Nautilus Institute Special Report: North Korean Decision-Making Processes Regarding the Nuclear Issue

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1. In 1955, Kim Il Sung signed an agreement with the Soviet Prime Minister Bulganin on scientific cooperation which contained provisions for the exchange of information related to nuclear technology and training of North Korean scientists at the Soviet nuclear research complex in Dubna. In August 1965, he ordered to import from the USSR a small 2-4 Mwt research reactor (called the IRT 2000). In 1986, with the Soviet assistance, the DPRK commissioned a 5-MWT nuclear power reactor, and later launched construction of a 50-Mwt nuclear reactor due in 1995 and a 200- Mwt reactor due in 1996.

2. It suffices to say that in September 1974, the DPRK joined the IAEA. In December 1985, under heavy pressure from Moscow Kim Il Sung agreed to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reiterated peaceful purposes of the North Korean nuclear research efforts.

3. A Carnegie Endowment team of non-proliferation experts who visited the DPRK in May 1992 and had talks with Mr. Choe Chong- sun, an official of the Ministry of the Atomic Energy Industry, in their report cited him as saying that North Korean nuclear scientists extracted spent fuel "to produce a little bit of plutonium for experimental purposes and to study the nuclear reprocessing cycle sometime in 1989-1990. Earlier at a briefing for the Japanese reporters visiting Pyongyang on occassion of President Kim Il Sung's 80th birthday, Mr. Choe made similar comments (cited from the New York Times, April 16, 1992, p3).

4. Overall, it is rumored that North Korea might have spent almost 10 bln US dollars on its nuclear program. For comparison, the size of its GNP is estimated at 23 bln dollars in 1992.

5. Also in April 1992, he was appointed the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly in order to smoothen the ratification of the NSA due in May 1992, as well as other pending legislation aimed at establishing "free trade economic zones" in the DPRK.

6. Mr. Kim Yong-sun was among those who lost his title and job in December 1993 apparently for his failure to solicit the kind of outcomes at the talks with the IAEA and the US that the father and son wanted.

7. Interestingly, the defeat of the anti-Gorbachev coup in August 1991 in Moscow reportedly accelerated the new policy formation in Pyongyang.

8. On October 12, 1992 the MOFA of the DPRK issued a statement denouncing the ROK and the US for deciding to resume the "Team Spirit".

9. The spokesman of the CPRF issued a statement in Pyongyang on October 13 that said "If the US and the South Korean authorities go down the road toward the intensification of tensions through any resumption of the joint military exercise called "Team Spirit", all the dialogues including the inter-Korean high-level talks will be deadlocked and the implementation of the North- South agreements will be suspended" (cited from North Korea News, Oct. 26, 1992, No. 654, p. 4).

Comments offered by Professor James Cotton, Political Science Department, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Matters of detail

p. 2: N Korea's admission that it has been running a peaceful nuclear program goes back long before 1990. And Kim Il-sung has been quite clear in his claim (as of April 1994) that N Korea has no nuclear weapons program. This cannot be described as a 'neither confirm nor deny' stance.

Institutional analysis

This is interesting, plausible, but cannot be either confirmed or falsified. Undoubtedly these different institutions (Institute for Peace and Disarmament, International Department of the WPK, etc) have different approaches, but different observers have formed sometimes different views of their roles. Thus we have (p4) 'the word got out' etc on the 3 policy steering teams, which is taken as really being the case. How do we know?

Institutional versus psychodynamic approach

The psychodynamic approach depends upon an analogy between the political system and the psyche of an individual human being. But the institutional approach identifies different bureaucratic and political bodies with different agendas. The paper uses the former to some effect (describing, eg, the main turning points in N Korean policy), but relies upon the latter to identify the main actors and agenda setters. It also (p6) rejects the characterisation of N Korea as a country which breathes, eats, and sleeps nothing but Kim Il-sung. If the political system is at all like a human psyche, how can there be different agenda setters?

