Pyongyang’s determination to pursue its nuclear ambitions, despite economic hardship and international outrage, is analysed in this Adelphi, which looks at the looks at the events and ideas that have shaped a renegade regime and North Korean identity in general.

Locked in antagonistic rivalry with neighbouring powers, North Korea has staked its future on the development of nuclear weapons, to the outrage of the international community. The Kim family's dominance of the DPRK since 1948 has confounded its critics and frustrated its allies in equal measure. Despite its dependence on economic aid from the former USSR and China, and later the USA, it pursues its nuclear ambitions at all costs. The regime has reneged on its nuclear and non-proliferation commitments, apparently only returning to the table to buy time to carry on building and testing weapons technologies.

But what motivates Pyongyang to disregard UN censure and circumvent its sanctions, selling weapons and technology to fund its nuclear programme? Why does it remain one of the world's most militaristic societies, through years of economic penury and hardship? And after two nuclear tests and repeated incidents between the forces of the ROK and the DPRK, what are the prospects for peace and stability on the peninsula? In this account of the regime, the Kims' deep investment in nationalism is analysed in the context of the great political upheavals of the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR and the rise of China. This Adelphi looks at the events and ideas that shaped North Korean identity, as well as the factors influencing the great powers' reactions.‘

'Many experts have tried to explain North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and to offer solutions to convince Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program. In this extraordinary, indispensable book Jonathan Pollack tackles these difficult issues and provides more complete answers than anyone else.'
Han Sung-joo, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea

'This is a profoundly important book. No one else has managed to do what Pollack has done. This sends a strong wake-up call to anyone still inclined to view Pyongyang’s nuclear quest as defensive or reactive. He has written a superb and essential guide to one of the greatest threats America and its Northeast Asian allies face today.'
Evans Revere, Diplomat in Residence, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, and Former Principal Deputy Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

'Jonathan Pollack has written the single best analysis of the North Korean nuclear issue. He masterfully captures the complex history, politics and personalities that make this one of the world’s most intractable foreign policy challenges.'
Mitchell Reiss, President, Washington College and Former Director of Policy Planning, US State Department 

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  • Introduction

    Despite episodic, partial diplomatic successes and repeated calls for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the behaviour of North Korea across the decades suggests the precise opposite. For a quarter of a century, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has defied, stymied, deferred or circumvented repeated efforts by allies, adversaries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inhibit its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ensure Pyongyang's compliance with...
  • Chapter One: A system like no other

    North Korea's nuclear-weapons programme constitutes a major factor in regional security, inter-Korean relations and non-proliferation policy. Over the past 20 years, this issue has repeatedly appeared to verge on major crisis, interspersed by protracted, fitful negotiations or deliberations over protracted, fitful negotiations. Given the centrality of the Korean nuclear issue to regional geopolitics and nuclear proliferation, this attention is not surprising. However, without a clearer grasp of the underpinnings of...
  • Chapter Two: Nuclear memories and nuclear visions

    Kim Il-sung was aware of the nuclear revolution well before the establishment of the DPRK. The Soviet Union's eleventh-hour entry into the conflict against Japan in the waning weeks of the Second World War and the abrupt collapse of Japanese military forces in Korea in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 denied Kim the role for which he had long prepared, direct participation...
  • Chapter Three: The nuclearisation of Korean strategy

    At the beginning of the 1970s, there was increased political normalcy for the DPRK, at least as leaders in Pyongyang might have defined it. Sino-North Korean relations were recovering from their deep decline and near-crisis of the Cultural Revolution, and Soviet leaders (hoping to inhibit excessive risk-taking by Pyongyang) were resigned to open-ended subsidisation of the DPRK economy. In November 1970, the KWP convened its first Party Congress in nearly...
  • Chapter Four: From Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il

    The late 1980s and early 1990s were an acutely testing time for the ageing Kim Il-sung. He remained deeply involved in major domestic and international issues, but his physical capacities were increasingly limited and grim domestic and international circumstances challenged his fundamental strategic assumptions. Kim was running out of time and out of options. The collapse of communist regimes across Eastern Europe, especially the GDR, with which Kim Il-sung had...
  • Chapter Five: Nuclear breakout

    The collapse of the Agreed Framework in the autumn of 2002 and Pyongyang's resumption of its plutonium-based weapons programme in early 2003 were definitive events in Korea's nuclear history, leading ineluctably to the North's first nuclear test less than four years later. The US–DPRK accords of 1994 had enabled Pyongyang to retain its weapons potential while energy assistance to the North and site preparation for the light-water reactors proceeded, albeit...
  • Chapter Six: Nuclear assertion

    In early 2009, North Korea forcefully expanded its claims to standing as a nuclear-weapons state. In abrupt, unequivocal fashion, the DPRK walked away from every denuclearisation commitment made during the latter years of the Bush administration. It asserted its right to possess nuclear weapons outside the NPT, declared it would enhance its plutonium-based programme, and announced plans to experiment with enriched uranium. The North carried out its second nuclear test...
  • Conclusion

    For six decades, nuclear weapons have been deeply enmeshed in politics and security on the Korean peninsula. This book has tried to explain the why and how of this history, but the past does not tell us when or how the nuclear saga will end. It is also impossible to know the ultimate consequences of the North's nuclear capabilities and its accumulation of nuclear technology, know how and fissile material...

Jonathan D. Pollack is Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center in the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution.

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