The origins the the nuclear escalation date back to 1962. Kim Il-sung began the “all-fortressization” effort rooted in creating an arsenal designed specifically dissuade future colonialization, particularly from the “west.” Then President John F. Kennedy largely ignored the threat. In ’63 Kim Il-sung gained assistance from the USSR to build Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center which went opperational in ’65, although Nikita Khrushchev refused to assist in weapons development. Similiarly, after the ’64 Chinese 596 nuclear test China refused to assist NK in weapons development but began supplying nuclear power capability assistance. The heads down approach Kennedy began ignoring these early steps was followed by Johnson.
The Nuclear Power capabilities of North Korea under Kim Il-sung were expanded in 1974 during Nixon’s Presidency and again in 1978 during Carter’s administration. The relationship between Deng Xiaoping in China and Kim Il-sung in NK allowed for a free transfer of goods and services, including both military and nuclear energy assistance during this time. All of which ultimately laid the groundwork for the 1980s expansion into building nuclear weapons during the Reagan administration including both high-explosive detonation tests and the first long range missile tests.
Pressured internationally, in 1985 Kim Il-sung agreed “in principle” to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, however, it was not bound by it due to the fact it didn’t accept the final IAEA compliance provisions until 1992. Reagan’s administration essentially ignored the continued development of the program through the late 80s while dealing with the Iran-Contra scandal and peace talks with Gorbachov, etc. Later intelligence would suggest the first small-scale attempts at detonations were attempted in the late 80s despite the NFP.
During Bush 41’s tenure Kim Jong-ll took over in North Korea. The program largely continued unchecked but nothing exciting really happens. The likelihood is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet secrets may have moved through the black market to support NK but there’s been little more than speculation. Bush was mostly focused on the S&L debacle and Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm anyhow.
In 1993, Kim Jong-ll’s NK failed IAEA compliance inspections required by the NPT, and Kim Jong-il left the treaty. In 1994 the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework, which would act as the closest thing to a non-proliferation agreement until it was folded in 2002 during the Bush 43 administration. Tensions did rise and fall during the Clinton administration with NK and with other countries, including Pakistan which in its ongoing war with India had also developed nuclear weapons and admitted to having shared at least some intelligence with NK at this time.
Through the early 2000s, under Bush 43s administration, intelligence gathered from Pakistan and Libya, and by multiple confessions from North Korea itself, seemed to confirm NK had achieved basic nuclear weapons capability. As mentioned, in 2002 the Agreed Framework collapsed. In 2004, as a formality, Kim Jong-ll pulled NK from the NPT again (although it still was never technically in compliance). In 2005 NK promised to shut its program down however intelligence coming out of the middle east seems to suggest an intelligence connection between Iran and North Korea. October 9, 2006, North Korea announced it had successfully conducted its “first” nuclear test during Bush 43’s second term. In 2007 more tests were conducted and Kim Jong-ll once again announces the country has achieved nuclear weapons capability. For all the talk by Bush about branding North Korea as part of the axis-of-evil the administration was able to do nothing to stop the program’s advancement either despite US sanctions and multiple embargos, the enlistment of the UN to levee sanctions and more.
The six-party talks (begun in 2003, revived in 2007 and completed in 2008), involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States resulted in an agreement to shut the program down again. This agreement fell apart in 2009, following a North Korean satellite launch that occurred during the Obama administration and later in 2009, North Korea conducted a second full detonation nuclear test (third overall, first since 2006). Another dismantling announcement is made but nothing is confirmed. The US and UN steps up its existing sanctions and embargos.
In 2011 Kim Jong-un takes over and in 2012 yet another shut down announcement is made, including that of the original Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, after negotiations with the Obama administration are underway. That treaty attempt, like every other one before it, eventually failed in 2013 when the third full detonation nuclear test occurs (forth overall, first since 2009). Kim Jong-un once again opens talks but those conclude before 2015 without any resolve, and upon the announcement of Hydrogen Bomb capabilities. In 2016 another test occurs and this is the first time China joins the international community and condemns the NK nuclear program after decades of suspicion that it was supplementing it. China joins the existing multinational sanctions and embargo program.
And, you now know were we are now. This isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem, meaning this also isn’t a Reagan, or Clinton, or Bush, or Obama era problem. So, let’s not pretend that somehow a Clinton speech in 1994 was what got us here, because, for example, had Reagan not failed with the NFP in the 80s there would have been no need for the Agreed Framework treaty in the 90s or Bush’s cliched “Axis of Evil” sabre-rattling references in the 2000s…
Now, of course, there’s speculation that maybe there’s a more international reason that North Korea might be re-invoking it’s anti-colonial power ideals and testing its defensive mettle.
