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  • No More Illusions of Denuclearization
  • Sue Terry (bio)

Much has been made of the motivation behind the United States' development of nuclear weapons during World War II and the strategic implications of its unprecedented nuclear status in the war's immediate aftermath and the postwar international order. Less attention has been paid, however, to the specifics of subsequent states' paths toward the possession of nuclear weapons. The only notable exception is North Korea, the newest and most secretive member of the nuclear club, whose journey to that coveted status has been closely chronicled for two decades. Nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang since the 1990s has been a mainstay of international politics, headlining international news and triggering heated debates in both policy and academic circles. And while few have presumed that diplomacy could entice other nuclear weapons states—Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, and Pakistan—into giving up their weapons, the notion that North Korea's far more powerful neighbors could and should persuade the aid-dependent North Korean leadership to bargain away its nuclear weapons program has persisted.

Jonathan Pollack's new book on the history of North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons—No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security—should finally put that myth to rest. The author demonstrates with ample historical evidence and rigorous analysis that the North Korean leadership "does not treat nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, and instead views these weapons as central to its identity and security planning" (p. 207). Most North Korea watchers, except for the most optimistic assessor of U.S. negotiating skills (or the most patronizing assessors of North Korea's), came to adopt this view in the wake of the North's second nuclear test in May 2009. Pollack also makes a strong case that Pyongyang crossed the nuclear Rubicon in 2009 by chronicling the sequence of events following the breakout of the second North Korean nuclear crisis in October 2002 and leading up to the May 2009 test. But Pollack does much more than simply draw the conclusion that a nuclear North Korea is here to stay. He presents a comprehensive history of how and why the North Korean leadership secretly pursued nuclear weapons, [End Page 175] going as far back as the germination of Kim Il-sung's nuclear aspirations in the 1940s and 1950s.

Chapter 2, dubbed "Nuclear Memories and Nuclear Visions," is especially good in laying out the historical events that alerted Kim Il-sung to the charms of nuclear weapons. Pollack points out that during World War II, when Japan was the colonial master in Korea, "major chemical and industrial facilities linked to Tokyo's clandestine nuclear-weapons programme were located in northern Korea, and Japan was...exploring for uranium and various rare earth metals in the northern half of the peninsula." He goes on to write that "Moscow undertook uranium mining in northern Korea as early as 1946, presumably relying on Korean labour" (p. 44). During the Korean War, faced with intermittent nuclear threats by the United States, Kim Il-sung showed interest in nuclear science: "The DPRK National Academy of Science was established in 1952, with uranium exploration, basic research in nuclear physics and the training of nuclear scientists identified as early priorities." In the postwar recovery period, Kim called for a "ten-year plan for science and technology...for a comprehensive survey of North Korea's natural resources including uranium, and advocated an active programme of research in atomic energy, the training of scientific personnel, and pursuit of nuclear applications to the DPRK's economic development" (p. 48).

Of course, statements of interest in nuclear science do not equal the technical ability or the concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons, and the author is careful not to read too much into these early signs of nuclear aspiration. Pollack dates North Korea's serious nuclear development efforts to the mid-1970s—unlike some South Korean experts who see the 1960s or even the 1950s as the genesis of its nuclear program. As Pollack notes, there is no "documentary evidence to substantiate this assertion," just defector testimonials (p. 48). At the same time, Pollack does describe in detail Pyongyang's...


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pp. 175-177
Launched on MUSE
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