The Kim Dynasty and North Korea’s Nuclear Future: Will History Still Rhyme?

The Kim Dynasty and North Korea's Nuclear Future
Will History Still Rhyme?

by Jonathan D. Pollack
January 31, 2012

This is one of five essays in the book review roundtable on Jonathan Pollack’s No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security.

I am gratified by the appraisals of the four reviewers, all of whom express ample praise for No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, while also posing questions that require some elaboration. However, none could have anticipated the abrupt death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Kim’s passing provides an opportunity to revisit some of the book’s principal judgments. In her review, Sue Terry quotes one of my study’s essential arguments. As she notes, I attribute North Korea’s decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons primarily to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and the political- military system the two leaders sustained through a combination of highly militarized nationalism, unfettered power and internal control, and racial exclusivity. As she also notes, I observe that “the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities are part of the legacy that Kim Jong-il plan[ned] to bequeath to his son, much as his father mandated the building of a nuclear infrastructure that he then passed to Kim Jong-il.” What future awaits Kim Jong-un’s nuclear inheritance if he is able to consolidate power, and (even more important) what if he cannot?

Kim Jong-il’s death thus presents an opportunity to subject a specific hypothesis to a real-world test. Might a different leader (albeit from the same ruling family) alter North Korea’s long-standing strategic course, or will this only be possible if the present system either ceases to exist or undergoes an almost unimaginable transformation? In addition, at the time of Kim’s death the United States was close to preliminary agreement with Pyongyang, presaging a significant effort to resume nuclear diplomacy that largely ceased in late 2008. Most analysts expect that bilateral discussions between the United States and North Korea will resume after a period of official mourning in the North, possibly to be followed by resumption of the six-party talks. But would the outcome of renewed negotiations prove appreciably different from past episodes of frustrated (and deeply frustrating) diplomacy?

All four reviewers note that No Exit does not focus on policy options or negotiating strategies, and I do not propose to assess either issue in this essay. [End page 182] My book instead concentrates on how Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons is inextricably intertwined with the history of the North Korean state. Though North Korea’s nuclear development also reflects the tortuous history of the Cold War in Northeast Asia, the singular strategic convictions of the Kim dynasty were paramount in this process. Absent the determination of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to be answerable to no outside power and to develop and sustain their unique system, it is highly unlikely that the program could have continued indefinitely. If the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is attributable principally to the Kims and the scientific and military constituencies they supported, then the passage of power to a third-generation leadership will not necessarily diminish the commitment to a nuclear weapons program and might even increase it. But an appreciable de-emphasis on the program would suggest that the convictions of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il did not automatically transfer to the next generation, and would require reconsideration of one of my principal arguments.

There has been very little commentary in the immediate post–Kim Jong- il period on the nuclear weapons program, even as the first major editorial following Kim’s death declared that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would remain a “strong nuclear state.” [1] Most of the prevailing debate among specialists and commentators has focused on whether political succession will result in a collective leadership that redirects the system’s internal and external priorities (i.e., the reform hypothesis), or on whether Kim Jong-un will prove unable to consolidate power, leading to intense factional rivalry that could abruptly spell the end of the system (i.e., the collapse hypothesis). To an extent, these arguments are virtual articles of faith among their respective proponents. In one form or another, they have been debated ever since the Korean nuclear impasse emerged in the early 1990s as an issue in U.S. foreign policy.

Few, however, seem prepared to contemplate a third possibility: the persistence of the extant system for the foreseeable future. I do not believe that the DPRK is as prone to abrupt meltdown as many predict, but I also doubt that the post–Kim Jong-il leadership will prove capable of undertaking internal changes that many regard as essential to the survival of the system. If anything, domestic change could result in the erosion of internal control on which the system’s durability has depended. In the immediate aftermath of Kim’s death, the senior leadership seems intent on conveying that nothing has changed. But [End page 183] much remains unknown and perhaps unknowable about the configurations of power within North Korea, so external actors must prepare for unanticipated possibilities and potential surprises. The death of only the second leader in the history of the state and the elevation of a young, unproven son to top leadership could reveal fault lines that have been suppressed for decades, and old age will progressively take its toll among the elderly figures still occupying senior positions atop the system. (Tellingly, Kim Jong-il was the third-youngest member of the Korean Workers’ Party Politburo named in September 2010. His death thus slightly increases the average age of this body, though another much older member has also died in the interim.) In addition, North Korea has yet to recover from the widespread famine and deindustrialization of the mid and late 1990s, with ever larger portions of the population forced to eke out livelihoods outside the centrally administered economy. The possible spread of information within the North Korean population is an additional factor that could undermine loyalty to the regime. How these factors might influence the country’s evolution in the coming months and years takes me somewhat afield from the purposes of this essay, but they bear very careful observation and assessment. [2]

