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  • The Kim Dynasty and North Korea's Nuclear Future:Will History Still Rhyme?
  • Jonathan D. Pollack (bio)

I am gratified by the appraisals of the four reviewers, all of whom express ample praise for No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, while also posing questions that require some elaboration. However, none could have anticipated the abrupt death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Kim's passing provides an opportunity to revisit some of the book's principal judgments. In her review, Sue Terry quotes one of my study's essential arguments. As she notes, I attribute North Korea's decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons primarily to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and the political-military system the two leaders sustained through a combination of highly militarized nationalism, unfettered power and internal control, and racial exclusivity. As she also notes, I observe that "the DPRK's nuclear capabilities are part of the legacy that Kim Jong-il plan[ned] to bequeath to his son, much as his father mandated the building of a nuclear infrastructure that he then passed to Kim Jong-il." What future awaits Kim Jong-un's nuclear inheritance if he is able to consolidate power, and (even more important) what if he cannot?

Kim Jong-il's death thus presents an opportunity to subject a specific hypothesis to a real-world test. Might a different leader (albeit from the same ruling family) alter North Korea's long-standing strategic course, or will this only be possible if the present system either ceases to exist or undergoes an almost unimaginable transformation? In addition, at the time of Kim's death the United States was close to preliminary agreement with Pyongyang, presaging a significant effort to resume nuclear diplomacy that largely ceased in late 2008. Most analysts expect that bilateral discussions between the United States and North Korea will resume after a period of official mourning in the North, possibly to be followed by resumption of the six-party talks. But would the outcome of renewed negotiations prove appreciably different from past episodes of frustrated (and deeply frustrating) diplomacy?

All four reviewers note that No Exit does not focus on policy options or negotiating strategies, and I do not propose to assess either issue in this essay. [End Page 182] My book instead concentrates on how Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons is inextricably intertwined with the history of the North Korean state. Though North Korea's nuclear development also reflects the tortuous history of the Cold War in Northeast Asia, the singular strategic convictions of the Kim dynasty were paramount in this process. Absent the determination of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to be answerable to no outside power and to develop and sustain their unique system, it is highly unlikely that the program could have continued indefinitely. If the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons is attributable principally to the Kims and the scientific and military constituencies they supported, then the passage of power to a third-generation leadership will not necessarily diminish the commitment to a nuclear weapons program and might even increase it. But an appreciable de-emphasis on the program would suggest that the convictions of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il did not automatically transfer to the next generation, and would require reconsideration of one of my principal arguments.

There has been very little commentary in the immediate post-Kim Jong-il period on the nuclear weapons program, even as the first major editorial following Kim's death declared that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) would remain a "strong nuclear state."1 Most of the prevailing debate among specialists and commentators has focused on whether political succession will result in a collective leadership that redirects the system's internal and external priorities (i.e., the reform hypothesis), or on whether Kim Jong-un will prove unable to consolidate power, leading to intense factional rivalry that could abruptly spell the end of the system (i.e., the collapse hypothesis). To an extent, these arguments are virtual articles of faith among their respective proponents. In one form or another, they have been debated...


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pp. 182-190
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