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  • Build It, and They Will Recompense:North Korea's Nuclear Strategy
  • Sung-Yoon Lee (bio)

Rare is the moment when three or more North Korea watchers come together and see eye-to-eye on the North Korean nuclear problem. Jonathan Pollack, with his latest book No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, may have achieved that rarest of feats: creating a consensus among those interested in this deeply polarizing issue. The consensus here may not necessarily be Pollack's main conclusion, which, using the author's own words, can be summarized thus: "North Korea does not treat nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, and instead views these weapons as central to its identity and security planning....The leadership thus remains locked in a nuclear mindset; it is unprepared to envisage longer-term survival of the extant system without retention and enhancement of its nuclear capabilities" (p. 207). The consensus would instead be that Pollack's No Exit is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the decades-old North Korean nuclear issue in any language—in other words, the best.

Pollack begins with the formation of the North Korean state under Kim Il-sung in the 1940s and ends with a first-rate analysis of the current strategic environment in which the key players—North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States—find themselves. He traces the historical, ideological, and political backdrop against which Kim Il-sung built his unique and defiant regime; presents the major milestones in Kim's political dealings with his patrons and adversaries alike; and guides the reader through the tortuous cycles of North Korean provocations and compensatory nuclear negotiations over the past two decades.

The result is a tantalizing array of original analysis and rich detail. The generalist will find North Korea's defiant edge and success in building a nuclear arsenal at the cost of a dysfunctional economy curiously fascinating. The specialist will find that the book's cogently presented historical details and insights make it a must-read for both personal gratification and research. And [End Page 178] for anyone teaching a college-level course on Korean politics or U.S.-East Asia relations, the book should be required reading.

In chronicling the North Korean leadership's dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities over nearly four decades, Pollack accomplishes something he may not have intended, which is implicitly to undermine the "negotiationist" school of thought—that is, those who believe that negotiations would effect North Korea's denuclearization. Pollack explicitly endorses neither the "collapsist" nor the "reformist" school thinkers—those who believe, respectively, in the eventual collapse of the North Korean regime and in the possibility of the regime adopting genuine economic reform and opening. With his analysis of North Korea's past actions and strategic imperatives, Pollack effectively buries the notion that the United States and its partners, with the right mix of incentives and coercion, could achieve the complete dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Given the ample evidence presented, it would be folly to argue against Pollack's assessment of the current state of nuclear negotiations or his reading of the North Korean regime's intentions: "Despite pursuit of nearly every imaginable approach to denuclearisation by the U.S. and others, this goal is now farther from realization than at any point since the signing of the Agreed Framework" (p. 190). He further explains: "The leadership...posits a 'no landing' scenario—that is, the perpetuation of the existing system based on the unquestioned power and authority of the Kim family and of the ruling elites that support it, retention of its nuclear weapons capabilities, and a measure of economic recovery" (p. 192).

Pollack ends the book with a sober call for efforts to contain North Korea's existing nuclear weapons capabilities: "The ultimate goal remains nuclear abandonment by the North, but a more practicable objective is risk minimisation, both in relation to the DPRK's extant weapons and in any potential transfer of technology and materials beyond North Korea's borders" (p. 209). Some may find Pollack's prescription a bit too passive and ultimately unsatisfactory. Yet it is hard to argue against the historical...


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pp. 178-181
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