In 1989, when a photo of a nuclear industrial complex in Yeongbyun, North Korea was released by the French commercial satellite SPOT-2, the North Korean nuclear issue emerged as an international problem. From this point on, the international community's monitoring of North Korea's nuclear activities has been strengthened, and it has been reported that North Korea has repeatedly operated and stopped its nuclear reactors to obtain plutonium (Pu239). North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, but rejected Safeguards Agreement, which was mandatory within 18 months, and submitted its initial report on nuclear facilities in May 1992. According to the report, North Korea voluntarily reported that they had extracted 90 grams of plutonium once, but the IAEA demanded a special inspection of its nuclear facilities, raising suspicions that North Korea may have extracted more plutonium.
In May 1993, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 825 urging North Korea not to withdrawal from the NPT, and the U.S. tried to resolve the problem through high-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea. North Korea proposed a package deal to comply with the international treaty on nuclear safety if the U.S. abandons its hostile policy toward the North, but the differences between the two countries have not narrowed. Jimmy Carter, who visited Pyongyang in June 1994, met with Kim Il-sung twice, resulting in a change in the deadlock in negotiations. In a meeting with Carter, Kim Il-sung expressed his intention to suspend the nuclear weapons development program and withdraw his declaration of withdrawal from the NPT if the U.S. provides lightwater reactors and promises No-First-Use (NFU).
The death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994 failed to fulfill the promise of the CarterKim Il-sung talks, but the first North Korean nuclear crisis seemed to come to end as the Geneva agreement was signed. However, the Geneva agreement was not implemented properly due to North Korea's non-cooperation, deterioration of North and South Korean relations, and the Republican George W. Bush administration's ‘All-But-Clinton’ (ABC) policy stance. Starting with the crippled Geneva agreement, the agreement, implementation, and disruptions over the past 30 years have resulted in today's situation in which only North Korea's nuclear capabilities have been upgraded and North Korea challenges the U.S.-led nuclear non-proliferation system head-on.
As strategic competition between the U.S. and China extends beyond the security realm to areas such as the economy, trade, technology, values, and ideology, the North Korean nuclear issue is turning into a more complex issue. The traditional security crisis triggered by the U.S.-China competition and the Russia-Ukraine war, and the new security crisis, which combines non-traditional security areas—including Global Value Chain (GVC) reorganization, COVID-19, climate change, food, and energy sectors—are emerging.
Currently, North Korea recognizes the international situation as a new Cold War and is moving to acquire the status of a nuclear power and reorganize its favorable regional security environment. North Korea appears to be developing multiple nuclear weapons to provide leverage for negotiations with the U.S. or converting negotiations (by 2025) into disarmament talks instead of denuclearization negotiations. This is because there is a movement to consolidate internal governance power and utilize the confrontation between the U.S., China, and Russia through the advancement of nuclear weapons, and to seek the survival of the system by backing authoritarian blocks centered on China and Russia. It is unpredictable in what direction the U.S.- China competition and the Russian-Ukraine war will unfold. But at least, if North Korea's dependence on China and Russia intensifies, its hostile relations with the U.S., a party to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, will deteriorate, making denuclearization negotiations difficult to get out of the deadlock.
Kim Jong-un, who came to power in December 2011, continues to develop nuclear power and nuclear doctrine to complete his country's nuclear strategy. On March 31, 2013, he simultaneously adopted the Economic-Nuclear Transition Line and the April 1 Declaration on ’Strengthening the Status of Self-Defense Nuclear Powers’, simultaneously developing both the hardware and software sectors of nuclear strategy. As a result, North Korea declared the completion of nuclear weapons through the successful launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017, and on September 8, 2022, North Korea hinted at, through its nuclear weapons policy legislation, the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike. Considering North Korea's nuclear power analysis, it does not appear that it has technically secured the ability to preemptive strike or retaliate against the U.S. mainland. However, since nuclear warheads can be mounted on mediumand short-range missiles, including Nodong, scud, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the threat to South Korea and Japan through low-power nuclear launch has become a reality.
In his 77th Liberation Day speech on August 15, 2022, South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol proposed an "audacious plan" that could improve North Korea's economy and people's livelihood in line with steps if North Korea stops nuclear development and moves toward practical denuclearization. The idea is to create a non-nuclear, peaceful, and prosperous Korean Peninsula together through the phased and simultaneous implementation of North Korea's denuclearization measures and South Korea's economic, political, and military measures. The Kim Daejung government's reconciliation and cooperation policy, the Roh Moo-hyun administration's peace and prosperity policy, the Lee Myeong-bak government's Grand Bargain, the Park Geun-hye government's trust process on the Korean Peninsula, and the Moon Jae-in government's peace process all share the same logic that South Korea will provide economic incentives to address the security concerns of North Korea. However, considering the situation of North Korea, which has overcome the worst situation in the 1990s and succeeded in nuclear armament while still maintaining hostile relations with the U.S. for 70 years, it will not be easy for North Korea to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for economic aid. Assuming that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons program, new mid- to long-term policy adjustments are needed. It should be considered that North Korea has consistently prioritized the political and security logic for the survival of the regime over the economy. In his September 2022 speech to the Supreme People's Assembly, Chairman Kim Jong-un stressed that "if our nuclear policy changes, the world must change and the political and military environment of the Korean Peninsula must change."
North Korea continues to endure heavy Focus of the Month 22 costs due to high-intensity economic sanctions adopted since 2016, but there is a possibility that it will pursue external economic cooperation if they believe that minimum security through nuclear armament has been secured. According to a report submitted by North Korea to the United Nations in July 2021, there is a possibility of cooperation with NGOs or the Red Cross of Korea in response to natural disasters, restoration of land and sea ecosystems, climate change, food shortage, quarantine medical capacity improvement, water quality and waste treatment technology, and forest cooperation. This is a sector that cannot be seen as a unilateral "spreading to North Korea" in that it is likely to be passed on to the social costs that South Korea has to bear in the future in a unified Korea. Rather, it is difficult to persuade North Korea through dialogue and exchange cooperation, but dialogue and exchange cannot be given up, given that preemptive inter-Korean cooperation can reduce the astronomical cost to be borne in a unified Korea.
In an era of ultra-uncertainty, where the possibility of cooperation and crisis coexist, South Korea should focus on military conflict and situation management on the Korean Peninsula at least until the international situation of the new Cold War, which is fluctuating due to intensifying U.S.-China competition and the RussiaUkraine war, is eased. As North Korea declared its offensive nuclear doctrine on September 8, 2022, which guarantees the use of preemptive nuclear weapons, the North's nuclear threat has become stronger than before, so it seems urgent to secure deterrence against North Korea using the South Korea-U.S. alliance and strategic assets. The worst-case scenario in which the North Korean nuclear issue could be fixed and unfolded would be the situation in which the two countries are in mutually assured destruction due to the confrontation of mid- and short-range missiles loaded with nuclear weapons, as in the case of India-Pakistan. So where will North Korea go? After the breakdown of the Hanoi talks (in 2019), North Korea should do its best to find a peaceful solution while promoting security and inter-Korean cooperation, noting whether it will follow a kind of MacGuffin strategy to threaten South Korea and the U.S. with upgraded nuclear weapons or overcome the unfavorable external environment with a completely new idea.