The Guardian • Issue #1990


Kim Jong Un and nuclear weapons

Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and touted as an Asia-Pacific region expert. In addition, he was a Korea Society Kim Koo Fellow, a German Marshall Fund Young Strategist, an International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue Young Leader, and a Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs New Leader.

Panda outlines how Pyongyang realised its nuclear strategy, despite the strict international restrictions placed upon it. For this, it needed to fulfil five things: the indigenous production of fissile material; the manufacture of the nuclear fuel into weaponised packages; ballistic weapons to deliver it; the ability to launch and deliver over a target; and to create the infrastructure, military setup, and politics that such a capability demands. It came as a severe shock to the US military when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea) achieved every step in such a remarkably short time that it was first thought the tests had been faked. Instead, the “communist country” had become a major nuclear opponent.

Since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), North Korea has had to defend itself against the world’s greatest superpower and its allies. It knew full well what happened to those countries that had decided not to develop nuclear weapons systems. In 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded: “This suggests that even the signing of a non-aggression treaty with the US would not help avert a war. Only the physical deterrent force, tremendous military deterrent force powerful enough to beat back an attack supported by any ultra-modern weapons, can avert a war and protect the security of the country and the nation.” This deterrent was nuclear weapons and the system to deliver them. What had happened to Gaddafi and Hussein had made a great impression on Kim Jong Un when he became the Supreme Leader of North Korea in 2011.

With the assistance of A Q Khan, a Pakistani nuclear physicist, North Korea, enriched uranium with centrifuges to build a nuclear bomb, which was tested in October 2006. After which, the UN Security Council convened and placed sanctions against the regime under Resolution 1718, which restricted North Korean access to the material and technology required to improve its “weapons of mass destruction.” Despite these restrictions, it developed three kinds of nuclear weapons – fuelled by plutonium, uranium, and hydrogen – and sophisticated ballistic missile systems that could theoretically hit US military bases in the Pacific and Alaska. In addition, the government had reverse-engineered missiles from China and Russia after hiring Russian engineers after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Choe Yong Nam writes in the Pyongyang Times in 2016: “It is the present-day reality that the US which threatened the DPRK with nukes, is now placed under the latter’s nuclear threat.” The US reacted by putting in place the 2017 OPLAN (Operational Plan) 8023, which estimated that the US would require twenty nuclear Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles to destroy “all known North Korean weapons of mass destruction facilities.” The following year Kim stated, “The world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fates.” By 2019, North Korea had enough plutonium and uranium to arm an estimated sixty-five nuclear weapons. That year, former Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, acknowledged to a US Senate panel, that North Korea, “is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”

Panda concludes that, “Only then – once North Korea could demonstrate the ability to threaten the US homeland with nuclear weapons, to everyone from the president to the average American citizen – would it become unthinkable for the White House to consider even a limited use of military force against North Korean soil.”

Kim Jong Un clarified his country’s position on the use of nuclear weapons in 2013, with the Law on Consolidating Position of Nuclear Weapons State, which declares that: “nuclear weapons can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.” The use of these weapons against non-nuclear states will only be used when “they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its attack.”

In 2017, the political situation became so heated under President Trump that at the UN General Assembly, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. It was later revealed that the White House had seriously considered a first strike against the DPRK. Fortunately, after the tirades about whose nuclear button was bigger and Trump calling Kim “rocket man,” Trump was invited to step into North Korea from the South. Unfortunately, the cordial relationship established did not last long once John Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, derailed future peace talks.

I expected Panda to use documents released under the Freedom of Information, but he does not. Besides a few interviews, Panda’s data was gleaned from articles available on the internet. The book’s bias towards the DPRK is obvious. He fails to give the North Korean’s reasons for its development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Instead, he repeats the propaganda put forward during the Korean War. Kim Il Sung was put in place by the USSR as a puppet leader. This was proven false, when after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 its archives were opened to international researchers. There is no evidence that Kim was a puppet leader.