I had three principal objectives in undertaking my book: to avoid writing yet another U.S.-centric account of the North Korean nuclear issue; to provide a more fully grounded understanding of the system’s political history, a history underappreciated by many strategic analysts; and to assess how and why North Korea proved able to sustain nuclear weapons development in the face of opposition and pressure from adversaries and allies alike. My research drew primarily on Cold War archival materials, interviews with individuals knowledgeable about and experienced with North Korea, an abundance of recent literature on North Korean political history, detailed documentary analysis, and an understanding of nuclear technology. But several of the reviewers pose questions about my approach and analytic judgments that warrant additional discussion.

Is My Argument Too Kim-Centered?

Jeffrey Lewis and Toby Dalton assert that my account is overly “Kim- specific.” Their arguments reflect a difference between those with strategy and policy expertise and those viewing North Korea through the prism of its profoundly idiosyncratic history. Lewis and Dalton are nonproliferation [End page 184] specialists, whereas the other reviewers (Sue Terry and Sung-Yoon Lee) concentrate on Korean leadership, culture, and politics. I endeavored to bridge these two constituencies in No Exit, and in my view the differences between them are not necessarily all that great.

For those (including myself) immersed in the story of the North Korean state, the assumption of a Kim-based system is not particularly fanciful, even if it seems implausible. North Korea’s history is the history of the Kim dynasty and the organizations working on its behalf. There is no other state in the international system where a single family and those loyal to it have imposed their own personal vision as pervasively and as successfully as the Kims. If there is an alternative rendering of North Korean history, it remains invisible and unknown. Some observers, for example, doubt the expressions of grief on display in Pyongyang in the days following Kim Jong-il’s death; I do not. If anything, this emotional outpouring represents a more tempered version of what occurred following the death of Kim Il-sung, whose imprint on the DPRK was genuinely determinative and who possessed charisma and godlike authority that his son did not. Outsiders are often incredulous about the extent of the Kim family’s dominance, but the wealth of evidence from Cold War archives has moved scholarly understanding well past the hagiography dispensed by the regime. As I note in my opening chapter, North Korea is “a system like no other,” and this helps explain history that would otherwise be unimaginable.

Are There Unexamined Sources of Variation within the System?

Jeffrey Lewis and Toby Dalton both raise questions about whether my analysis omits possible alternative explanations of North Korea’s nuclear behavior. To a lesser degree, Sung-Yoon Lee argues that my discussion at times glosses over some important historical details. I appreciate Lee’s clarification of the sequence of several key events and of how the DPRK has often timed its actions to correlate with significant dates on the North Korean political calendar. His observations add to our understanding of the North’s capacity for highly orchestrated actions. However, I would still assert that the unwillingness of any leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to travel to North Korea during the entire history of the Soviet Union reveals much about Moscow’s acute suspicions of the North Korean leadership.

Dalton also argues that there was (and is) an underlying geopolitical logic to North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Given that the DPRK is a small state surrounded by far more powerful neighbors, this argument has had undoubted resonance within the North Korean leadership, and the two [End page 185] Kims often employed this rationale to justify their actions, including the acute privation imposed on the populace, especially under Kim Jong-il. But the system’s vulnerability and isolation derived from policy choices made by the Kims and their immediate circle. As I argue throughout the book, Kim Il-sung had an abiding distrust of the outside world, but this also reflected his deep suspicions about the loyalties of those within the North Korean system. Such suspicions inhibited Kim from sustaining lasting relationships even with his closest allies, and this trait was even more pronounced under his son, who appeared to lack a capacity for manipulation and sheer audacity equivalent to that of his father. I also believe that these traits led inexorably to the pursuit of a nuclear capability, which in the eyes of both Kims denied any outside actor control over the system’s fate.