The 1992 'deal' and North Korea's nuclear weapons program

The paper suggests (p. 2) that N Korea does have a nuclear weapons program. The language is not clear (and thus this question should be addressed directly), but no other inference seems possible from the text. It then describes (p12) the 'quid- pro-quo deal' struck in January 1992 between Kanter and Kim Young-sun, that is, that N Korea would accept full IAEA inspections designed to demonstrate that no weapons program existed, in exchange for cancellation of 'Team Spirit' and a withdrawal of the US nuclear threat to N Korea. The paper then goes on to describe the breaking of the deal, attributing the outcome of the US-ROK Security Consultative Committee held in Washington in October 1992 as crucial. We could argue about the details here - after all, the US and the ROK were still talking about the possibility of cancelling Team Spirit into the New Year. But reconsider the terms of the deal. If N Korea really was accepting full IAEA inspections, and at the same time was engaging in a nuclear weapons program, then sooner or later that program was likely to be detected, and the terms of the deal broken. Who was breaking it, and indeed never intended to keep it, but N Korea?

Mansourov's response to Dr. Cotton's comments:

General thrust As you are well aware, whenever we, political scientists, have to deal with closed societies, most of our findings tend to be somewhat of a speculative nature. We can only hope that years and years later we might get a grab on some real hard data and tap some primary sources, which will allow us to prove or disavow our present writings. But this scarcity of reliable empirical evidence does not mean that we should either just forget about it and wait until that moment will come one day in a distant future or be driven by some propagandistic efforts by the sides concerned.

As for the question of falsifiability, my attitude is a little bit unusual, and I hope staunch positivists will forgive me. Namely, in evaluating the plausibility and validity of the arguments made about political processes in North Korea I rely on my "gut feeling." I believe that most of us who studied Korean history, culture, politics and economics for the most part of our lives have developed this type of intuitive judgement capacity, or "gut feeling," which helps us determine whether an argument makes sense as far as North Korea is concerned or not. This may be a parochial defense against the unfalsifiability charge but so far my intuition has worked for me pretty well.

However, this does not mean sloppiness or lack of diligence in searching for the data which might be available from different sources. Most of the facts I cite about the newly emerging role of the International Peace and Disarmament Institute, about the sessions of the Central People's Committee, and about the recent changes in the WPK Central Committee are based on the information I received from well-informed Russian diplomatic sources who cannot be identified.

On the relationship between institutional and psychodynamic approaches

I do not try to draw an analogy between the political system and the psyche of an individual human being. Nevertheless, the two approaches are compatible because both attempt to capture some patterns of regularized human behavior. Both approaches deal with instances of collective or group behavior. Although the difference between them is that institutionalism tends to focus on formal institutions like structures, organizations, and norms, whereas a psychodynamic approach focuses on informal patterns of behavior such as emotion and/or reason-driven coalitions and individual-based decision output.

Also, I do not agree with the view that North Korea as a country "breathes, eats, and sleeps nothing but Kim Il- Sung." Not only is this proposition difficult to defend theoretically, but more empirical evidence suggests that the Pyongyang leadership is not a monolith united unanimously behind the Great leader and that North Korean public opinion is multicolored and much more sophisticated than such a primitive interpretation would suggest.

On the definition of the DPRK's nuclear policy

As I stated on page 3, North Korea admitted that it had a nuclear program a long time ago. Also on every occasion its representatives underscored the peaceful nature of this effort. However, it was only in April 1994 that President Kim Il Sung for the first time stated that the DPRK did not have nuclear weapons, which, however, did not touch upon the question whether North Korea had a nuclear weapons program or not and could be interpreted either way. That is, we have a NW program, whose existence we are not going to admit, but we have not produced any NW yet. Or we do not have NW nor are we engaged in any purposeful effort to develop and build them. This is precisely the kind of policy which I call "neither confirm nor deny." If Kim Il-Sung wants the international community to believe sincerely that the DPRK is not involved in a clandestine NW program, he will have to make a more persuasive case.

