BY CHARLOTTE UMEMOTO, Asia and Deputy Editor
Part one: Political and financial reasons
North Korea was described as an ‘axis of evil’ in Bush’s State of Union Address. North Korea also gained a reputation for being run by a ‘little rocket man’. Such comments can be explained by the fact that North Korea acquired nuclear weapons.
Firstly, North Korea acquired nuclear weapons for political reasons. According to Bell, nuclear weapons can lead to ‘six conceptually distinct foreign policy behaviours: aggression, expansion, independence, bolstering, steadfastness, and compromise’. I argue that North Korea’s foreign policy largely focuses on aggression and bolstering purposes.
In the early 1990s, the Korean Peninsula was described to be in a ‘state of uncertainty’. Seoul’s power and influence were said to grow due to its economic and diplomatic successes. This improved South Korea’s relations with both Russia and China. In the meantime, socialist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe. Therefore, it can be said that North Korea may have felt threatened by the changing state of the world. Previously, North Korea had the support of the USSR or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. According to the Guardian, the USSR helped to ‘rebuild’ North Korea in the aftermath of the war. The Soviet Prime Minister Malekov maintained that Russian aid would assist North Korea in ‘uphold[ing] its freedom and independence and thwart[ing] the aggressive plans of the American imperialists’. The aid came in the form of equipment and simple credit terms. In addition, approximately £92 million was granted by the USSR to help North Korea rebuild power stations, its industries and railways systems. Thus, North Korea lost an important ally. It can also be said that North Korea believed that Russia had gone against their 1961 treaty. This may have led to North Korea focusing on obtaining a nuclear weapon and leading to its departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Therefore, it is apparent that the changing state of the world may have worried the North Korean administration and therefore acted as a catalyst. In other words, North Korea sought nuclear weapons in order to deter potential threats and to protect itself.
North Korea is said to have a nuclear stance ‘predicated on ensuring minimum deterrence’. It is the argument that if a country has a proven ability to produce nuclear weapons, the size of its stockpile and its ability to deliver it are peripheral in comparison. Steinhoff, former Chief of Staff to the Federal German Air force, as cited by McNamara, Former US Secretary of State, argued that nuclear weapons could be used as ‘potential tools’ rather than ‘battleground weapons’. He also noted that such weapons could have a ‘strategic use’. This supports my belief that North Korea sought nuclear weapons in order to protect itself by deterring potential threats. My assertion is supported by the North Korean’s government policy: ‘The nuclear weapons of the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea serve the purpose of deterring the aggression and attack of the enemy against the DPRK’.
Ironically, it can be argued that whilst North Korea may have sought nuclear weapons in order to reduce its vulnerability, it does the opposite. If Trump decided to adopt the ‘Mad-man’ theory of deterrence, which is acting provocatively deliberately in order to escalate a crisis and scare an opponent into backing down, it is potentially more likely that North Korea would retaliate. This is due to the fact that the general discourse and intentions of the Trump government are unclear. The unpredictability of the situation may lead North Korea to fear that Trump would use force.
Another significant reason is the fact that North Korea’s ‘ultimate goal is the reunification of the Korean peninsula’. Kim Jong Un could believe that the weapons would prevent or at least discourage the US from involving itself in this process. Currently, South Korea is the third largest host of US military forces with approximately 23,000 people on duty. It is a remnant of the Korean War. North Korea may feel threatened by the fact that its neighbours such as South Korea and Japan have the support of the US and its nuclear capacities.
In terms of financial advantages, North Korea may have acquired nuclear weapons because they can use it as a bargaining chip. There has been a pattern in terms of interaction between North Korea and its supposed enemies. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. In response, the UN imposed economic and commercial sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions included an embargo on military and technological products and included financial sanctions too. A month later, North Korea agreed to re-joining the Six-Party Talks. This is significant because North Korea had previously withdrawn from the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003. It suggests that the possession of nuclear weapons is a political bargaining chip. In addition, a year after the initial test, North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon reactor; this was in response to receiving 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil in aid. In 2008, North Korea was removed from the terrorist blacklist. Previously, North Korea had been referred to as part of ‘an axis of evil’ in Bush’s (2002) State of Union address. In response, North Korea agreed to provide full access to its Yongbyon nuclear site. The dynamics and intentions of the North Korea state seem to be about manipulating its historic foreign enemies, South Korea, Japan and the United States, by using fear to access foreign aid. Thus, there seems to be a financial incentive to acquire and keep nuclear weapons. It allows North Korea to receive foreign attention and most importantly, foreign aid, in times of need. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons could consolidate the state’s power and domestic hold over the country.
Floods, Famine and Foreign Aid
North Korea suffered a significant famine in the 1990s. The four-year event was said to lead to two to three million deaths. Andrew Natsios who was President’s Bush’s aid coordinator believed that the ‘confidence in the government’ had ‘been shaken’. Therefore, perhaps the country’s increasing focus on military pursuit including, of course, acquiring nuclear weapons could be an attempt to prove the state’s ‘power’ and deflect negative attention on the sad and struggling state of the country. In 1994, North Korea made requests to the US and Japan to provide food assistance. Two years later, North Korea experienced significant flooding which further worsened the country’s condition and the state’s ability to provide food. Interestingly, North Korea announced that it would no longer uphold its armistice agreement and sent thousands of troops into the demilitarised zone. In my opinion, this suggests that there is a correlation or connection between the circumstances of the government and its militaristic actions.
The floods can be regarded as significant because it provided the government with a reason to appeal to other countries for their assistance. Therefore, perhaps, it can be said that North Korea may have acquired nuclear weapons so that they could have a stake in society. Thus, the fact that they possess the weapons may be a blackmail attempt or as a bargaining chip. It could be designed to force countries to give aid in the form of finances or latterly, food in return for concessions. This makes sense because North Korea is said to be desperate for hard currency.