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  • The North Korean Nuclear Problem:Twenty Years of Crisis
  • Kang Choi (bio)

The North Korean nuclear problem has gradually deteriorated in the past two decades and is becoming increasingly serious.1 Over the course of this worsening crisis, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has staged three nuclear tests and continues to develop its diverse medium- and long-range missile capabilities. North Korea now claims to be a nuclear weapons state and has formally announced its byungjin policy, which aims for the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic development.2 Pyongyang is clearly determined to develop advanced nuclear capabilities and time is running short for the international community to respond. Despite this, diplomatic initiatives aimed at denuclearizing North Korea have thus far been ineffective. Policymakers have “bought the same horse” three times by attempting, and ultimately failing, to resolve the problem through the Geneva Agreed Framework (October 1994), the September 19th agreement (September 2005), and the “leap day” agreement (February 2012). Likewise, the six-party talks aimed at peaceful denuclearization of North Korea—involving Russia, China, the DPRK, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, and the United States—have in essence stalled. Considering the rate at which North Korea’s nuclear program is advancing, it is urgent that the international community adopt a more effective approach soon.

This essay explores why efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis have been unsuccessful and attempts to outline a more effective approach. The first section examines Pyongyang’s inconsistent justifications for the program, as well as its perspectives and motivations regarding denuclearization. Next, the essay assesses the obstacles hindering the international community’s efforts toward the denuclearization of North [End Page 28] Korea. Last, this essay argues that the nuclear problem is rooted in the nature of the North Korean regime and considers strategies necessary for resolving the crisis. The essay concludes by recommending a more enduring, holistic, and comprehensive approach focused on strengthening deterrence capabilities and gradually altering North Korea’s current trajectory through increased engagement.

North Korea’s Claims for Nuclearization and Understanding of Denuclearization

North Korea’s actions over time and inconsistent justifications for its nuclear program indicate an unwillingness to denuclearize. Commencing in the late 1950s, North Korea’s nuclear program was ostensibly for research purposes and energy generation. Thus, the DPRK asked for compensation for terminating its program in the 1990s, and a coalition of countries agreed to the provision of light-water reactors and heavy-fuel oil under the 1994 Agreed Framework.3 When North Korea’s uranium enrichment program was discovered in 2002, Pyongyang denied the program’s existence. However, it later acknowledged the continuation of the program and withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2003 to pursue its nuclear ambitions (the first and only signatory country to the NPT to do so). At the same time, North Korea has been developing its missile capabilities. Since the summer of 1998, outside observers have witnessed the country’s development of medium- and long-range missiles such as the Musudan, Taepodong-1, and Taepodong-2 missiles.4 As North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities [End Page 29] have evolved, Pyongyang has increasingly argued that its nuclear program is intended to be a deterrent against a potential preemptive attack by the United States.

The key to understanding North Korea’s changing stance on its nuclear program is comprehending how Pyongyang views the issue of denuclearization: when North Korea speaks of denuclearization, it means for the entire Korean Peninsula. In essence, its actions to this end would be conditional upon the United States no longer providing a nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Beyond this, North Korea has demanded a U.S. guarantee of its regime security by the cessation of combined military exercises between the United States and South Korea, the withdrawal of the United States Forces Korea, and the termination of the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK).5 The North Korean leadership has argued that as long as the United States pursues a hostile and threatening policy toward the DPRK, North Korea must develop nuclear weapons capabilities for defensive purposes. Therefore, North...


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