Does Kim Jong-il need to keep his nukes to avoid Gaddafi's fate?

You’re no doubt familiar with the notion that nuclear weapon states will be loath to give up their nuclear weapons — and those that seek them their aspirations — since Moammar Gaddafi forfeited his nuclear-weapons program. Choosing to go deterrent-free, he ended up regime-free as well.

At the Atlantic, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Kenneth N. Waltz weighed in on this.

No doubt understanding that his regime and his own survival are under constant threat, Kim [Jong-il] has been quite unwilling to disarm. The last two decades have provided him with numerous cautionary tales of dictatorships defeated — the Iraqi army was trounce-ed in 1991, NATO triumphed over Milosevic in 1999, and the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. And just this March, as NATO operations in Libya began, a North Korean spokesperson announced the lesson that Kim’s regime had learned: “It has been shown to the corners of the earth that Libya’s giving up its nuclear arms. … was used as an invasion tactic to disarm the country.” … The Dear Leader has probably learned through careful observation that the only true security guarantee for a fragile autocracy … may be a nuclear arsenal. 

Eli Jacobs, a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has the temerity to respond to Rapp-Hooper and Waltz. Bear in mind that the elderly Waltz actually founded a school of international relations who has written extensively on nuclear weapons (to which he’s not necessarily opposed). For example, he’s written:

The like­lihood of war decreases as deterrent and defensive capabilities increase. Nuclear weapons, responsibly used, make wars hard to start. Nations that have nuclear weapons have strong incentives to use them responsibly. These statements hold for small as for big nuclear powers. Because they do, the measured spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared. [Emphasis added.]

Just as long as it’s measured! According to Jacobs, though, Kim Jong-il doesn’t even need that excuse to keep nuclear weapons.

North Korea was not going to give up its nuclear weapons in any case. The conclusion that a nuclear capability bolsters the regime’s security seems to be a long-term guiding principle of Kim Jong-il’s security policy. Further, forsaking nuclear weapons now will jeopardize the regime’s attempts to bolster the military credentials of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and successor.

But the crux of Jacobs’s argument though is that nuclear weapons are not needed to deter regime change. In fact

… conventional forces alone can often do the trick. For example, Iran’s geography and North Korea’s massive army would, combined with other non-nuclear factors, likely deter regime change pursued by military means.

Third, [the] repressive regimes of Hussein and Qaddafi were, above all, weak. Indeed, Kaddafi did not trade away a military capability anywhere near that currently possessed by the DPRK.

Besides, he adds, “a deliverable Libyan nuke was years away.” Meanwhile, I recently wrote:


If Kim is taking the wrong lesson from this, so are we in being selective about which states we condemn for their nuclear proliferation. It’s as if they’re subject to an unwritten sanity or rationality index. Naturally, no U.S. allies that have developed nuclear weapons since the nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, such as Israel or India, score low on that index, however imaginary. Pakistan’s rating, however, as it fails to pursue Islamic militants and with concerns arising about the security of its nuclear weapons program, is falling at a steady rate. Of course, North Korea, Iran, and Syria occupy the bottom of the index.

In the end, the power (or will) of the United States to prevent a despot from assuming control of a small nation is limited. But it can still demonstrate, as the NPT calls for, substantive disarmament leadership. Though this may not inspire the new ruler to refrain from proliferating, it will lower the national-security stakes for him.

2 replies »

  1. Russ, can you connect a dot or two for me? I guess, in light of the context established by the whole Arab Spring movement, I wonder more about how a despot would stand up to a domestic uprising. Not that this is culturally all that likely, in NK, probably, but of what value are nukes in this case? Certainly Kim wouldn’t use them on his own soil, would he? Or am I just missing the whole argument?

  2. You’re right, Sam, they’re of no use internally. In fact, they’re a headache when, as in Pakistan, a nation’s own dissidents plot how to seize them.