A Reasonable and Practical Approach to the North Korean Nuclear Issue

A Conversation with North Korea Experts in June 2017


Recently there has been a lot of discussion surrounding a solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear missile development.

There are claims that if North Korea stops nuclear weapons provocations, the United States will reduce strategic assets and stop ROK-US joint military training on the Korean peninsula. On the other some claim that the Conservative Government’s sanctions and pressure policies have led to the tense atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula.

As somebody who until recently, was a tool in the North Korean system, I am always perplexed whenever I hear these kind of statements in South Korea.

To find the right solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, I think it is necessary to go back to the root and cause of the issue.


1. The Cause of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Missile Development


1.1. North Korea’s policy of Nuclear and Missile Development is the only solution to secure victory against South Korea


The reason that North Korea was forced to develop nuclear weapons and missiles was not the result of the ROK-US military alliance, US military presence on the Korean Peninsula, ROK-US joint military exercises, or the introduction of US nuclear assets into the Korean peninsula; but rather it is the result of South Korea’s political and economic military achievements over the past 30 years and the inevitable result of South Korea’s victory in struggle of ideologies on the Korean Peninsula.

With the end of the Cold War system, North Korea lost its political and military alliance in the former Soviet Union and in the aftermath of China’s reform and open-door policy, North Korea has been struggling to compete with the democratically developing and economic leader, South Korea, for the past 30 years.

During this period, the economic gap between the North and South has grown to be 44 to 1, and North Korea, which had maintained a military dominance with military force of 1.2 million people, had been unable to find a solution to the widening military gap.

Additionally, the change of the North Korean people’s awareness as a result of the ‘Korean Wave’ and their self-sustainability through the growing markets has made Kim Jong-un even more uneasy.

In the midst of these changes, the North Korean elite are living everyday in insecurity over how much longer the North Korean regime can survive in the systematic confrontations on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean Army is also very well aware that ‘reunification of the Fatherland’ cannot be achieved with the current North Korean armed forces.

For Kim Jong-un, nuclear and missiles are the only props that are preventing the complete collapse of the already crumbling North Korean system in the face of the US and South Korea’s military threat.

That is why North Korea calls the policy of nuclear missile development its “all-powerful sword,” saying that it is fitting here or there.


1.2. The only way to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that will ease Kim Jong-un’s anxiety of security is for South Korea to go back in time 30 years.


In order to solve the North Korean nuclear and missile problem through the alleviation of Kim Jong-un’s apprehension about his system, ideology and hereditary rule, South Korea must return to a military dicatorship, regress society by 30 years and revert its economy to how it was in the 1970’s. That is the only way to regain the balance between North and South.

Of course, even in the 1970s, when the political and economic military balance between North and South was relatively stable, North Korea was already looking ahead and developing nuclear weapons …

The question is will we be able to convince North Korea to give up nuclear weapons through dialogue and negotiations?


2. It is impossible get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons through dialogue and negotiations.


North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons through dialogue and negotiations.

Whatever anybody says, whatever is offered, Kim Jong-un will work to complete the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and the deployment of a nuclear weapon that is capable of hitting Guam (whether it will reach US mainland is another question), and only when he has succeeded and has psychological security, will he enter negotiations to freeze nuclear weapons.


2.1. The Background to Kim Jong-un’s Adoption of the Economy-Nuclear Parallel Development Policy in March 2013.


It is important to look again to see why Kim Jong-un axed Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s camouflaged ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ policy and implemented the Economy-Nuclear Parallel Policy for the public deployment of nuclear weapons.

In actuality, Kim Jong-un’s announcement for the economy and nuclear parallel policy was a topic of controversy at the time as it meant that North Korea would be actively abandoning its strategy of using the nuclear card to get economic benefits from the United States and South Korea.

When Kim Jong-un inherited North Korea from his father Kim Jong-il in 2012, he inspected all military bases along the armistice line for a year and was able to check the status of all sectors in North Korean society including political economy.

At the time, the North Korean military was of the opinion that as it was no longer able to achieve unification under communism through the use of common military units it should use asymmetric weapons such as nuclear missiles. On the other hand, departments such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet were of the opinion that nuclear weapons should be developed in a more covert fashion, and North Korea should strive for economic modernization.

Kim Jong-un has made efforts to make economic reforms in North Korea through the construction of special economic zones, the promotion of tourism, and Moranbong Band concerts. However, on the other hand, he is also wondering whether he can kill two birds with one stone by keeping hereditary inheritance while also modernizing North Korea.