There may be something to the theories, such as laid out by dan-coatsif the Intercept, about North Korea watching the outcomes of other so-called rogue states like Iraq and Lybia and a small handful of other countries that were working towards armament of their own like Iran and Iraq, and how that plays out with NK it also ignores some of the specific differences too.
North Korea is in an active regional dispute with South Korea and to a lesser degree with Japan and has been since the 1950s. It feels an inherent need to actively defend itself and maintain it’s honor against what it perceives historical threats, many of which, predate the 1950’s war.
Lybia wasn’t necessarily in an active regional dispute with its neighbors – it’s war with Chad ended in the 80s more or less before US/NATO interventions occurred. It’s most major military use, one might say, was keeping the locals in line.
Iraq wasn’t necessarily in an active regional dispute with its neighbors anymore either. It was in an effective cold war with Iran since the 70s, but the arms race both engaged in was less driven by the other and more driven both other regional forces (the US allies in the area like Israel or the Saudis, the Russians/Soviets, etc.)
North Korea has a regional superpower watching over it in China.
Lybia was in it’s own little “island” in North Africa. While it occasionally had Soviet/Russian support, most of its actions were of an independent, rogue state.
Iraq also essentially exists in it’s own little “island” in the mid-east and again. It has been funded by almost anyone who thought they could get something out of it but at that point wasn’t necessarily allied with anyone at the time of the accord
North Korea and the US have not had any real military exchanges since the end of the war. While we are an extensional threat ourselves, our alliances pose a threat and our relationship with China poses a threat the two nations have, for all intents and purposes, a buffer between them militarily.
Lybia had been actively exchanging military actions with the US for decades and NATO allies also had actively persued them militarily since at least the 80s.
Iraq also had been actively exchanges with the US for several decades and to a degree NATO allies as well, again since at least the early 90s.
Iran after the hostage crisis in 1980 has been in essentially a cold war with the US which might be most akin to the relationship NK has. However, Iran hasn’t been without military conflict itself, having faced off against the Soviets, Iraq and others in previous decades.
North Korea has no economic or social standing either regionally or in the world — although it’s leadership likely believes otherwise. It, at this point, exists. The only thing that puts it on the map is by being a nuclear power.
Lybia during the wars still had strategic economic standing in North Africa. Both allied forces and Lybia itself was well aware of this and that’s part of why situations went down the way they did, there was too much to lose.
Iraq also had strategic economic standing in the mid-east that all of the allied forces, that Iraq itself, and the other regional players all understood, which again is why the situations went down the way it did.
Even the current Iranian situation is different than North Korea and more, or less, looks more like Lybia and Iraq, so, while there is a “lesson” to be learned the actual situations are theoretically different. That’s part of why the Bush and Obama admins both felt the way they did in terms of what their course of actions were in dealing with each of those countries.
The fact is, the North Koreans also feel there is a strategic vulnerability right now that didn’t exist before and they are keen on leveraging it, and that includes:
- the relationship between China and the US improved under the latter days of Bush and during the Obama admins. NK still tested their boundaries as they always had with a US regime change but generally were held in check by the larger superpower relationships. Some of the current saber rattling is probably testing the regime change but some of it is also very likely due to the cooler relationship Trump’s admin currently has with China too. If China isn’t beholden to the US though improving trade relations it allows NK to take some additional liberties without worry of Chinese retribution.
— the Trump admin overall has also strained a lot of the US-ally relations including that of NATO plus with the regional partners like SK and Japan (wiping out the TPP and threatening tariffs makes the relationships look weaker than they might actually be).
— the Trump admin’s low overall domestic approval rating and current lack of focused policy. Everyone internationally has spoken very openly about the apparent weaknesses in the Trump regime which undermines what the anticipated response would be. While war is normally a great way to boost approval rating (and jumpstart economies) it seems very likely this would be a highly unpopular war for a great many reasons – including the fact that most of the last 50 years of majorUS military intervention hasn’t been well received (and worse the last few did nothing for the economy to boot). NK has to sense that as an opportunity to take advantage of as well.
—– Jung-un’s tenure is still quite new. He’s only been in power for roughly five years of which some of that was an awkward transition period. He was in his mid-20s at the time and comparative to other world leaders extremely young and inexperienced (not just in ruling but in life itself). He’s finally maturing into his own and this is a process of defining his regime’s legacy. Further to that point, he’s been critical of his father’s legacy as being soft which is why some of these policy decisions on his part are what they are which is much different than dealing with Lybia and Iraq and Iran who had/have older, more experience and longer ruling leaders.
by no means though am i discrediting the underlying statement of the article that NK HAS learned from all past experience in watching the world deal with nuclear proliferation and realized that giving them up is a “mistake” as I’m pretty sure that that’s true.
