciate your support.

Go to the DPRK Briefing Book.

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