Today, North Korea finds itself squeezed by the US and China: Beijing and Washington view North Korea as a buffer, leaving it vulnerable to decisions either state makes or potentially to future US-Chinese efforts to ‘solve’ the North Korean situation without Pyongyang’s input. In Pyongyang’s view, this takes place against a backdrop of worrying regional dynamics, as a number of states, such as China, Taiwan, and South Korea, are all enhancing their military capabilities, while Japan, the old aggressor, is on a path towards military normalisation.18 As such, when the DPRK views and interacts with the world, it does so from a position of acute geographic vulnerability.
North Korea’s Nuclear Quest
From Cold War to Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ (1945-2014)
The origins of North Korea’s nuclear program go back to 1946, when the Soviet Union began mining uranium in the DPRK19 to support the fledging Soviet nuclear program. Soviet-DPRK nuclear cooperation would continue after the Korean War through for- mal agreements to train Korean scientists and the building of the Yongbyon research reactor 90km north of Pyongyang.20 Despite their alliance, the DPRK came to question how credible the Soviet Union’s extended deterrence guarantee actually was, whereby Moscow committed to defend Communist allies with nuclear weapons if they were threatened. This was informed by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. During the crisis, the Soviet Union was perceived to have backed down in the face of US pressure against Cuba, a distant Communist ally in a situation not unlike the DPRK.21 The lesson for Pyongyang was that extended nuclear deterrence guarantees from outside powers were unreliable, leading Pyongyang to begin seeking to acquire uranium from as early as 1963 to develop an indigenous program.22
Following the end of the Cold War, prospects for denuclearisation on the peninsula looked good. In December 1991 the DPRK and ROK signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.23 Following the Declaration, Pyongyang signed the IAEA’s safeguards accord in January 1992 and declared its nuclear facilities in May. Despite this progress, a crisis broke out after US intelligence identified unreported sites in mid-1993. Pyongyang denied requests by the IAEA to inspect them and threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the matter was referred to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Amidst mounting tensions, US President Clinton drew a red line in November 1993, declaring that “North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb,”24 while US Secretary of Defence William Perry stated Washington intended to prevent Pyongyang from developing a nuclear arsenal, even potentially going to war if necessary.25 With the crisis in the balance, former US President Jimmy Carter travelled to the DPRK in June 1994, where he secured an 11th hour agreement for the North to suspend its nuclear program in return for energy aid from the United States and light-water reactors. This