Through the Eyes of the Hermit
by Baya Harrison
North Korea is a geopolitical anachronism. Its place in the international community is that of a living diorama, into which outsiders peer to observe the vestiges of an era past. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and other communist states either collapsed or opened their governments and markets, North Korea clung to its command economy and totalitarian dictatorship. A combination of government repression, misguided economic policies, and natural disasters has left half the population malnourished, a quarter of a million displaced, and upwards of a million killed by famine. An army of one million men, armed with equipments from the 1950s and '60s, stands along the four-kilometer-long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) facing South Korea. North Korea's most recent offense is also its gravest: in 2003, North Korean negotiators claimed to have produced nuclear weapons.
Though officially titled the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea's isolation from the international community has earned it the name "hermit kingdom." President George W. Bush called it a member of the "axis of evil," and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice termed it an "outpost of tyranny." The U.S. perception of an evil North Korea run by madmen presents few alternatives to regime change as a solution to the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear aspirations.
On the other hand, understanding North Korean leaders as rational actors concerned with the security of their country gives a more realistic interpretation of their pursuit of nuclear weapons. A recent publication by the Woodrow Wilson Center provides evidence for just such an argument.
In May 2005, the Wilson Center released a series of diplomatic correspondences from Russian and Hungarian archives. These documents include communications between Soviet and Eastern European foreign ministries and their ambassadors in North Korea between 1962 and 1986. While most analyses of the North Korean regime take place from the outside looking in, these documents offer the unique perspective of foreign dignitaries working directly with North Korean officials and sometimes with Kim Il Sung himself, North Korea's "Great Leader" from 1948 to 1994. These exchanges strongly suggest that North Korea's search for nuclear weapons was a rational effort to guarantee its security against a U.S. attack.
The documents make it clear that Kim Il Sung believed a U.S. nuclear strike against North Korea was not merely a possibility, it was a certainty. In November 1967, Kim expected the U.S. to reignite the conflict in the Korean peninsula, despite the deep U.S. involvement in Vietnam. As late as February 1976, two decades after the armistice ending the Korean War, high-ranking DPRK officials did not believe that peaceful means could unify Korea. They were ready for the next war, which they anticipated would be fought by nuclear bombs rather than armies.
The North Korean leadership recognized that its lack of nuclear weapons would pre-determine any confrontation with the U.S. In August 1962, Pak Song Ch'ol, the DPRK Minister of Foreign Affairs, observed that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was an obvious advantage over North Korea: "Their possession of nuclear weapons, and the lack thereof in our hands, objectively helps them, therefore, to eternalize their rule."
The Great Leader initially took comfort in the belief that North Korea's mountainous terrain would limit the destruction of a nuclear attack. His military advisors presumed that similar terrain in Vietnam prevented the U.S. from using nuclear weapons there as well. Kim concluded confidently that "a lot of such bombs would be needed to wreak large-scale destruction in the country."
Nevertheless, Kim undertook extensive measures to protect the North Korean leadership from a nuclear attack. By 1963, Kim claimed to have constructed a nation-wide network of caves and tunnels to shelter the military and government. The caves were stocked with provisions to provide their inhabitants with "everything that they needed." In 1967, military attachés from several communist Eastern European governments reported that the North Korean army staged military exercises simulating a nuclear attack. They also noted that preparations had not been taken to prepare civilians for such an attack.
By 1976, however, the capital city of Pyongyang was prepared to shelter its population in its cavernous subway tunnels. According to one account, North Korea "has been turned into a system of fortifications, important factories have been moved underground…and airfields, harbors, and other military facilities were established in the subterranean cave networks." The accuracy of these statements is doubtful, as the same report indicated that the DPRK had already manufactured nuclear warheads through indigenous capabilities, which it had not.
Though his preparations for surviving a nuclear attack were extensive, Kim Il Sung's determination to obtain his own nuclear deterrent was notable from the outset. In 1963, Soviet specialists studying raw uranium ore in North Korea observed that the North Koreans were determined to mine large amounts of uranium ore "despite all odds." When a Soviet specialist told a Korean engineer that the impoverished DPRK economy prevented production of a nuclear weapon, the engineer retorted that North Koreans would provide free labor for years if necessary. This dedication brings to mind Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto's statement that Pakistanis would eat grass until they could afford to build a nuclear weapon. The notable difference is that many North Koreans have indeed been reduced to eating grass to finance their leaders' military expenditures.
