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North Korea’s Role in Nuclear Proliferation


North Korea’s Role in Nuclear Proliferation

Amid all the controversy surrounding North Korea’s nuclear programme the one clear fact to emerge is that the Western media comprehend little or nothing of the country. Yet the vulnerability of South Korea and the continuing belligerent attitude of the North make it essential to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.  It is not only North East Asia which is threatened but the future of nuclear non-proliferation globally.

North Korea is routinely portrayed as a pariah, hermitic state with a penchant for international piracy, acting with no regard for other countries’ legitimate security concerns.  Yet frequently such assumptions rest on nothing more than a bed-rock of theatre and unexamined assumptions.  Too often the North’s decision-making is seen as a record of political burlesque, the proper complement to the paranoia of its dictator. This, in turn, has stimulated much uninformed speculation concerning North Korea’s goals. Perhaps, it has been suggested, the impoverished communist state is using its nuclear programme as a bargaining counter to secure aid or to ease sanctions.  Alternatively, it is suggested, the nuclear programme is to be seen as part of some sort of obscure power struggle in Pyongyang.

Consistent Policies

Kim Il-Sung himself, however, is known to have worked for Soviet intelligence for many years previously.

It was the Soviet Union which created and trained the North Korean Army.  In 1990 during the period of glasnost, Moscow confirmed that it was Stalin who had personally approved the plan to attack the South, an invasion which began on the night of 24/25 June 1950.  The Korean War, launched with Moscow’s support and covert participation, ended in 1953 leaving the country permanently partitioned.  Ever since then there has been an almost constant propaganda war replete with border incidents and punctuated by occasional acts of war.  Most spectacularly, in 1983, for example, North Korean agents in Burma murdered 17 members of a visiting South Korean delegation, including four Cabinet ministers.  The directives were thought to have come directly from Kim Jong-Il, currently holder of supreme power today.

North Korea’s status as an independent maverick state has largely been built up around its claim to have astutely manipulated China and the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet dispute to its own benefit.  For example, during the 1960s there is supposed to have been a worsening in relations between Pyongyang and Moscow with the North leaning towards China in the Sino-Soviet dispute.  North Korea allegedly became more receptive to Soviet overtures in the late 1960s because of the pressing need to modernise its arsenal.  The Soviet Union was thus able to justify its extensive modernisation of the North Korean armed forces on the grounds of fending off a challenge for influence from China.

Yet for all its burgeoning “rogue” status North Korea is known to have conveniently helped the Soviet Union in many of Moscow’s more controversial operations against the West.  North Korea provided arms and training to anti-Western terrorist groups such as the Japanese Red Army without tarnishing Moscow’s image.  It has also played an important role in sponsoring terrorism worldwide and in destabilising Western interests.  The principal benefactor has almost invariably been the Soviet Union.  North Korean scud missiles too found their way to then implacably anti-Western states such as Iran, Syria and Libya, almost certainly with Moscow’s approval while saving Moscow from the resulting international opprobrium. Thus in the past, North Korea’s behaviour has often effectively complemented that of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s rogue status enabling Moscow to wash its hands of highly dubious actions.  The Sino-Soviet split has provided a convincing screen for the North’s claim to independence of action, Pyongyang claiming to have skilfully played one great power off against another.

It is worth recalling at this point that North Korea’s nuclear scientists learned their trade in both Chinese and Russian laboratories. It is not a home grown programme. To the contrary, a review of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme illuminates close relationships between North Korea, China, the former Soviet Union and the successor Russian state.

The Sino/Soviet divide

North Korea’s apparent brilliance in consistently playing China off against Russia over the last half century may not be quite what it seems.  The Soviet defector, Anatoly Golitsyn, in his remarkable work New Lies for Old (London 1984), has presented striking inside evidence that Sino-Soviet friction was a phenomenon of 1950-1957 which was largely successfully resolved by 1957.  Later ‘evidence’ of a continuing dispute, Golitsyn alleges, was deliberately contrived propaganda designed to mislead the West and to serve Soviet and Chinese mutual interests by building up an image of dispute while forging unity of action in secret.

                So, for example, Moscow’s detente overtures during the 1970s gained more credibility when contrasted with Beijing’s implacable hostility at that time.  China too secured economic concessions from the West because of its apparent hostility to the Soviet Union.  Worldwide communist objectives were being achieved more expeditiously, Golitsyn maintained, by the practice of the two leading Communist powers adopting dual foreign policies in apparent opposition to one another than by pursuing a single policy in open solidarity, a policy which would have provoked greater Western cohesion and resistance.