The paper does not suggest that North Korea has or does not have nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons program. I simply cite different sources presenting different assessments of the current situation in order to make my own point. That is, at present the issue is no longer about reality, it is about perception. It is the image of North Korea and perception of potential threats it might present, held at the policymaking level and by the public opinion, rather than hard facts, which are obviously scarce, that seem to be fueling the crisis and driving the policy. If this interpretation is correct, then the real question is how to influence this perception so that to avoid an escalation of conflict and resolve the nuclear issue peacefully and by the mutual accord.

Comments offered by Kongdan Oh, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California

This is an extremely interesting and timely paper. The world talks about the secrecy of North Korean society and how difficult it is to understand what is going on inside its decision-making community. Alexandre makes a valuable contribution to this topic by providing challenging thoughts and many new facts. I enjoyed reading it very much. The structure is clean and well-organized, and the flow of logic is good. Overall, many people will benefit from reading this paper in terms of understanding the North Korean polity.

Alexandre provides many facts and insights. For example, he outlines the behind-the scene debates in the CPC. But I am concerned that he rarely cites his sources of information. If this information is speculative, he should clearly indicate this. The greatest stumbling block I face in communicating with non- North Korean experts in the U.S. decision-making community is that what I know (or think I know) from experience and intuition as a Korean scholar does not persuade my hard-core conservative audience, because I often cannot provide anything other than circumstantial evidence. I hope Alexandre has had more luck than I have had in finding solid reference sources.

Alexandre suggests that North Korea's nuclear policy has evolved from a peaceful program to (by 1990) a strategic deterrence program. While I cannot reject this possibility, I suspect that the origin of the North Korean nuclear program had the same features as the origin of such programs in more advanced nuclear nations. That is, the motivation was always complex, combining civilian technology and energy concerns with military utility. The degree of emphasis may have changed over time, but it is hard to exclude the possibility that the North Korean leaders were interested in a weapons program almost from the very beginning. Certainly I do not see the change in rhetoric that Alexandre claims to find. For years (or at least since the mid-80s), right up to today, North Korea has admitted having a peaceful nuclear program and denied having a nuclear weapons program.

The paper's conclusion is excellent.

Response to Dr. Oh's comments:

As far as the sources of my information are concerned, most of the facts I cite regarding the newly emerging role of the International Peace and Disarmament Institute, sessions of the CPC, and some recent changes in the WPK CC are based on the information I received from a credible Russian diplomatic source who asked not to be identified.

My conclusion that North Korea's nuclear policy has evolved from a peaceful program to (by 1990-1991) a strategic deterrence program is partly speculative, but in part it is based on such circumstantial evidence as the above-mentioned information derived from well-informed Russian sources that I cannot cite.

As for the rhetoric, hardly could one find any reference to the nuclear issue in the North Korean media or official statements prior to 1991. However, since then not only have I found a tremendous increase in the number of government statements and newspaper articles related to the nuclear issue but also a considerable elaboration of the initial North Korean position. Moreover, instead of ignoring or dodging the issue, as it had done in the past, since 1991 Pyongyang has clearly tried to engage the international community in the debate, whatever its purpose and content might be.

Comments offered by Young Whan Kihl, Political Science Department, Iowa State University

A. The General Impression:

1. Alexandre Mansourov's study of "North Korean Decision-making Processes regarding the Nuclear Issue" impresses me as a carefully-planned, competently-crafted and well-executed research paper on an important and timely issue that carries potentially significant policy implications.

2. The analytical framework of the paper is appropriate and convincing, in terms of its identifying the key decisionmakers (both individual and institutional), with their role specification.

3. The posing of key hypothesis, based on what Mansourov calls the "psychodynamics" of the elite threat perception of the external environment (p. 9), is also appropriate and interesting. Also appropriate are the posing of interesting research questions at the outset and surveying of the existing literature and expert's opinion (pp. 3-4).

