North Korean Nuclear Brinkmanship: Testing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has already made a decision to become a declared nuclear weapons state. This is in contrast to a previous decision several years ago to become a nuclear weapons possessing state. Even after North Korea became a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, it was able to avoid fulfilling its obligations (IAEA inspections) long enough to extract sufficient plutonium for 1-2 nuclear weapons. North Korea did this without publicly acknowledging it.

The choices Pyongyang had to make in the early 1990s were essentially unformed and influenced by larger events taking place. It watched as the Soviet Union disintegrated and its traditional ally, China, made overtures to South Korea. Pyongyang wasn’t making long-term strategic decisions when it decided to extract plutonium for a nuclear weapons program. Like many of Pyongyang’s decisions, it was taking advantage of what was available at the time and hoping to maintain a shroud of secrecy around its activities.

We saw this same kind of decision-making process years later when Pyongyang probably was presented with a barter opportunity by Pakistan. In exchange for missile technology and assistance for which Pyongyang thought it would be paid hard currency, Islamabad offered to provide Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) hardware, technology and technical assistance. At the time, Pyongyang was already years into its obligations under the 1994 Agreed Framework and the US and its allies were providing North Korea with 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil each year until the first of two light water reactors (LWR) were completed.

Pyongyang has a record of initiating a series of secret, sensitive endeavors designed to be carried out in contravention to public promises it has made. The secret tunnels under the DMZ, the covert plutonium extraction at Yonbyon prior to 1992 and the more recent covert HEU program are just a few of the more prominent examples of North Korean behavior. Other, more overt acts of terrorism such as the 1987 downing of a South Korean airliner (KAL 858) over Southeast Asia, the bombing of the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983, or the commando incursion by submarine into South Korea in September 1996 need to be factored in when trying to decipher North Korean decision-making we have come to associate with brinkmanship.