- Kims, Kims, and Nothing But the Kims
Jonathan Pollack's No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security is an excellent addition to the literature on North Korea's nuclear program. While most of this literature is aimed at the international diplomatic process and policy options to disarm North Korea, Pollack focuses almost exclusively on the why and how of North Korea's nuclear development, to the exclusion of policy analysis. No Exit is nonetheless a timely reminder to policymakers that the depth of North Korea's commitment to nuclear weapons augurs poorly for those policy options currently on the table and for the prospects of denuclearization in the future.
Pollack meticulously traces the parallel political and nuclear developments in North Korea, including Kim Il-sung's early interest in a nuclear program and his efforts over the decades to parlay relationships with Moscow and Beijing into nuclear assistance. The picture that emerges is one of an unshakable commitment by the North Korean leadership to a nuclear weapons capability wrapped in the guise of a civil nuclear power program. At the outset, Pollack posits that the driving force behind the nuclear enterprise was the personal conviction of first Kim Il-sung and subsequently Kim Jong-il in the importance of nuclear weapons for North Korea's security. This Kim-centric account situates Pollack's work clearly on the psychology-oriented "demand" side of the proliferation literature. In particular, he cites work by Jacques Hymans, who theorizes that "oppositional nationalist" leaders, such as the Kims, "develop a desire for nuclear weapons that goes beyond calculation to self-expression."1 It is a compelling account. But there are some issues with placing leadership psychology at the center, not least of which is the removal of agency from other actors in North Korea, as well as responsibility on the part of North Korea's international benefactors for abetting its behavior.
As a theoretical matter, Pollack's account does offer a great deal of support to the notion that the personal commitment of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to nuclear weapons was critical, as Hymans's theory predicts, though it is not clear that this commitment developed out of a particular leadership [End Page 168] psychology. Though No Exit is clearly not intended to be a theory-driven case study, by noting one theory up front Pollack creates an expectation that he will use that theory to illuminate his argument, or at least return to it at the end. But he does not carry out this line of thought through the book. Readers are thus left to draw their own conclusions about the centrality of the Kim family psychology to the nuclear enterprise and the extent to which this is consistent with Hymans's own assessment of North Korea's nuclear program.2 In fact, Pollack's account also offers copious plausible evidence for realist theories of proliferation, particularly given deep North Korean security anxieties after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entwined nature of North Korea's civil and military nuclear programs. For instance, he argues that "even if Kim [Il-sung] was momentarily reassured of Chinese and Soviet strategic intentions, any such assurances were at best conditional" (p. 83). This sounds less like "self-expression" than strategic insecurity.
Undoubtedly, North Korea's opacity makes research on bureaucratic and military elements of the country's decisionmaking a very difficult undertaking, and Pollack's use of archival material is impressive. On occasion, Pollack cites the "powerful domestic constituencies closely identified with the weapons program," and he writes at length about the political importance of North Korea's "military-first" policies (p. 101). These constituencies, however, are largely missing from his story of why North Korea developed nuclear weapons. This absence may be less perplexing in the Kim Il-sung era, given his centralization of political power, but is more so under Kim Jong-il. If one accepts, as Pollack does, the assessment of Adrian Buzo that Kim Jong-il had "left no mark or trace of influence on major state policies independent of his father" (p. 87), then it seems a stretch to conclude that his...