Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea’s Leadership Transition and Proliferation

The journal Asia Policy has published a “book review roundtable” with essays about Jonathan Pollack’s excellent book No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, followed by a response essay from Pollack The Elder.  I contributed one of the essays, as did  Toby DaltonSue Terry, and Sung-Yoon Lee.

Both Toby and I raised a similar question about the possibility of politics in North Korea, which I thought might temper ever so slightly Pollack’s stark but ultimately compelling conclusion.  You can read the reviews, as well as Pollack’s response.

For the purposes of a blog post, I wanted to pick up on a question posed by Pollack to illustrate why politics might matter.

Then I want to share a picture of Kim Jong Un wedged into tank.

In his response to the essays, Pollack notes that “There has been very little commentary in the immediate post–Kim Jongil period on the nuclear weapons program …”

Although Pollack is primarily interested in what drives the DPRK to possess nuclear armaments, I’ve been wondering about the impact of the post-Kim Jong-il period on what’s been called “onward proliferation.”

I wrote  a short op-ed for Kydodo News on this very topic, which also came up at a meeting I attended recently.   And, while Kim Jong-il was still alive and kicking, Joshua Pollack — Jonathan’s son — considered carefully the question of why North Korea sells what it does to whom for the excellent blog, 38 North.

In the United States, politicians openly compete, often using specific policies to distinguish themselves from their opponents. A perfect example is Mitt Romney’s sudden hostility to the use of a mandate to expand access to health care.  If President Obama is for something, chances are that Republicans need to be against it.  It works the other way too, of course.  Contrast is such a good thing that candidates may actually exaggerate their degree of disagreement, despite the fact that Robert Gates could quite comfortably serve both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In North Korea, competition is not open and, as far as I can surmise, concerns competing patronage networks more than ideological groups.  This is not an unusual state of affairs.  Political parties in  the United States used to be more ideologically heterogenous, or so I am told,  especially in the machine politics that dominated urban areas.  Even today, the role of interest groups preserves some ideological heterogeneity within political parties and the political beliefs of one’s parents remain an excellent predictor of partisan affiliation.

Proliferation in North Korea, as far as I can tell, is a family affair conducted by one of these patronage networks.  This blog has taken a special interest in one Jon Byong-ho and his son-in-law (maybe) Yun Ho-jin, who Josh Pollack described as the “dynamic duo” of North Korean proliferation.  It was Jon who is alleged to have written that letter to AQ Khan.  And it is Yun who seemed to be in charge of procurement for North Korea and its clients. These two characters, along with a few others, appear responsible for many of North Korea’s more objectionable activities involving ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Jon is also a senior figure in the DPRK regime, among the ten most influential North Koreans, as far as DPRK-watchers can infer from issues of protocol, including pictures of who gets to stand with Kim Jong Un, committee memberships and laundry lists like the  funeral committee for Kim Jong Il.  North Korea’s proliferation activities are more likely structured to support Jon’s machinations in Pyongyang, not the other way around.  Whether Jon sees proliferation as a source of hard currency to buy influence or strategic technology to impress fellow hawks, or both, is difficult to say.

That makes it very difficult to imagine how the  leadership transition could affect proliferation.  At least two sources (one , two) describe Jon as an ideological conservative, especially compared to someone like Chang Song-taek. (By the way, I know my Romanization of Korean names is inconsistent and am open to suggestions about fixing that.)  Chang may emerge as a sort of regent being married, as he is, to Kim Jong-il’s sister.  But Jon, too, is reportedly cl0se to the Kim family and is a part of the so-called “1980 Group” that rose to power with Kim Jong-il.  Whether Chang and Jon will act as allies or enemies is not clear to me — and, in North Korea’s opaque system, it may not be entirely clear to them, either.    There are people who follow such things very closely who certainly will have plausible answers to such questions, but I think it is important to understand that the internal politics of an authoritarian system are almost certainly opaque to the participants, as well as the outside world.  There will be an inevitably jockeying for influence in North Korea, even if only within the context of the preservation of the Kim regime. But many will play their cards close to vest.  We should not expect to do better than the participants in handicapping the horse-race.

North Korea’s approach to proliferation, therefore, may be determined by factors that we simply cannot see and that are, to a first approximation, not “strategic” in any geopolitical sense.   We can not predict them, I suspect, based on a “rational” model that places international interests ahead of domestic ones.

It is perhaps the case that better informed North Korea watchers could do much to answer some of the questions sketched here.  They are certainly invited to do so.


Ok, enough of the intellectually heavy stuff.  Let’s look at a pictures of Kim Jong-un wedged into tank.

“Yo, I am stuck.  If you don’t get me out of here, I am going to open a can of juche on your asses.”

There is also, I have been told, a picture of him wedged into a fighter jet — but the images released from his only visit to a KPA Air Force Unit that I could find didn’t deliver.  There is, however, a picture of him looking at a giant fish.