North Korean efforts during this period to acquire nuclear weapons from its allies were persistent but came to naught. In April 1963, the Czechoslovak Ambassador assured a North Korean colonel that the USSR's nuclear arsenal provided security for North Korea, at no cost to North Korea. The North Korean colonel responded that the USSR could improve the North's security further by giving nuclear missiles directly to the DPRK. In 1975, the Hungarian embassy in North Korea reported that China considered giving the DPRK tactical nuclear weapons to offset the U.S. nuclear forces protecting South Korea, but the idea never reached fruition.
Failing to obtain nuclear weapons through a direct transfer, Kim made determined yet largely unsuccessful attempts to acquire the technology and scientific knowledge necessary to create an indigenous nuclear program. In March 1967, Kim Il Sung requested the delivery of a nuclear power plant from the USSR. Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Aleksei Kosygin denied the request, on the grounds that North Korea actively obstructed the flow of information from the experimental reactor the Soviet Union had helped to establish at Yongbyon in 1965. In December of 1967, a delegation from North Korea visited the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and requested cooperation on the development of nuclear technology. The GDR agreed in principle to cooperation on the transfer of knowledge relevant to nuclear technology but deferred requests for equipment until the DPRK had received the permission of the USSR. In January and February 1976, Korean officials requested Soviet assistance in creating a nuclear power plant. The Soviets again rejected the request, this time citing the military consequences and the sizable investment required for such a project. Several months later the DPRK repeated its request, and the Soviet Union again refused.
Kim persisted in his search for foreign assistance for several more years. In February 1979, a North Korean official asked the first secretary of the Czechoslovak Embassy to provide equipment for mining uranium and to build a 440 megawatt nuclear reactor in the DPRK. In March 1983, the DPRK requested that Hungary train Koreans to operate and manage nuclear power plants. Hungary deferred a response to the request indefinitely.
Unable to attain nuclear weapons or the means of producing them, Kim gradually came to the realization that a favorable military solution to the division of the peninsula was for the moment impossible. By October 1986, Kim had revised downward his estimate of the number of nuclear attacks his country could absorb. He stated to GDR Secretary General Erich Honecker that it would take only two nuclear bombs to destroy the DPRK. The presence of over 1,000 U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea proscribed a DPRK offensive against the South and its American protector.
These documents carry a useful lesson. For all his failings as a leader and a human being, Kim Il Sung was not a madman in foreign relations. Kim's fear of a nuclear attack was based on explicit threats from the U.S. during the 1950-3 Korean War and the presence of U.S. nuclear forces in South Korea. He and other North Korean officials justified their pursuit of a nuclear deterrent as necessitated by the overwhelming military strength of the U.S. By seeking to level the vastly uneven playing field between North Korea and the U.S., Kim took the only rational action available.
Though half a century has passed since the Korean War, Kim Il Sung's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, also has reasons to pursue nuclear weapons: North Korea is quite literally on a U.S. "hit list." In the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the Department of Defense named North Korea a potential target for attack, perhaps nuclear, if the situation on the peninsula deteriorated. The 2003 U.S. war against Iraq demonstrated to North Korea that the U.S. was willing to go to war to prevent a state from acquiring nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, it may also have underscored the necessity of possessing a nuclear deterrent to prevent such an attack.
Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at the Kenney School of Government, notes that in pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea has simply mimicked the actions of the permanent members of the Security Council, which developed nuclear weapons to deter their enemies. The recently released diplomatic correspondences support Walt's claim: North Korea may be an international pariah and an anachronism, but its leadership is still rational and bent upon survival. Even hermits need protection from the rain - North Korea hopes that a nuclear bomb may just be the perfect umbrella.
Baya Harrison ('06) is a final year student at Brandeis University majoring in Politics and Economics.
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"Report, Embassy of Hungary in North Korea to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, 16 February 1976," p. 20.
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