Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has repeatedly attempted to compel concessions from the United States by wielding the threat of nuclear proliferation. In the early 1990s, North Korea threatened to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons unless Washington provided energy assistance.1 During the Six-Party Talks a decade later, the North Koreans returned to concession-seeking diplomacy by restarting their mothballed plutonium facilities, producing large quantities of fissile material, and testing a nuclear device.2 After these negotiations reached an impasse, North Korea avoided using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip until February 2012, when it agreed to a moratorium on “missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities” in exchange for food aid.3 But a satellite launch in April 2012 and another nuclear test in February 2013 left US officials wondering “why Pyongyang would edge close to a deal and then rip it to pieces within days.”4 Subsequent efforts in New York to privately broach terms for resuming denuclearization talks also came to an abrupt end when North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear weapon test in January 2016.5

Tristan Volpe
Tristan Volpe is a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and assistant professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.
More >

North Korea’s steady development of nuclear weapons raises the question of why Pyongyang used its underlying nuclear program to pursue coercive diplomacy at all. North Korean decision making is notoriously difficult to estimate, but the historical record suggests that the ruling Kim regime long desired nuclear weapons to offset conventional inferiority.6 As the Cold War ended, Pyongyang needed to ensure its continued survival amid a dramatic loss of power and Soviet protection. Nuclear weapons offered a robust and efficient deterrent shield.7 Furthermore, North Korea was isolated from the international economy and community, so the material consequences and normative opprobrium associated with nuclear proliferation were probably of little concern for the pariah regime.8 Finally, North Korea had invested considerable sums in its nuclear program for decades but received few material benefits from using this technical capacity to proliferate as a form of compellence against the United States.9

Despite these strong drivers of proliferation, North Korea appears to have employed its nuclear program as a bargaining instrument for two reasons. First, diplomacy allowed North Korea to protect and enhance its emerging nuclear program during a critical period of development. By cutting a deal with the United States in 1994, for instance, North Korea reduced the threat of preventive military action against the vulnerable Yongbyon plutonium complex and opened up room to develop other strategic assets— notably ballistic missiles and uranium enrichment—at other undeclared sites. Second, the ruling Kim regime’s survival came to depend on extorting concessions from foreign governments to sustain the military and political elite.10 After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang needed fresh sources of foreign patronage and soon found that the threat of proliferation provided it with the ability to compel concessions from the United States.11 North Korea may have stumbled onto the blackmail potential of its nuclear program by accident, but it was well versed in identifying American and South Korean “pressure points” throughout the Cold War and then exploiting these vulnerabilities with coercive diplomatic campaigns.12

But when did nuclear latency give the North Koreans the strongest bargaining advantage over the United States? This chapter claims that there was an optimal range of nuclear technology for North Korea to possess for the purpose of successful compellence. The North Koreans were in the best position when the plutonium-production capability was just coming on line in the early 1990s. At this emerging stage of technical development, North Korea could issue a credible threat of proliferation backed by a relatively low-cost assurance to suspend and eventually disable nuclear activities at Yongbyon in exchange for concessions. Once North Korea’s nuclear program left this fissile material “sweet spot” by producing large quantities of plutonium and testing a nuclear weapon during the Six-Party Talks, it became prohibitively costly and unattractive for the regime to reverse course or even freeze these activities. The North Koreans may have liked to pretend that they were still in the sweet spot during subsequent discussions, but the mature nuclear enterprise no longer provided an easy means to practice coercive diplomacy.

The fissile material sweet spot explains in part why North Korea’s buildup of nuclear capabilities over the last decade did not translate into an enhanced edge to extract concessions from the United States. As Thomas Schelling noted long ago, coercive threats have to be “stopped or reversed when the enemy complies, or else there is no inducement.”13 While North Korea continued to issue demands and consider offers at the negotiation table, the proliferation blackmail strategy unraveled because the government was unwilling to freeze or cap its strategic capabilities. Once the nuclear enterprise matured into an operational capacity, the Kim regime would likely pay high domestic costs in terms of “delegitimization and destabilization” if it decided to barter away this valuable asset.14

The rest of the chapter reviews two episodes of North Korean diplomacy to illustrate the bargaining benefits the Kim regime was able to reap from its emerging proliferation threat, as well as the barriers to denuclearization that set in as the nuclear enterprise matured over time. The first case of proliferation blackmail from 1991 to 1994 shows how North Korea’s threat to produce plutonium applied enough pressure on the United States to comply with demands without requiring the regime to make a hard choice about proliferation. The second episode of nuclear diplomacy during the Six-Party Talks a decade later demonstrates how the menu of denuclearization options became more expensive, while the Kim regime grew increasingly unwilling to trade away its nuclear assets. The chapter concludes that North Korea is unlikely to freeze its modern nuclear activities in the absence of a major catalytic shock.

This is an except from North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence


1. Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005).
2. Mike Chinoy, Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009); Jonathan D. Pollack, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security (Abingdon [UK]: Routledge, 2011).
3. US Department of State, “U.S.-DPRK Bilateral Discussions,” press statement, February 29, 2012.
4. Andrew Quinn, “Obama’s North Korean Leap of Faith Falls Short,” Reuters, March 30, 2012; Ankit Panda, “A Great Leap to Nowhere: Remembering the US-North Korea ‘Leap Day’ Deal,” Diplomat, February 29, 2016.
5. Alastair Gale and Carol E. Lee, “U.S. Agreed to North Korea Peace Talks before Latest Nuclear Test,” Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2016.
6. North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons stems back more than half a century. During the 1950s and 1960s, Kim Il-sung reached out to the Soviet Union to train North Korean scientists and founded the nuclear research complex at Yongbyon. Beset by insecurity, Kim apparently saw nuclear weapons “as a strategic ‘equalizer’ and deterrent” against US-ROK combined forces in the South. But since Kim maintained personal and secretive control over the nuclear program at its genesis, North Korea’s “nuclear intentions were never written in any DPRK regulations or explicitly developed. . . . Instead, they were ‘hidden away’ in Kim Il-sung’s head, and he might have shared only reluctantly his thoughts and intentions with his close associates.” Alexandre Y. Mansourov, “The Origins, Evolution, and Current Politics of the North Korean Nuclear Program,” Nonproliferation Review (Spring–Summer 1995): 30.
7. Victor Cha, “North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Badges, Shields, or Swords?,” Political Science Quarterly 117, no. 2 (2002): 209–30.
8. Etel Solingen, “The Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint,” International Security 19, no. 2 (Autumn 1994): 126–69; Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995); T. V. Paul, Power Versus Prudence: Why Nations Forgo Nuclear Weapons (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).
9. Victor Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (New York: Ecco, 2012), 300.
10. Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lind, “Pyongyang’s Survival Strategy,” International Security 35 (Summer 2010): 64.
11. Nicholas Eberstadt, Mark Rubin, and Albina Tretyakova, “The Collapse of Soviet and Russian Trade with the DPRK, 1989–1993,” Korean Journal of National Unification 4 (1995): 87–104; Marcus Noland, “Why North Korea Will Muddle Through,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 4 (July 1, 1997): 106; Nicholas Eberstadt, The End of North Korea (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1999), 93–110.
12. Narushige Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966–2008 (Abingdon [UK]: Routledge, 2009).
13. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 76
14. Nicholas Eberstadt quoted in Gale and Lee, “U.S. Agreed to North Korea Peace Talks.”