“Yo, what are the rest of you guys gonna eat? Just kidding with you.  It’s all good.”


  1. joshua (History)


    Despite his considerable ccomplishments, Jon Byong-ho seems to be getting a little long in the tooth, and it’s not clear whether he has any meaningful connection to Sagacious General Kim Jong-un. I’m not at all sure he should be compared to Jang Song-taek, who seems to be extremely well-positioned within the regime.

    A slightly question we might now ask is whether the change at the top of the power structure has brought about any changes in official attitudes towards nuclear negotiations in general or denuclearization in particular.


    Pollack the Younger

  2. OT (History)

    “North Korea’s approach to proliferation, therefore, may be determined by factors that we simply cannot see and that are, to a first approximation, not “strategic” in any geopolitical sense.”

    Would this not be
    a) obvious
    b) exactly the case with Iran, Pakistan etc.
    c) not actually very wrong with ANY nuclear state?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      B and C. Although I am a student of Halperin’s emphasis on bureaucratic politics, the default assumption of most other analysts remains classically realist with states as the primary unit of analysis and acting mote or less rationally.

      So, however obvious it may seem to you and to me, it is still a heresy.

  3. kevin (History)

    Fascinating discussion, Jeffrey.

  4. RE (History)

    Alternate subtitle to the KCNA photo:

    “Great Successor Kim Jong Un carried the fish to shore bare-handed after swimming across the Northern Limit Line alone to convince it to give up its backward, capitalist ways and sacrifice itself for the good of Korean socialism.”

    • rwendland (History)

      Kim would not regard fish just south of the Northern Limit Line as capitalist fish, as it would still be within NK’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters!

      More seriously, if we want to get to a less tense situation with DPRK, something needs to be done about South Korea’s insistance that the Northern Limit Line be continued as a “de facto maritime boundary”. Enforcing the NLL prevents NK having access to its 12 nautical mile territorial waters, not to mention its UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zone. This is always going to flare-up at unfortunate times when discussions elsewhere are looking promising.

      V.brief backgrounder: NLL was drawn up using 3 nautical miles territorial water assumption, and later developed under the idea that NK fishing boats should not be let out into “international waters” further south-west (beyond 3 miles). No concession was made to the international acceptance of 12 nautical mile territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones for fishing control beyond that. Disputes continue.

  5. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The lesson is simple. Get your bomb and get it now.

    The Bush junta threatened a number of nations and the only one it quit threatening was Korea.

    Do you want American soldiers invading your country?

    If you do not, then get your bomb.

    • OT (History)

      Still not getting it? We can’t know. Faction iside NK might want to have a bomb for proliferation for money, for bargaining chip for aid, for milking state money to bomb development and corruption, or simply to secure position within the regime by being the one who knows where the bomb is hidden. Or for some other reason. Speculation about their motives is futile.

      State in itself doesn’t have brains, it’s not rational, only open societies have a pressure from educated public to appear rational – and even in open societies nuclear weapons policy is kept under the lid. How convenient for corruption… then think about societies that are corrupt to the core to start with.

    • Anonymous (History)

      Are you claiming that NK had no nuclear program before the Bush Administration?

  6. joel wit (History)

    Jeffrey: I took a quick glance at the reviews you mention above and while I agree with much that is said, I am somewhat surprised that none of the reviewers addresses head on an issue that goes directly to the question. Despite Jonathan’s voluminous discussion of the history of the nuclear program, he never addresses a central fact. In 1993, as a US government official, I was looking at intelligence estimates that the dprk would have enough fissile material for 100 nuclear weapons by 2000. That of course didnt happen not only because of the Agreed Framework but also because the North Koreans let their facilities deteriorate to the point where they couldnt be salvaged. By the time the agreement collapsed in 2002, they only had enough plutonium for a handful of weapons. So I am not at all convinced that the dprk has never viewed its program as a bargaining chip.
    They lost billions of dollars of investment on hopes of building a better political relationship with the US that never happened.

    And for those who argue well, they had a secret uranium enrichment program so they were cheating all along. That may be but they threw away a large-scale plutonium production effort for a UE program that at best was at its very beginning stages and still appears to be limited. Make sense? As Rocky Riccardo once said, I think whoever made these decisions in Pyongyang had some splaining to do.

    So despite all the brainpower in the review essays and Jonathan’s voluminous book, I and my colleagues who participated in this history first-hand remain unconvinced. It seems to me that any explanation of North korean motivations in the past must grapple with this central issues. And I would add I havent seen one book that even acknowledges this historical fact.

    All of this is not to say that the North would denuclearize today. I have my serious doubts as well. But i also unconvinced that they wouldnt, particularly by historical analyses that have such enormous gaps.

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