Although five million people were killed during the Korean War – twenty per cent of the population – Panda continually argues that its nuclear weapons are to ensure the Kim family stayed in power and not for the security of the population. In his list of nuclear-armed countries, he fails to include Israel, which has an estimated 400 nuclear warheads. These can be delivered by aircraft, on ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) launched from submarines, and on the Jericho intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

That Kim’s missiles could reach the continental USA is only theoretical. The missiles were fired almost vertically. The distance that could be achieved was calculated from the height reached, the time it took, and the size of the ICBM used. Much of the information on delivery systems is derived from military parades in which the missiles are on display and DPRK press releases.

Panda has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Diplomat, the Atlantic, and the South China Morning Post. These have well-known connections with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and assisted its spread of disinformation. Articles such as political prison camps, the great luxury enjoyed by the Kim family, and that the population lives in perpetual poverty, are nothing but propaganda.

The nefarious activities of the CIA operations came to light with the release of three reports. Seymour Hersh revealed the details of the My Lai massacre by US troops in 1969 in Vietnam. It was followed by The National Committee for a Citizen’s Commission of Inquiry on United States War Crimes in Vietnam, set up the same year to investigate the atrocities. Daniel Ellsberg released The Pentagon Papers (Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force) to the New York Times in 1971. It revealed the history of the US Department of Defense’s political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The third was the publication in Britain in 1975 of Inside the Company: CIA Diary, by Philip Agee. I met Agee, a former CIA case officer, while he was hiding in London in an old boarding house, while he awaited the publication of his book. He details the CIA operations in Latin America, from his experiences when he joined in 1957 up to the early 1970s. Agee told me that his revelation of the details of CIA operations made him a target for the CIA or MI5. Agee told Swiss journalist Peter Studer: “The CIA is plainly on the wrong side, that is, the capitalistic side.” He fled to Cuba as a political refugee, where he died in 2008. These revelations aroused concerns in the US Congress. Senator Frank Church said of the findings released in the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1976), that the CIA was a “rogue elephant,” engaged in assassinations and the overthrow of elected governments.

The CIA was also spreading disinformation around the world. In January 1977 Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post wrote an article in Rolling Stone revealing the close relationship between the CIA and the US press. Over 400 American journalists had carried out assignments for the “Company.” Later that year a report in the New York Times revealed the scope of the CIA’s global campaign to manipulate the public. Its extensive network covered more than 500 news and public information organisations and individuals. Bernstein found that the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and CBS were the CIA’s most valuable broadcasting assets. The Secret Service also has connections with the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and MSNBC.

The other major source of disinformation is South Korea. Writing in 2017, Damin  Jung of NK News, says that South Korea is the source of some of the most unreliable coverage. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a DPRK-backed organisation, has accused the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, of employing “hack journalists” who intentionally report false information at the behest of the South Korean government. In 2020, academics and politicians in South Korea became concerned about the number of false reports on North Korea. Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies published Multi-layer Analysis and Understanding of False Information about North Korea, about the problem. Much of the information released by the ROK (Republic of Korea) is simply invented for US consumption. The foreign media are rarely allowed into North Korea except on special occasions, and with the dearth of information, articles are made up, each more lurid than the previous.

Panda’s book is for US military consumption, as shown by the reviews on the back dust cover. Retired US Army General V K Brooks, commander of UN Command, US Forces Korea and US-South Korea Combined Forces Command 2016-2018, writes that it is “One of the best books available.” Jean Lee, former AP Pyongyang bureau of chief and director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy, Wilson Center, says the book “should be required reading for understanding the motivations and machinations behind Kim’s destabilising mission.” Retired Lt. Col. George Hodge, US Army says, “Section two’s last chapter examines Kim’s command and control structure and illuminates several dilemmas and likely failure points in the criteria required for Kim to authorise a launch of a nuclear weapon.” Panda’s book is a US military assessment of the nuclear capabilities of the DPRK and its strike capacity. As such it is useful in determining how academia is used to garner information and disperse propaganda for the US military in its campaigns against North Korea.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More