As a result, the adoption of the Economy-Nuclear Parallel Development Policy in March 2013 solidified the stance of hard-liners, such as Kim Jong-un and the Organization and Guidance Department, who wanted to cling onto hereditary leadership more rather than modernization. As a result, the purge of Jang Sung-thaek who had longed for reform and modernization was only inevitable.

From South Korea’s perspective, the development of nuclear missiles may appear to be an irrational decision that isolates North Korea more and prevents it from modernizing, but from the standpoint of Kim Jong-un, it is the only way to hold onto hereditary leadership.

Therefore, the North Korean nuclear issue should not be seen from a purely security and military point of view but rather from a political angle.


2.2. The benchmark of North Korea’s policies is the preservation of the Kim Family’s hereditary rule.


The benchmark for North Korean policy is whether it is favourable or not to the survival of the Kim Family’s hereditary rule.

Some argue that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons if it is given economic incentives, but China and Russia has proposed for a long time to construct railways, roads and gas pipes on the Korean Peninsula, but North Korea did not accept.

This is because if railways and roads are connected and the roads and railroads are filled by modes of transportation coming from South Korea, China and Russia, the regime fears that there will be a change in the North Korean people’s awareness and will eventually lead to a regime change.


2.3. Kim Jong-un considers South Korea to be a target of destruction


We should be aware that the military and economic divide between the North and South and the democratization of South Korea has made it a target that needs destroying for the Kim Family to survive.

The expressions such as making Seoul “a sea of flames” and reducing South Korea to “ashes” that leave the North Korean leader’s mouth so naturally, should not be taken lightly, and Kim Jong-un is serious about using nuclear weapons on the South Korean people.

With a new international order that legitimizes ‘humanitarian intervention’ and a possibility of an ‘Arab Spring’ arising through outside intervention, Kim Jong-un has the idea that the only way to block this humanitarian intervention is through nuclear and missile weapons.

Even if Kim Jong-un is promised regime security, Kim Jong-un will not able to overcome this anxiety. In the case that North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a large economic incentive from the US or South Korea, it will simply be a fraud as it was during the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework.


3. How should we respond?


3.1. The Danger of the Phased Approach to North Korea


There is no feasible phased approach in eliminating the nuclear threat that can be achieved by first drawing up an interim agreement to freeze North Korea’s nuclear missile tests.

North Korea may agree to freezing nuclear tests but it will never go into nuclear disarmament.

If we take military mitigation measures like lifting the sanctions or reducing ROK-US military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing their nuclear tests then it is the same as temporarily recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapon state and until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, South Korea will temporarily enter North Korea’s nuclear strike zone. This may then result in the dismantling of the international legal basis of the sanctions to date, and more dangerously, it will extend a lifeline to Kim Jong-un who had been drowning under sanctions.


3.2. A two-sided approach with sanctions and engagement is a realistic approach


If South Korea wants to hold a dominant leading position in solving North Korea’s nuclear issue, nuclear issues and inter-Korean relations should be separated. I think a ‘two-sided approach’ with sanctions and engagement is the most realistic policy.


3.2.1. The issue of nuclear missiles should continue in the direction of maintaining international sanctions until Kim Jong-un gives up his nuclear weapons himself

Ensuring that a ‘Korea Passing’ does not occur and US-ROK relations are well managed are an important aspect of international sanctions.


The biggest points of concern regarding the North Korean nuclear issue are

  • The Trump Administration being sucked into North Korea’s policy of ‘Tongmibongnam’ (a Korean term referring to the North’s strategy of communicating only with the U.S. and shunning the South), and enter negotiations regarding ‘nuclear freeze for the alleviation of sanctions’ with North Korea


  • Launching a surgical strike on North Korea


  • Deciding to remove THAAD or evacuate US soldiers.

Trump’s America First philosophy may lead to the abandonment of the US-ROK alliance of ‘We Go Together’ and eventually transform the US’ North Korean policy from ‘nuclear disarmament’ to ‘nuclear management.’ So, we must always be ready that the Trump Administration may come to agreement with North Korea through just receiving a promise of nuclear freeze or denuclearisation.


Both the US and South Korea must share all issues regarding the North Korean nuclear issue transparently at the US-ROK Summit in June so that only things that have been agreed are put into practice in line with the ‘We Go Together’ principle.


3.2.2. North Korea’s nuclear issue and inter-Korean relations should be separated, and the improvement of inter-Korean relations should be used as a means of persuading North Korea to nuclear disarmament.