Wading into the morass of intention and action can be problematic in all historical accounts, and not just for a system as hermetically sealed as North Korea. No Exit draws on an abundance of materials from former Soviet and East European archives. Information from Chinese archives remains very limited, though this is beginning to change, albeit selectively. For example, new research findings have yielded additional insight into Kim Il-sung’s long manipulation of his Chinese allies, as well as Deng Xiaoping’s persistent efforts to curb North Korean risk-taking, seldom with lasting effect. [3] Though Kim Il- sung’s words and actions often emerge from these archival materials, we are left with a necessarily incomplete picture. But the gaps in understanding on North Korea’s nuclear history and strategic calculations have diminished, and will most likely be further reduced as new materials become available. (The Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars plays a particularly vital role in this regard.) Nonetheless, Lewis’s argument that I presume undue familiarity with the “inner mental life” of Kim Il-sung is an important point. Though my conclusions derive from cumulative knowledge of Kim’s convictions and actions over nearly a half century in power, these are still judgments from the outside looking in. As Lewis notes, neither I nor anyone else has firsthand knowledge of the “inner workings of the regime in Pyongyang.” But it is not a large inferential leap to attribute North Korean behavior to either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, even in the absence of a detailed understanding of the inner workings of the system.

Dalton also raises the issue of agency. Since I assert that Kim Jong-il was an imitative rather than an innovative leader, he argues that I have not fully [End page186] considered the role of the North Korean military as “a significant but unseen protagonist throughout this saga.” But it is unimaginable in a system dominated so pervasively by the Kim family that North Korean military or scientific personnel were not operating at the Kims’ behest. It is entirely plausible that military R&D personnel pressed vigorously for support of the nuclear program, but they were pushing through a door that had already been opened for them.

Without question, Kim Jong-il sought to expropriate military symbols and power to buttress his claims to legitimacy. His “military first” strategy may have been his one claim to innovation beyond what his father bequeathed to him; to that extent, I would slightly modify my assertion that he followed his father’s lead in all circumstances. But the centrality of military power throughout the entire history of the regime is beyond dispute. One leading authority on North Korean politics, Ruediger Frank, argues that the Korean Workers’ Party began to reassert its prerogatives during Kim Jong-il’s final years, a judgment Frank believes is further substantiated in the aftermath of Kim’s death. [4] To the extent that such a trend is fully confirmed and persists, it would suggest a potential realignment of institutional forces within the system. But the incongruous designation of Kim Jong-un and Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister, as four-star generals in fall 2010 and the appearance of the latter’s husband, Jang Song-taek, in a four-star uniform days following Kim Jong-il’s death underscore the symbiotic relationship between the Kim family and the officers under its command. [5]

What Comes Next?

As several of the reviewers note, No Exit does not offer any grand policy recommendations, nor is it particularly grounded in theory. My reference to Jacques Hymans’s important work reflects my appreciation for the keen insights of his book, which has undoubted relevance to the North Korean case. [6] But I did not seek to apply his theory, only to cite it as a highly apt characterization of nuclear policymaking under both Kims. Reconstructing the technical and political history of North Korea’s nuclear development and telling this story in a volume of relatively modest length (albeit one with ample primary source references, lest anyone challenge the basis for my judgments) seemed [End page187] a sufficiently daunting project. Moreover, beyond a brief reference to policy options for addressing the uncertainties and risks should North Korea sustain nuclear weapons development in future years, I do not weigh the dangers and unknowns in any detail.

North Korea’s disclosure of uranium enrichment activities introduces a potentially very ominous change in its nuclear future. Pyongyang vociferously denied any involvement with enrichment for nearly a decade, until it publicly declared its interest in centrifuge technology in spring 2009 and then revealed the existence of an enrichment facility (purportedly to produce low-enriched uranium for an experimental light-water reactor) to Siegfried Hecker and his colleagues in late 2010. [7] North Korea has since intimated its possible willingness to suspend enrichment operations at Yongbyon, which would be an essential prerequisite to any renewed denuclearization agreement. However, Hecker and Olli Heinonen, a former senior official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are both convinced that the DPRK has one or more undisclosed facilities that are producing highly enriched uranium, unobserved and unmonitored by outside powers. [8] Nor has any Western expert been allowed to return to Yongbyon since the visit of Hecker and his colleagues in November 2010.

To describe North Korea’s nuclear conduct as defined by opacity is a huge understatement. Any presumptive nuclear agreement that fails to address the possibilities of a second means of fissile-material production would be fatally flawed. Even though most nuclear scientists deem plutonium-based weapons as technologically superior to a highly enriched uranium design, the latter materials offer a more predictable path to an operational weapons capability. Any additional production of weapons-grade plutonium would require North Korea to restart its decrepit gas graphite reactor. That reactor is also subject to inherent limitations, with its maximal production of fissile material approximating the amount needed for one weapon per year.

