North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Proliferation and Regional Security

Current Issues Brief 1 1999-2000

Professor James Cotton
Consultant, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
31 August 1999


Managing North Korea's Nuclear Program
North Korea's Missile Program
International Reactions and Responses
Significance for Regional Stability
Principles for Managing the North Korean Situation
Bibliographical Notes

Korean Peninsula

Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, Map no. 802191(R00141)7-98


Note: This Current Issues Brief is a supplement to an earlier paper by the author-'The Koreas in 1999: Between Confrontation and Engagement' (Research Paper No. 14, 1998-99, March 1999)-which provides a detailed background to the issues discussed here.

North Korea's announced intention to test launch a multi-stage missile has prompted the most serious crisis on the Korean peninsula since the nuclear confrontation of 1993. If the test is conducted, the US, Japan and South Korea have threatened unspecified sanctions. If these include a freeze on funding to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, the future of the 'Agreed Framework' which resolved the 1993 nuclear crisis will be at risk. In both Japan and the US an intense debate is raging on whether to continue to offer Pyongyang further inducements in the hope that its behaviour will improve, or whether the time has come to punish a regime that shows no inclination to alter its policy in the light of the concerns of its neighbours.

The three powers have agreed on the outlines of a 'package deal', prepared by former Defense Secretary and Korean policy coordinator William Perry. Even though Perry himself has discussed the package with the North Korean authorities, the details have yet to be made public. The United States and South Korea were waiting for the conclusion of the August round of the 'Four Party Talks' (involving the two Koreas, the US, and China) which recently concluded. It is reported that North Korea will be offered new and broader incentives, possibly even including diplomatic relations, in exchange for security reassurances and restraint in the development of offensive technologies. But the Perry package may not be offered if North Korea continues with its missile program. This paper argues that if a quarantine is placed on North Korea, any chance to change the North Korean system-which would be the only step that would defuse the Korean issue permanently-would be lost.

Managing North Korea's Nuclear Program

Since October 1994 North Korea's nuclear program has been constrained by the conditions of the 'Agreed Framework'. Up to that time and in breach of its multi-lateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, North Korea was developing a clandestine weapons capability. This is now frozen under an agreement that has required the United States to establish a multi-lateral agency-Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO)-to construct two reactors of an international standard inside North Korea. The European Union (EU) and other countries have donated funds towards the operating costs of KEDO; so far, Australia, in the interests of encouraging regional non-proliferation, has contributed A$11 million. Aside from their much greater safety characteristics, the reactors to be constructed are regarded as less weapons applicable because they will depend upon imported fuel and thus upon an external fuel cycle which can be interdicted if required.

This agreement defused the 1993 crisis but is less than ideal. North Korea, so far, has evaded the obligation of transparency that it owes to all other NPT signatories. Indeed, North Korea will only be required to comply with full International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections no earlier than 2003 when the reactors are completed. The deal, however, was thought to be worth the cost at the time, heading off a possible war on the peninsula and helping to create the conditions that allowed the NPT to be extended.

The operations of KEDO have been dogged by a series of disputes-from nomenclature of the reactor type to difficulties in raising the US$4.6 billion required under current estimates-but at present an international team, the bulk of whom are from South Korea, are in residence in the North constructing the reactors. This in itself is an important confidence building initiative. In August South Korea approved a contribution of US$3.4 billion to the final KEDO budget. Meanwhile, activity at the indigenous North Korean nuclear facility has been halted, and nuclear fuel there is under international supervision. United States suspicions that an underground construction site might be a new clandestine reactor were assuaged earlier this year as a result of an on-site inspection.

North Korea's Missile Program

North Korea's missile program is under no comparable restraints. North Korea acquired 'SCUD B' technology through collaboration with China and Iran, as well as Egypt (which supplied missile prototypes) in the early 1980s. With the help of financing from Iran, North Korea extended the payload and range of the type, producing a very much enhanced model powered by multiple engines-designated the No-dong-which was test flown in May 1993. This missile, which has an estimated range of 1350 kms (bringing all of Japan and much of North and East China within its range) may now be deployed. North Korea possesses mobile launchers for these missiles, and may be adapting 'GOLF' class submarines, acquired from Russia in 1994, as an alternative launch platform.

The two missile variants were then used as the basis for a multi-stage rocket-designated the Taep'o-dong-which was used, according to the North Koreans, to launch a satellite in August 1998. The second stage of the vehicle overflew Japan, splashing down about 1500 kms from the launchsite. At the time, US specialists could find no trace of the alleged satellite; later some reports claimed that a third (and solid fuelled) stage, though unsuccessful if its payload was a satellite, nevertheless traversed much of the Pacific before crashing into waters off Alaska. US specialists maintain that North Korea is developing a longer range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) version of the Taep'o-dong which could strike targets in the continental US and much of Asia by around 2003. This missile appears to be a further development of SCUD technology using multiple engines. According to some sources, certain of its features may also be copied from the CSS-2 missile type developed by China.