4. The author's evaluation of the four-fold factors, that might impinge upon North Korea's "gyrating pattern" in foreign policy and negotiation behavior (pp. 10-11), is fine but somewhat contrived. Why only four factors, not five or six for that matter, are relevant is not clear or obvious.

5. The best part of the paper is an analysis of the four policy episodes, or what the author calls the"key decision moments," where the policy reversal was shown in North Korea's negotiation positions on its nuclear diplomacy in the last three years since 1991 (pp. 11-17).

B. Specific Comments and Questions:

1. Is the "rational actor" model of decision-making which the author utilizes in the present study applicable to all or most of the foreign policy decision-making cases in North Korea, or only to the nuclear issue episode? Why? Why not?

2. Do you assume, by implication, that North Korea's decision process is not unique but is comparable to other political systems?

3. The role of Kim Il Sung on the nuclear issue is characterized both as an "initiator" of policy (as in the early years) and as an "arbiter" of the DPRK nuclear policy in the 1990s. When, and under what circumstances, does Kim Il Sung choose to intervene in the policy process? Under the crisis situation? If so, how do we know when the leadership defines the situation as "critical?"

4. To what extent can we call North Korea's nuclear game plan one of fixed or flexible strategy? Can we assume that there is a master plan of North Korea's grand strategy as well as the plan of tactical moves and implementation?

5. Please give citations, as footnotes, to your references on Zagoria, Oh (pages 3) and Linton (on page 5).

6. Fine to characterize the Institute of Peace and Disarmament as "think tank" (p. 4), like the IMEMO under Mr. Gorbachev. But is this your speculation or is it based on tangible evidence? If the latter, please give citations as footnotes. I am especially intrigued by your reference to "confidential memos" that you refer to on page 4.

7. What is your evaluation and assssment of other potential "think tanks" in North Korea? Do academicians and scientists in the Kim Il Sung University, the Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, the Ministry of Atomic Power Industry, etc. provide any input to the policymaking and implementation process?

8. What is the trade-off, or potential conflict, between the civilian "nuclear power program" and the military "nuclear weapons program" in North Korea? Is inter-bureaucratic coordination and rivarly a problem in North Korea, such as the ones existing between the Ministry of Atomic Power Industry and the Ministry of People's Armed Forces?

9. How does an interlocking membership, and arrangement, between the state and the party affect the ways in which the negotiation on nuclear diplomacy is carried out? For instance, was Kim Yong-sun's style as party cadre varied from Kang Sok-ju's as government official because of their different status?

10. If the Central People's Committee is the highest decision body in North Korea, as you argue, what is its relationship with the State Administration Council, the National Defense Commision on the government side, and with the Workers' Party of Korea Central Committee and its International Division? How about its role vis-a-vis the parliamentary body of the Supreme People's Assemby? When does the latter come to participate in the policy process, if at all?

11. What is the specific time frame of the short, medium and long-term references on page 10? One, five, or ten years?

12. The paper will need further discussion on Kim Jong Il's role, lack of his role, on the nuclear controversy on page 14.

13. Is it conceivable that the North Korean chief delegate Pak Yong-su's threatening remarks at the Panmunjom meeting in March was "deliberate" or indeed "out of line" as Kim Il Sung stated? Should it not be taken as a tactical move of North Korea's grand strategy and game plan?

14. Please give more footnote references to identify the sources of your information.

In conclusion, the paper shows that the author has both intellectual vigor and ability to sip through an array of obscure facts and information on North Korea. His analysis and interpretation is both sound and credible. He has written a first-rate, reliable and competent paper that should be read widely by the policy analysts and decision-makers as well as by the area specialists and the nuclear nonproliferation research scholars.

Response to Dr. Kihl's comments:

1. In this paper, I do not apply the "rational choice model," although I refer my readers to some research done by others (Dr. Kongdan Oh, Dr. Don Zagoria) along these lines. I feel that the "rational choice" explanations are inadequate in terms of accounting for the persistent vacillations in North Korean behavior. Hence, I resort to the institutional and psychodynamic approaches.