Is it possible that North Korea will refrain from additional nuclear tests? In Hecker’s view, if the DPRK intends to pursue an operational capability, an additional test or tests are unavoidable. Should a third test utilize highly enriched uranium, North Korea’s weapons potential would no longer be limited to the output of the reactor at Yongbyon. The DPRK would then have the means [ End page 188] to produce fissile material in far greater quantities. A nuclear test utilizing highly enriched uranium would also reinforce North Korea’s stated claims to notional equality with the major nuclear powers, all of whom have tested bombs employing both kinds of fissile material.

North Korea’s future nuclear decisions will necessarily reflect political as well as technical considerations. In fall 2011, informed Chinese experts intimated that North Korean officials (presumably including Kim Jong-il) had provided assurances that the DPRK would forgo additional nuclear and missile tests. A binding commitment to Beijing would thus reflect a “return on investment” for China’s heightened economic and political support of the Kim regime since fall 2009. But will Beijing’s guarded optimism be validated? Pyongyang’s past pledges of nuclear restraint have been conditional and reversible. Kim Jong-il never offered an unequivocal commitment to denuclearization, and nearly all claims about Kim’s supposed willingness to resume nuclear negotiations were based on remarks quoted by Chinese and Russian officials, not direct statements by Kim Jong-il or any other North Korean leader. The history of the regime is littered with examples of both Kims acting in defiance of Moscow and Beijing. Is there any reason to believe that a successor leadership drawn exclusively from Kim Jong-il’s circle of close subordinates will prove more trustworthy?

Chinese officials argue that, in the immediate succession to Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang will focus on Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power and continued preparations for the one hundredth anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, which will presumably still be observed on April 15, 2012. For added measure, North Korea’s hopes for the election next December of a South Korean president more aligned with Pyongyang’s preferences could be seriously undermined by another nuclear test. These expectations, though plausible, are necessarily conjectural. Should the DPRK yet again defy China and test another weapon or long-range missile, such an act might well answer the questions that Dalton feels I do not satisfactorily address: whether Beijing has options between the partial containment of the North’s nuclear pursuits and the buying of time, and whether China would be prepared to employ more direct pressure to constrain the North Korean program, including heightened collaboration with the United States and others. Given China’s risk aversion and its own impending political succession, it is far from certain that Beijing would be prepared to contemplate more coercive measures in response to renewed defiance by Pyongyang. Though China’s leaders are deeply vexed by North Korea’s nuclear pursuits, other fears (including what Beijing views as the unpredictable consequences of directly pressuring an embattled North Korean leadership) have thus far assumed higher precedence in Chinese calculations. [ End page 189]

All four reviewers acknowledge that nuclear weapons constitute an indelible part of the legacy of both Kims. Has the program reached a stage of development where it is essentially irreversible? What are the strategic consequences in Northeast Asia and for the nonproliferation regime should there be no exit? These are disquieting but crucial questions as North Korea’s leadership contemplates the next phase of the system’s improbable, disturbing history. There is no evidence that there are forces within the system prepared to envision a future without a nuclear identity, even if we cannot be certain about the extent and form of this identity. Regardless of North Korea’s nuclear future, the echoes of the past are certain to reverberate. They are the constant, painful reminders of North Korea’s profound alienation from the international system, all in the name of a regime that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were determined to build and sustain, no matter what the costs and consequences.

[End page 190]


[1] “Kim Jong-il Will Always Live in Hearts of People,” Rodong Sinmun, December 22, 2011,

[2] See, in particular, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011).

[3] See, in particular, Sergey Radchenko, “North Korea and the End of the Cold War, 1985–1991” (paper presented at an international conference on “China-DPRK Relations during the Cold War,” Shanghai, October 14–15, 2011).

[4] Ruediger Frank, “The Party as the Kingmaker: The Death of Kim Jong Il and Its Consequences for North Korea,” 38 North, December 21, 2011,

[5] Chico Harlan, “A Week after N. Korean Leader’s Death, Signs of Smooth Transition,” Washington Post, December 25, 2011.

[6] Jacques E.C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[7] For additional details, consult Siegfried S. Hecker, “Extraordinary Visits: Lessons Learned from Engaging with North Korea,” Nonproliferation Review 18, no. 2 (2011): 444–55.

[8] See Hecker, Chaim Braun, and Robert L. Carlin, “North Korea’s Light-Water Reactor Ambitions,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management 39, no. 3 (2011): 18–25; and Olli Heinonen, “North Korea’s Nuclear Enrichment: Capabilities and Consequences,” 38 North, June 22, 2011,

Jonathan D. Pollack is a Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton Center of the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in Chinese foreign and security policy, U.S.-China relations, Korean political-military affairs, and U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy.

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