North Korea's missile program also has an export dimension. It has been claimed that North Korea has exported as many as 400 SCUD type missiles to Iran and Syria. Iranian testing and production of SCUD type missiles was the result of the transfer of technology and components from North Korea. The 'war of the cities' waged between Iran and Iraq during their eight-year conflict was largely fuelled by North Korean missiles and technology. And North Korean expertise seems to have played a part in more recent destabilising missile proliferation in West Asia. In 1998 both Pakistan and Iran tested missiles that would seem to have been derived, at least in part, from No-Dong technology. In the past three years North Korea has participated in talks on joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). However, Pyongyang has claimed that it would lose a significant export market by so doing, and has sought US$500 million as compensation.

International Reactions and Responses

What is the connection between the nuclear and missile issues, apart from providing some substance to the claim that North Korea is a 'rogue state'? At present North Korea's nuclear program is on hold; its missile production and exports though they labour under various export control restrictions are under no such constraint. For the time being, while North Korea has the capacity and materials to build a nuclear weapon, it is generally regarded as not yet possessing the expertise to overcome the considerable guidance and payload factors that obstruct the marrying of the two technologies.

Despite the technological limitations of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs so far, the United States, Japan and South Korea regard these missile developments as a profound challenge to their security and to their alliances. Japan is threatening to withdraw its more than US$1 billion support for KEDO if North Korea tests further missiles. South Korean domestic opinion is undermining President Kim Dae-jung's 'sunshine policy' of engagement with the North, and Seoul is considering cutting off relief aid, tourism, and reconstruction funds. And the mood in the US Congress and in some leading American think tanks is becoming hostile to what is described as the repeated rewarding by the Clinton administration of Pyongyang's 'bad behaviour'. According to the findings of the Rumsfeld Commission (on future strategic threats to the United States), North Korean weapons and proliferation are 'a major threat to the US and to US interests'.

Japan may develop its own satellite surveillance technology to counter the North Korean threat, this development being related also to a more nationalistic mood which is emerging in the shadow of this and other regional challenges. Already South Korea has indicated it may experiment with missiles of its own that exceed the limitations imposed by its alliance with the US. But if these countries go so far as to undermine the Agreed Framework, then the North Koreans may reasonably claim that it was the United States that failed to observe its multilateral undertakings, and that indeed all the regional powers are conspiring to repress it. Without this agreement, North Korea may resume its frozen indigenous nuclear program. As a further counter-measure, the US may continue to pursue the introduction of Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) in Northeast Asia. Already funds have been designated to establish a joint US-Japan study into the feasibility of TMD. Such a system is regarded by China as destabilising, yet China's cooperation in relation to North Korea is required given its influence in Pyongyang, and its continuing role in the 'Four Party Talks'.

At the present time the administrations in Tokyo and Washington have indicated that they intend to 'quarantine' the funding for the Agreed Framework and KEDO from possible sanctions against North Korea. But in this regard, the US is dependent upon Congressional approval, which may well be withheld. Even before the missile crisis Congress was most reluctant to grant monies to finance Washington's responsibilities, which include the delivery of heavy fuel oil to North Korea. These funds, though delayed, were eventually approved, but President Clinton was obliged to certify North Korea's continued observance of its side of the agreement before they could be expended. Similarly, opinion in Japan's Diet is hard to predict, especially in the light of repeated North Korean statements to the effect that Japan is regarded as a hostile state.

It is the intention of Washington to pressure or to induce Pyongyang to join the MTCR. But the MTCR is basically a supply-side anti-proliferation regime. It is unlike the NPT, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and other regimes where restraint on the part of the members in developing weapons technologies is required. In particular, it is a weapons regime that places no limits on the domestic activities of those who possess the weapons technology. The North Koreans are thus accurate when they point out its partiality. Nor has it been an especially successful regime, even where impartially applied. In other theatres its existence has slowed but not stopped missile proliferation.

Significance for Regional Stability

Against these developments, and even given that it can be argued that the regime in Pyongyang must rate as among the world's most recalcitrant, four points need to be kept in mind.

First, North Korea's nuclear program cannot be compared with those of Israel, India or Pakistan. All three, and particularly the first two, have benefited from United States assistance, training, supplies and prototypes. North Korean existing reactors are 1950s technology. If North Korea does possess fissile material, it is a very small amount, enough perhaps to make two or three nuclear devices as compared to perhaps two hundred in the case of Israel. At the moment, the biggest threat posed by North Korea's nuclear activities relates to poor safety standards and lack of technologies to deal with spills and other accidents.

Second, North Korea's missile technology is similarly extremely dated. This is presently technology that is thirty years old. Information sharing with other states may improve North Korea's missiles further, but the capabilities of the SCUD type that North Korea has extended and improved have just about reached their limit. The one real innovation in the 1998 Taep'o-dong launching was the fact that the final stage was solid fuelled, but this apparently did not function. Moreover, the reliability of the whole of North Korea's missile effort is evidently not good. Around half of the missile tests conducted from 1984 have failed; some reports have claimed that as many as eight of the SCUD missiles exported to Iran for use against Iraq exploded on launch.