Regarding all or most of other cases in the foreign policy decision-making in the DPRK, their explanation is obviously beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to recommend either of these approaches. As a matter of principle, I think that each case should be treated on its merits first, and only then could one attempt to draw some generalizations.

2. Yes, I do assume that the nature of the North Korean decision-making processes, albeit a little bit complicated, peculiar, and not easily ascertainable, is not unique, hence comparable to other political systems.

3. Excellent question! As a matter of speculation, I believe that Kim Il-sung tends to intervene mainly at "critical junctures." However, it is the inner circle of people around the Great Leader that define the situation as "critical." When do they tend to do so? My guess is that struggle to define a situation as "critical" within the leadership opens up. In turn, the latter seems to be linked with clear-cut signals (in either direction) that the Pyongyang elite receives from the international community, which, of course, each cue-taker interprets in his own interest and tries to exploit for his own benefit.

4. In this paper, I attempted to make a point that the overall parameters of the North Korea nuclear game plan are pretty much fixed and are unlikely to change dramatically unless kim Il-sung personally decides to reassess his vision of the DPRK's future (which is highly unlikely), whereas the roadmap, the speed, type and tactics of implementation appear to be open for negotiation and compromise.

5. Regarding my reference to Dr. D. Zagoria's views, he expressed them in his presentation at a conference sponsored by the Korea Forum at Columbia University in November 1993. Concerning Dr. S. Linton's views, he expressed them during his presentation at the February 1994 Seminar on Contemporary Korean Affairs sponsored by the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. As far as Dr. Kongdan Oh's views are concerned, she expressed them at a brown bag lunch in her honor sponsored by the East Asian Institute at Columbia University on March 31, 1994. I participated in all three events, and cited their views from my notes.

6. See my answer to question 14.

7. Yes, they do, but their relative influence varies.

8. I do not have any "hard evidence" suggesting that there is inter-bureaucratic rivalry between the MAEI and the Ministry of People's Armed Forces. But this does not mean that in reality this is not the case. My speculative guess is that although both ministries work very closely on most of the components of the program, potential conflict between the civilian and military aspects of the nuclear program, presumably dealt with by the MAEI and MPAF respectively, might arise regarding the questions of budget appropriations, bureaucratic influence on the top political leadership at "critical junctures," as well as in shaping the future contours of the North Korean nuclear program as a whole. Furthermore, if the international community opts to crack down on Pyongyang's nuclear program, its civilian aspect is likely to have a better chance for survival than its military aspect. Hence, it is in the MAEI's interest to distance itself from the MPAF's intentions and efforts, whatever these may be.

9 and 10. Excellent questions! I will defer my answers until the conference.

11. I refer to one year as a short term, three to five years as a medium term, and ten to fifteen years as a long term.

12. I discuss Kim Jong-il's role in the nuclear issue in greater detain in another paper which I presented at a conference on the Future of the Korean Peninsula in the 21st Century held in July 1993 in East Lansing, MI. Its title is "Bringing North Korea Back In: A Creeping Elite Revolution?" by and large, I stand by my earlier conclusions presented in that paper.

13. I think Mr. Pak Yong-su's notorious remark was intensely emotional and personal. I believe it had nothing to do with Kim's official line. Rather, it reflect profound frustration which Mr. pak Yong-su and a seemingly dovish coalition behind him must have felt when they were trying to beat the March 21,1994 deadline but were confronted with the South Korean stonewalling in Panmunjom. They saw the deal collapsing and their own fortunes being demolished but they could do nothing to avert it.

14. As far as the sources of my information are concerned, most of the facts I cite regarding the newly emerging role of the International Peace and Disarmament Institute, sessions of the CPC, and some recent changes in the WPK CC are based on the information I received from a credible Russian diplomatic source.

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