North Korea’s nuclear leverage

World powers can no longer ignore the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear programme.

North Korea test-fires missiles into East Sea
The elite in Pyongyang have not the slightest inclination to sacrifice the programme, writes Lankov [Reuters]

According to a report leaked to the Wall Street Journal, at a recent closed meeting of US and Chinese nuclear experts, Chinese nuclear experts allegedly warned their US colleagues that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is growing faster than expected.

If these reports are believed, the Chinese now estimate that North Korea has produced up to 20 nuclear devices and will probably double its present arsenal in the near future.

One cannot be absolutely certain whether this particular report is correct. In the last few months, we have seen a number of leaks from the US defence establishment that seemingly indicate that the North Korean nuclear programme’s progress is accelerating.

North Korea test-fires missiles ahead of military drills

For years, most analysts believed that the number of nuclear devices at North Korea’s disposal was counted in the single digits. But now, we frequently hear that they number in the dozens (either available now or soon to be).

Missile capabilities

Simultaneously, there are alarming reports about the increase of North Korea’s missile capabilities – including the alleged attempts to develop submarine-based missiles

No doubt, such leaks might be deliberately engineered by forces within US defence circles interested in attracting greater public attention to the North Korean nuclear programme. Nonetheless, there still remains the very high likelihood that the leaks contain a great deal of truth. It does indeed appear that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is fast growing.

It would be strange to expect anything else. Indeed, for the last seven or eight years, US policy vis-a-vis North Korea has followed a line commonly known as “Strategic Patience”, often known as “Benevolent Neglect” policy.

It was assumed that the US should ignore both threats and advances from Pyongyang so long as the latter did not show any willingness to surrender its nuclear programme permanently.

In practise, this ‘Strategic Patience’ policy meant that the United States has pretended North Korea does not exist.


Of course, the elite in Pyongyang have not the slightest inclination to sacrifice the programme; they see it as the chief guarantor of their security. They are all too aware of what happened to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the only strongman to have agreed to surrender his nuclear weapons programme for promised economic advantages. Therefore, in practise, this “Strategic Patience” policy meant that the US has pretended North Korea does not exist.

Perhaps there were some that hoped and expected that UN-imposed sanctions would create unbearable economic difficulties for Pyongyang – ie, “the sanctions would bite”, as Washington hard-liners used to say years ago. Such expectations have proven to be quite unrealistic, however.

For North Korea, the last decade has been a time of significant economic growth, rather than a time of economic hardship and collapse.

The North Korean government has hence done what any rational government would do in its place: They decided to demonstrate to the Americans that they will not wither away, but instead are fully able to make more trouble for the US.

The North Koreans have not ceased their nuclear weapons development, rather they have sped up the process. The result has been the significant growth of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear diplomacy

This growth per se probably does not dramatically alter the situation. North Korea with 20 nuclear devices is not four times more dangerous than a North Korea with only five bombs. Nonetheless, the change in number brings with it a certain deterioration in the security situation. It also makes it more likely that North Korea will proliferate – the latter is probably the single greatest worry of US policy planners.

It is clear what North Korea is trying to say by making more and better nukes: “You cannot ignore us, sooner or later you are going to deal with us. The longer you leave it, the more expensive the deal is going to be.”

It is clear that as long as the Kim family is in power in Pyongyang, the North will not accept US demands for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation”. The existence of a nuclear deterrent is a red line for the Kim dynasty, and no amount of either pressure or rewards will likely change the minds of North Korea’s elite. This is especially true given the fact that international sanctions have thus far worked poorly, if at all.

The North Korean side is, however, quite ready to discuss nuclear arms limitations. In other words, North Korea is willing to negotiate a freeze imposed on its nuclear weapons developments, but only in in exchange for a significantly large financial and/or political reward.

So far, such a compromise policy has been an anathema to the US – the equivalent to paying a ransom to a blackmailer. However, the North Koreans have made their position abundantly clear: They are not going to budge, and the alternative to accepting their demands is even worse. Sooner or later this is likely to be understood in Washington as well.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.