North Korea's Nuclear Program: Looking Forward

| June 09, 2009

As North Korea threatens additional missile tests following its nuclear test in late May and April rocket launch, nuclear experts at the Belfer Center offer analysis and commentary on North Korea's actions and intentions and what the Obama administration should do now.


Some U.S. officials are saying this second test may mean North Korea has decided to never give up its nuclear weapons. What is your assessment?

Martin Malin

Martin Malin: It is impossible to know what is in the minds of individuals who might or might not be leading North Korea in the near future. Expressions of certainty on either side of this question should be viewed with great skepticism.



Among the list of national security challenges facing the Obama Administration, what priority should be given to North Korea?

Graham AllisonGraham Allison: President Obama has declared that the "nuclear terrorism threat rises above all others in urgency" and is the "number one national security threat that confronts the United States." Both former President Bush and President Obama have declared that the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to terrorists would be considered a "grave threat" and that they would hold North Korea "fully accountable" for the consequences of such action. However, Kim Jong Il has repeatedly taken actions that the American national security community has judged impossible, unlikely, and unacceptable. Each time, he has escaped any serious consequences.

The brute fact is that Kim Jong Il's regime is recklessly risk taking -- unlike anything we regard as "normal." North Korea is the most likely state to sell nuclear material and technology to terrorists and therefore it should rank among the top of President Obama's national security priority list.

Martin Malin: The United States has critical interests at stake in the North Korean crisis. The danger of North Korea secretly transferring nuclear materials or technology to another state (as it reportedly did with Syria) or to a terrorist group is the most serious concern. Additional North Korean nuclear and missile tests could also eventually expand Pyongyang's nuclear-strike capability beyond South Korea and Japan to U.S. territory. North Korean intransigence also threatens major elements of Barack Obama's global nuclear security agenda, providing political fodder to critics who oppose a nuclear test ban, fissile material cutoff, and the prospect of deep reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. North Korean defiance undermines nuclear nonproliferation norms just as the world prepares for a vital review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

How likely is North Korea to either use a nuclear weapon itself or sell nuclear technology to a terrorist organization?

Graham Allison: More likely than you think. How likely is it that Kim Jong Il would sell and construct a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in Syria? He did. So why could he not imagine that he could sell a much smaller nuclear weapon to Osama bin Laden without being held accountable?

Martin Malin: The sale of key technology has reportedly already taken place -- North Korea is believed to have assisted Syria with the construction of a plutonium producing reactor. Without a resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis, I would place the odds of such technical assistance happening in the future as more likely than not. The sale of bomb-grade nuclear material to another state or to a terrorist group is a far more dangerous strategy for North Korea, and would be most likely to occur in the context of the regime's collapse and the loss of control by government authorities over the small North Korean stockpile.

How can the United States get China to take a harder line with North Korea?

Graham Allison: The U.S. must accelerate U.S.-China strategic conversation to strategic coordination.

Few are aware that the first American to ever win a Nobel Prize was American President Theodore Roosevelt. In the first decade of the past century, as the leader of an emerging American superpower, Roosevelt brokered a peace treaty after weeks of contentious negotiations between Japan and Russia to conclude the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. For this extraordinary undertaking, he won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.

As the emerging superpower and, potentially, a future target, China has an opportunity to lead in preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation. As has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last several years, China is the only party that could plausibly orchestrate the complete, verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. If Beijing can lead the current Six-Party process to produce a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, President Hu Jintao, like Roosevelt, would richly deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

Hui ZhangHui Zhang: To facilitate enhanced Chinese support for North Korean denuclearization, Washington should also address some of Beijing's security concerns, including U.S.-Japanese missile defense cooperation and sales of missile defense capabilities to Taiwan. The United States and China could also offer one another specific assurances regarding military deployments on the Korean peninsula. Even in the event of a North Korean collapse, the United States has no intention of moving its forces to the Chinese border; it would reduce Beijing's concerns if Washington said so.

Given Washington holds what Pyongyang most wants -- a normalization with no hostile actions and no regime change -- Beijing wants Washington to engage in a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang under six-party talks and to put on the bargain table a reasonable offer including robust security guarantees, normalization of relations, and economic aid. Then Beijing can maximize its leverage and press Pyongyang to accept such an offer. Without Washington's cooperation, Pyongyang would continue to escalate the crisis, and Beijing's leverage on Pyongyang could be limited. Beijing's leverage on Pyongyang would be most effective after Washington makes a reasonable offer to Pyongyang.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Martin B. Malin, and Hui Zhang. “North Korea's Nuclear Program: Looking Forward.” News, , June 9, 2009.

The Authors

Graham Allison