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Does North Korea have a Nuclear Bargaining Chip?

By NKR Intern Dwayne Melendez

The recent alleged H-bomb test by North Korea has sparked yet another round of the usual speculation and incredulousness at the audacity of North Korea’s defiance of international norms. Hawks discuss the threat posed by North Korea while others discuss the need to abandon strategic patience before it’s too late. What is seldom questioned is whether this test carries any real meaning given the previous tests and missile launches which already clearly signaled the regime in Pyongyang’s position which has fallen on deaf, or rather patient, ears. Therefore, given the ongoing nature of the North Korean nuclear program and the seeming ignorance of said program by the US we should consider what value that program has in spurring negotiations and whether this value has changed over time.

For years, North Korea has sought to establish a positive relationship with the United States, often claiming that they seek United States security guarantees and normalization of relations. In addition, North Korea has also worked to improve its economic situation. Despite this, North Korea has taken a course of action that is at odds with these stated goals. While the U.S. clearly opposed nuclear proliferation, North Korea began and eventually created a functional nuclear program. Historically, nuclear weapons have been used to either threaten or to deter enemies. However, it seems that North Korea had another goal in mind: using the weapon as a bargaining chip to bring the United States to the negotiation table. For the greater part of the 1990s and the early-2000s, North Korea was able to use provocations and threats of force, especially with its nuclear program, as an impetus for Washington to talk with them. However, after North Korea stepped away from negotiations in 2008, the United States no longer was willing to engage with North Korea. This analysis of the rise and fall of North Korea’s nuclear bargaining chip begins with a clear definition of what a bargaining chip is, followed by a brief history of the evolution of North Korea’s nuclear program; afterward, there will be some examples where North Korea used its nuclear program to achieve its provocation-negotiation strategy; lastly, there will be a contention that North Korea's bargaining chip no longer functions as it once did.

A bargaining chip is defined in the Second Barnhart Dictionary as “something that can be used to gain an advantage or bring about a concession. ... The use became prominent during the SALT I negotiations in which various details of the arms programs of the superpowers served as bargaining chips."[i] A bargaining chip is an item, power, or ability that is used to leverage negotiations. One of the more prominent examples of the past was in 1973 when Saudi Arabia used the OPEC oil embargo as a method to get the US to stop supporting Israel. North Korea's nuclear bargaining chip was unique because while force has been used in the past to get negotiations or a desired result. Bargaining chips become prominent, or even a necessity, for nations that have very little leverage otherwise. As a developing nation without major economic or diplomatic carrots, North Korea elicited very little concern outside of the Korean peninsula. It wasn’t until North Korea developed a nuclear program that they became a source of concern for the United States. Not only would nuclear weapons increase the prominence of an otherwise weak nation like North Korea, but it also allowed the leadership to argue from a position of power. North Korea would end up using its program as a way to earn economic rights, energy, and food aid from the developed world, especially the United States. Prior to North Korea, possession of nuclear weapons was not considered part of a bargaining strategy. In fact, North Korea's nuclear weapons program was not initially planned to be a bargaining chip, but as a factor in deterrence. Before exploring its role as a nuclear bargaining chip, first, let’s address the role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the US presence in the Korean peninsula.

In its incipient stages, North Korea’s nuclear program was a method to offset its military concerns about the American troops stationed in South Korea. By the start of the 1990s, North Korea found its security position greatly compromised with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increasing reluctance of its ally, China, to forgo improving relations with former enemies in the interest of trade. Not to mention, was the reality of the impressive growth both economically and militarily by its rival, South Korea, North Korea found itself without a solid ally and with a barely functional economy. Furthermore, it found itself, perhaps unknowingly, with a sizable American presence on its border that was nuclear armed. Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin, in their book, The Two Koreas, state, “American nuclear weapons had been stationed on the territory of South Korea for more than three decades, since President Eisenhower authorized the deployment […] in December 1957 [...] By 1972, according to US documents obtained by nuclear researcher William Arkin, 763 nuclear warheads were deployed in South Korea'' (200). [ii] While the weapons were intended to exist in the case of their necessity in Vietnam, the fact that almost 800 weapons were present in the South is terrifying. With the help of the Soviet Union, North Korea was able to create a rudimentary program in Yongbyeon, serving both their energy needs and their goal to create a nuclear weapons program. [iii] Even though North Korea would deny the existence of nuclear weapons, North Korea had a clear interest in pursuing them for years and would even mention the desire to possess one through private channels. While the task of making a nuclear weapon would be a daunting one, North Korea would soon discover that even without a fully completed weapon, it could take advantage of its program. The end of the Cold War would usher in an era of concern for North Korea. Gone was its major ally and benefactor, the Soviet Union, and its fellow Asian ally, China, was increasingly becoming more pragmatic and less ideological. Fortunately for North Korea, it would find itself a potential suitor for its security concerns; the United States.

Even before North Korea had the capability to make weapons, the United States took note of their nuclear weapons program. In turn, this led to the long tug of war between what North Korea said to the United States and what they did. With awareness of their progress came the United States’ recognition of North Korea as a threat. In The Two Koreas, one gets a sense of all that was at stake for the North. “Three weeks into 1992, the United States rolled out […] a bilateral American-North Korean meeting at the political level. Pyongyang had long sought direct discussions with senior’s levels in Washington […] Pyongyang also saw relations with the United States as an important victory in its zero-sum game with the South. And most importantly, Kim Il Sung sought a relationship with Washington, hoping the United States would act as a balancer and protector against what he feared were potential threats.” (Oberdorfer, Carlin, p. 207, 2014)

Prior to 1992, the United States saw North Korea as a threat to deter, but primarily from a conventional war aspect. Given its weak economy and lack of resources, North Korea played a secondary concern to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf War. This was the impetus for the nuclear negotiations with the United States.