South Korea can not build a wall with North Korea and go into a policy of ‘strategic nuclear ignorance policy’.

If we raise the condition that without any progress on the North Korean nuclear issue, there will be no progress on inter-Korean relations, at the end of the day, it means that unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons there is nothing South Korea can do.

We must manage North Korea using our own creative methods.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un should not be seen as a partner in resolving the nuclear issue but rather as a subject to be managed.


(1) Civil-level inter-Korean exchanges should be promoted within the framework of sanctions so that the wave of democratization enters North Korea through people.


(2) We need to abandon the existing notion of ‘there is no dialogue for the sake of dialogue’ and must go forward with ‘dialogue for the sake of dialogue’ so that North Korean policy-makers realise that modernization is not possible if they hold onto nuclear missile policies.

That means we must leave behind the notion that we should stick only to inter-Korean dialogue to make progress in the North Korean nuclear issue.


-If necessary, a inter-Korean summit should be held so that there may be ‘dialogue for the sake of dialogue’ and that Kim Jong-un, who has only heard the positive opinions of hard-liners in North Korea, can be confronted with the South Korean public and persuaded to change his ways.


-There are no restrictions saying that an inter-Korean Summit should follow other inter-Korean agreements like the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration or the October 4 Declaration. Even if a summit between the leaders is just a way for Kim Jong-un to get a sense of reality, it should be seen that it has achieved its objective.

Money or other incentives should not be given to carry out an inter-Korean summit. If this happens, it can lead to a misjudgement from Kim Jong-un and damage South Korea’s strong will.


(3) The Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang Tourist Region should be reopened so that the wages of North Korean workers and tourism expenses are paid in order to create a buffer for inter-Korean collision.


3.2.3. The time has come for a realistic policy to be created which acknowledges that North Korea needs a peaceful change of regime otherwise until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, South Korea is a slave to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

For decades we have been comforting ourselves with an unrealistic thought that it will take a considerable amount of time for North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities to become practical.

It is meaningless to look back at the past policy failures, but we must acknowledge the fact that we have already missed the crucial time to denuclearize North Korea.

We must acknowledge the reality that a possible nuclear war is approaching and must prepare to respond accordingly.

At present, it can be estimated that North Korea’s nuclear missile development has reached the level to hit Guam, but it is has not reached the stage of miniaturization of the nuclear warheads to put on a missile.

This suggests that North Korea may compromise to nuclear freeze even when it has not completed its ICBM, but with the success of miniaturization or at the “Little Boy” level where it can simply strike South Korea with nuclear weapons by aircraft.


(1) We must recognise that the missile defense capability of South Korea can not keep up with the development of North Korea’s missile technology, and thus we must take necessary defense and attack measures.

“Strategic ambiguity” is not a matter for defense security.


(2) We must conduct evacuation training in preparation for a situation in which North Korea develops nuclear weapons that can hit the US mainland and the US launches a preemptive attack.

While we should not create an atmosphere of anxiety or nuclear phobia in society, at the same time we should also just not sit around in such a carefree manner.


(3) As much as it is important to secure our own deterrent capability through the means of independent nuclear arsenal, diplomatic grounds should be used to convey the seriousness of North Korea’s nuclear problem and to solve the issue of THAAD with China


3.2.4. A long-term strategy of solving both issue of nuclear and unification should be taken through the dissemination of external information and projects to change their perception

We should work to have long-term negotiations and co-exist with the nuclear-possessed Kim Jong-un while also working to change the regime using peaceful methods.

If we continue to delay the process because of Kim Jong-un, the longer we will be held hostage by nuclear weapons.

We should use psychological warfare on North Korea as an ‘asymmetric weapon’ against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and raise the North Korean people’s awareness of human rights.

Until now, information dissemination has not been utilized as a form of asymmetric power when considering inter-Korean relations.

However, the situation has arisen that this powerful asymmetric tool should be should in solving the North Korean nuclear issue.

But a government that goes forward with inter-Korean dialogue can not use these asymmetric weapons directly.

Inter-Korean confrontation is a confrontation between liberal democracy and a dictatorship, a confrontation between diversity and Monolithism.

Thus, NGO’s should be supported to carry out activities that change the awareness of North Koreans to change the North Korean regime using peaceful methods.

While many ways to solve the North Korean nuclear problem are suggested, I believe that igniting a democratization movement through the dissemination of information to the North Korean people so there is a peaceful regime change will be the historical moment in which the nuclear issue and the issue of unification will surely be solved.