Third, even if it succeeds in assembling a nuclear weapon, North Korea could never employ such a weapon for offensive purposes. So long as the US remains engaged in Korea, its actual use would result in the abandonment of any restraint on the part of Washington, and the swift demise of the North Korean state. North Korean nuclear weapons are therefore for deterrent purposes. They may also be a bargaining chip: if the indigenous program really has been frozen as is required by the Agreed Framework, then it is a chip that has already been cashed.

Fourth, North Korea does not need missiles to attack South Korea or Japan, or US installations in the region. North Korea possesses aircraft that are more effective and accurate means of delivering a larger payload. Missiles of this type are principally psychological and political weapons. Even if North Korea were to develop an ICBM, any use of it would spell the immediate end of the regime.

If North Korea is to be punished and quarantined for these activities, the partiality of such action would be patent. The moral would be drawn that proliferators (providing they are not US allies) must actually assemble and test their weapons in order to be taken seriously. And if the 'Agreed Framework' were to be scuttled in the process, the North Koreans could reasonably claim that it was the United States that failed to honour its commitments. Further, if North Korea cannot be induced to join the MTCR, the deficiencies in that regime must be held partly to blame. Nor should any action be taken without securing China's acquiescence.

These issues are therefore of very serious regional concern. Possible action by the US and its allies may also impact upon international weapons control regimes.

Principles for Managing the North Korean Situation

With these points in view, the author suggests that two principles should guide policy towards North Korea.

First, although many in the region and in the US have come to expect the demise of the North Korean state (and its unification with South Korea), it continues to exist as a sovereign entity despite its tribulations. A more formal recognition of its sovereign status would generate no more costs to the international community than are borne at present, and may bring potential benefits. The clearest consequence of treating it as a pariah is to feed the undoubted paranoia of its leadership. Neither Japan nor the US has diplomatic relations with North Korea. Since 1990 Japan has conducted talks with North Korea with the intention of negotiating full diplomatic relations, but these have never been realised. The United States maintains a wide range of sanctions against North Korea and its government, including trade and aid restrictions. The US Executive Directors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are also directed to refrain from approving loans or financial assistance to North Korea. Under the 'Agreed Framework' the US is pledged to improve relations, but talks to open reciprocal diplomatic offices in each country have not made much progress. A more pragmatic approach to North Korea might contribute to easing the sense of isolation felt in Pyongyang, and would undoubtedly improve communications.

Second, policy towards North Korea should be framed in order to encourage internal change. The present regime will probably never willingly change its fundamentals. Therefore, engaging the social and economic dynamics of the country may present the only prospects for improving the behaviour of the country in the longer term. As the result of famine and the decay of the former socialist economy, sizeable tracts of the country are being left to their own devices. The proto-market relations that are developing there should be encouraged by aid programs provided in the name of multi-lateral agencies and the United Nations. North Korea will depend for some time to come on international relief and food supplies. At the very least, these should be delivered in such a way as to foster local civil society and individual enterprise. An international quarantine, apart from imposing extraordinary suffering on the ordinary people, would obstruct the exercise of such leverage.


North Korea's nuclear and missile programs remain one of the most serious sources of tension in the Asia-Pacific region. As has been argued, North Korea does not have technologically sophisticated nuclear or missile capacities and their use would be likely to lead very quickly to the end of the North Korean regime and to widespread destruction of the country. Nonetheless, the isolationist and bellicose stance of the North Korean regime and its continuing confrontation of South Korea are a continuing source of suspicion both among its immediate neighbours and internationally. Because of this, opinion in the US and Japan, and especially in the US Congress, is not likely to lead those countries to resile from some form of sanctions against North Korea, if the North Koreans persist in their missile program.


  1. For reports on the GOLF class submarines see the entries for 18 January 1994 in Greg J. Gerardi and James A. Plotts, 'An Annotated Chronology of DPRK Missile Trade and Developments',

Bibliographical Notes

On the future of North Korea:

Byung-joon Ahn, 'The Man who would be Kim', Foreign Affairs 73(1994), no. 6, 94-108.

Stephen W. Linton, 'North Korea under the son', The Washington Quarterly 19(1996), no. 2, 3-17.

Marcus Noland, 'Why North Korea will muddle through', Foreign Affairs 76(1997), no. 4, 105-18.

Young Whan Kihl, 'Why the Cold War Persists in Korea: Inter-Korean and Foreign Relations', in David R. McCann, ed., Korea Briefing: Toward Reunification, (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 49-69.

Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig, 'North Korea Between Collapse and Reform', Asian Survey 39(1999), no 2, 287-309.

On proliferation issues:

William E. Barrows and Robert Windrem, Critical Mass. The dangerous race for superweapons in a fragmenting world (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

On the North Korean missile program:

James Oberg, 'Missiles for All: more missiles flood the world and reach farther than ever', IEE Spectrum, March 1999, 20-28.

Federation of American Scientists,

Greg J Gerardi and James A. Plotts, 'An Annotated Chronology of DPRK Missile Trade and Developments',