                There is too much in Golitsyn’s arguments which can be more than touched upon in an article of this sort but Golitsyn makes four general points in support of his thesis that the post-1957 Sino-Soviet dispute was faked.  First, frontier incidents in remote districts such as the Ussuri River, though apparently spectacular evidence of hostility could easily have been staged particularly as means of co-ordinating action between the two “opponents” were readily at hand.  Second, verbal polemics were intermittent as well as pointless, suggesting they were co-ordinated rather than spontaneous.  Third, despite the vehemence of the polemics, the split never reached the stage of a breach in diplomatic relations as did the Soviet-Albanian dispute in 1961.  Nor was the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Mutual Co-operation and Assistance revoked.  Fourth, the hostilities can be correlated in timing with important Communist initiatives or with the beginning of major East-West negotiations such as SALT or with the visits of Western statesmen to the USSR and China.

While such an analysis goes against accepted judgement there is certainly an abundance of evidence to support it.  If true then once again North Korea’s pariah status, especially since 1957, must be viewed differently.  As has been shown the “Sino-Soviet dispute” has served as a useful pretext for Moscow’s provisioning of North Korea with a constant flow of military hardware.  Indeed it has been one of the most illuminating examples of how duality in Sino-Soviet polemics has been used to conceal the nature of their shared goals and the extent of co-ordination in the Communist world while re-assuring the West. 

                It may be objected that such issues can no longer be relevant following the demise of the old Soviet Union and China’s opening to the West.  Yet there are many signs that Moscow’s foreign policy is being conducted along similar lines to those of the old Soviet Union.  China too still brooks no challenge to the ascendancy of the Communist party.  Moscow has continued to supply North Korea with important weaponry in violation of its much publicised pledge of 1992 not to do so.  Strangely, efforts to isolate North Korea at the UN have effectively been stymied by Russia and China, preventing the formation of a united international front against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Rightly, several observers have remarked that sanctions against North Korea can not work because China would ensure they are circumnavigated.  Indeed the Chinese representative at the United Nations has called for more tolerance and understanding towards North Korea, a particularly arresting call in view of Beijing’s usually wholly intolerant, even brutal, attitude towards dissent.

The End of Nuclear Non-Proliferation

North Korea’s pariah and maverick status can therefore be validly re-examined for the possible relevance they have to Moscow’s and Beijing’s long term political and strategic aims.  North Korea is threatening to wreck the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  This is an especial concern of the United States.  Washington’s principal concern is not a direct nuclear attack from the North but that the country will export its nuclear technology to other rogue states or terrorist networks, a very real possibility.  After all, North Korea has already acquired billions of dollars by covertly exporting its missile technology to the Middle East. Pyongyang holds terrorism to be consistent with North Korea’s revolutionary role and so it can not be ruled out that Pyongyang will take an equally irresponsible attitude to the risk of spreading nuclear destruction.  They have certainly behaved as if they were ready to take their country to the brink of war as was evidenced recently with their unilateral abrogation of the 1953 armistice.  It is hard to see what can be done about this in view of the tacit practical support given Pyongyang by both Moscow and Beijing whatever their public statements may say to the contrary.

Collective Security Arrangements

  1. One need look no further than the cynical polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in December 2006, an action which must have required high level clearance in Moscow, to see how cynically the Russian leadership views the use of nuclear materials.

Co-incidentally it is precisely in the area of nuclear proliferation where Russian spokespeople highlight the failure of existing international policies.  Natalya Timakova, chief spokeswoman for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said of North Korea’s latest nuclear test: “(it) deals a blow to international efforts to strengthen the global regime of nuclear non-proliferation.”  Medvedev himself said recently: “Non-proliferation is one of the most important areas where Russia and America can work together.”

North Korea’s cynical assault on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty threatens to subvert nuclear arms control at a critical moment.  It is taking place at a time when Moscow is pressing the West to accede to elaborate “collective security” arrangements which Moscow holds are now essential to prevent chaos breaking out with the wholesale proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Yet, as we have seen, there is significant evidence to suggest that it is Moscow itself and its satellites who are behind this proliferation.  The likely regional solutions, which are being canvassed by Moscow, involve a significantly changed new world order.  In Europe itself it may spell the end of the British and French deterrents with the passing of power to Eurasia’s sole military superpower, its strength based firmly on nuclear blackmail.

Distracted by the North Korea’s maverick status, it has been hard for Western analysts to see that much of North Korea’s behaviour is part of a planned and cumulative international strategy aimed at the steady incremental expansion of Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence in their respective regions.  Until the West abandons its simplistic thinking about developments in the former Soviet Union and North East Asia; and faces the very real probability that these events are not random coincidences but part of an unfolding strategy, the misinterpretation of events will continue with potentially highly damaging consequences for the world’s democracies.


2,177 words

14 June 2009.



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