So far, all the major nuclear bearing countries have kept their program components to themselves. Similarly, they’ve all agreed to retain ownership of any finished manufactured product. There’s a lot of reasons for this but one of the most obvious is that each of the nuclear powers is also to a degree an economic power in its own right. There’s no advantage to sharing the info, nevermind no incentive to sell any part of it.
That’s not true of NK. They are poor enough and lack enough of a world standing to be deterred by those most basic reasons. Rather, they gain a strategic advantage by sharing their program’s intelligence and parts with other countries, and they stand to gain both a strategic and financial advantage by becoming a dealer and selling either the components or the finished product.
The one thing I don’t think states like NK and perhaps Iran understand about nuclear armorment is with great power comes great responsibility. While I do believe they likely understand the idea of a zero-sum game when using nukes as a supposed deterrence against imperalization I have grave doubts they completely understand the nuclear world at all. While they have been sublimely fortunately enough to not have had a meltdown or accidental detonation or other accident (that we know of) in their testing so far, at-scale manufacturing of weapons, maintaining an arsenel, etc. is a dangerous and laborious task even for the most industralized and economically stable nations. they could just as easily wipe themselves out without ever trying to initiate a war.
Furthermore, such that the nation-state itself has a strategic and/or financial advantage to sell the components or the finished product it should not be overlooked that there’s a huge incentive to individuals undertaking a black marketing approach. Sure, the NK regime comes across as being very authoritarian and has a history of eliminating dissonents but the reality is the types of fail-safes that typically guard against this kind of stuff happening in most larger industrialized nuclear nations don’t exist in NK. So, although it might seem unlikely on face value, it’s entirely possible that a nuclear NK could inadvertantly create a black market resource.
Finally, while the idea that zero-sum seems to reign in most potentially uses, it by no means guarantees it. The idea of dying in a blaze of glory isn’t just a movie theme. Plenty of great military minds have gone into battling knowing they would lose a particular battle but still willing to fight. While most nuclear nations using a weapon against another nuclear nation petty much have to subscribe to zero-sum by the shear size of the competing arsenals and the automatic nature of the counterattack that’s not true of a rogue nation like NK where there can be a sense of “victory in defeat” that’s likely not possible between major nuclear powers. What I mean is most first strike scenarios are going to be multi-warhead, multi-objective attacks which will warrant an immediate multi-warhead, multi-objective counter attack. In all likelihood with the way these systems are built the result would be multiple waves of nuclear and conventional response and depending on the nations involved an immediate evocation of treaties which escalate responses. Everyone henceforth knows the outcome – mutually assured destruction and a lack of anyone being alive to enjoy the victory. But, with a nation like NK a first strike likely looks much different which in all likelihood would result in a much different response.
Imagine a strike-counter strike scenario like this: NK launches a single nuclear strike against a pro-western target (say the US mainland like Los Angeles but lets not rule out simply lobbing one over the 38th parallel into SK). The NK attack is not intercepted and the warhead reaches its objective (though, it’s possible that even if it doesn’t reach it’s objective this could still play out). The west immediately retaliates using it’s conventional arsenal with a a single, coordinated strategic attack against all major NK targets. The western attack is not intercepted and reaches all it’s objectives. There’s an immediate truce in order to deter specifically the Chinese but also Russia and India as regional nuclear powers for escalating things further. Assuming the truce holds, while our conventional attack likely renders large portions of NK back to the dark ages the statement is still made by NK on the world stage. Those who survive the western retaliation will perceive a victory of their own, they successfully attacked the US but due to the global employment of zero-sum game theory weren’t wiped off the face of the planet because the necessary components of doing as such would have created a full scale WWIII. whatever happens to be left of NK after the retaliation will have the envy of all our enemies which probably provides them with the groundwork to survive even if the country initially looks and acts more like somalia than NK in the immediate aftermath. That’s a big reason not to underestimate there being reasons beyond mere invasion deterrence.
Also, China has very few actual allies, at least in the traditional sense, both regionally and within the greater worldwide context. It’s a large enough entity that it may not actually need much in the way of alliances to be effective, however, when looking at the sphere of influence of any of its competing powers it has to feel very “alone.” Even Russia as the pariah that it appears to be sometimes has working relationships and favored nation status with other countries even today under Putin’s iron fist while China, for the most part, relies on North Korea (at least that’s my impression, maybe someone with more background in this could provide a different insight)