North Korea would use its nuclear program to bargain with the US and others in exchange for security and sometimes food aid. Nuclear weapons were used in North Korean bilateral negotiations, namely the 1994 Agreed Framework, and multilateral ones, such as the Joint Statement in Fourth Round of the Six Party Talks. In both of these agreements, Pyongyang sought security from major powers, the U.S. in the Agreed Framework and the five parties involved in the Six Party Talks (U.S., Russia, South Korea, China and Japan) for the Joint Statement. Despite what appeared to be beneficial agreements, North Korea did not negotiate with its potential partners in the transparent of manners.

Rather, Pyongyang negotiated with the United States in the same manner that it negotiated with its southern rival, South Korea. The DPRK’s strategy consisted of provocation followed by negotiation. Chuck Downs succinctly presents this dynamic.

“’Calculated acceleration of risk has been the cornerstone of North Korea's negotiating strategy. This method of kick-starting negotiations has included such provocations as a 1968 attack on South Korea's presidential residence in Seoul; ax murders in the DMZ in 1976; a bomb attack on the South Korean Cabinet in 1983; the downing of a South Korean airliner in 1987; and more recently, the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 and the sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel.’’ [iv]

On several occasions, Pyongyang was willing to stir up its relationship with the US in order to achieve policy goals. When it felt that Washington was not going to fulfill their half of the Agreed Framework, it admitted to the world that it violated the treaty and soon withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the early 2000s, it would bring not only the U.S. to the table, but also South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China during the Six Party Talks ; these talks would result in North Korea expressing willingness to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits and security. [v]

However, by 2008, these talks would prove unfruitful. North Korea would withdraw from the talks and conduct a long range missile test in addition to a successful nuclear weapons launch. Pyongyang also learned to utilize its nuclear bargaining chip for necessities like food. There have been two cases where this has happened. One of them occurred when then leader Kim Jong Il allowed foreign inspectors to inspect Kumchang-ri in exchange for food aid. [vi] The other event occurred in 2012 when current DPRK leader Kim Jong Un froze the North Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for food aid. [vii] The breakthrough would be short-lived. By the end of the year, North Korea would return to rebuilding Yongbyeon, its major nuclear facility, and have a successful rocket launch.

For years, North Korea utilized its nuclear program as a bargaining chip to get a fit in the door to engage with the United States. In its statement ‘’DPRK Terms US Hostile Policy Main Obstacle in Resolving Nuclear Issue’’ (or MOFA 2012), Pyongyang claimed that ‘’US hostility predates and is itself the root cause of nuclear issue and remains the main obstacle to solving the nuclear issue.’’[viii] In the document, North Korea claims it sought to pursue non-hostility as a goal for US-North Korean relations. However, even after being offered full normalization of relations with the US and a willingness to work together for peace in the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea was not appeased. This trend would continue in the 2000 DPRK-US Joint Communiqué, the Six Party Talks and the Leap Year Statement. [ix] While in the midst of alleged engagement, the DPRK became even more inflammatory. In 2012, North Korea decided to embed nuclear weapons into their state identity by issuing a new preamble to its constitution. The new preamble states that North Korea is a ‘’핵보유국,’’ a word that effectively translates to nuclear state. [x] Just a few months after its third successful nuclear test, North Korea’s recent actions are vexing to the South Korea and the United States. Its hostile stance, both in words and actions, has also been accompanied by a build-up in Yongbyeon, which experts claim has doubled in size. [xi]

The United States' perception of North Korea has changed considerably since the 1990s with the rise of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. While the United States had seemed willing to talk to North Korea in the past, it developed a sense of aversion since the Bush administration. Citing the failed 1994 Agreement, Washington felt a heavy sense of distrust toward North Korea and did not think it deserved a return to bilateral talks. [xii] While the election of President Barack Obama, the United States seemed more willing to discuss matters with the North, only to find it constantly betraying agreements shortly afterward. During the Obama administration, North Korea has faced two rounds of sanctions, US-led UN embargoes, and a newfound unwillingness to meet for bilateral talks. Given the current political climate between Washington and Pyongyang, it is very clear why even President Barack Obama, who claimed to be willing to ‘’extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’ has embraced ‘’strategic patience’’ as a strategy. Both the United States and South Korea have made various overtures, believing that North Korea’s nuclear weapons was simply a bargaining tool to be guaranteed safety in a dangerous world. Frankly, the patience and willingness to talk between the US and North Korea appears to be at a stalemate.

In recent years, North Korea has re-stated its willingness to talk to the United States. [xiii] In January 2015, North Korea once again sought to use its nuclear bargaining chip. This time, it sought to trade suspending nuclear testing for a cease in US-ROK military exercises. This offer was declined by the US. [xiv] Like the Bush administration, the United States is now willing to only engage North Korea through multilateral forums like the Six Party Talks. [xv] In order to return to any sort of discussions or forums, North Korea must now put its nuclear program on the table and any deviations from resulting agreements will not be taken lightly. Instead of using provocation to get increasingly better terms, by breaking agreements and showing no signs of a serious desire to denuclearize, North Korea has effectively harmed its prospects to achieving clearly-stated policy goals and has made these goals less likely of happening in the future. As a 'nuclear power' designated by its constitution, the nuclear power has again moved from bargaining chip to deterrent and one that neither South Korea nor the US seem willing to tolerate which means they would rather choose strategic patience and do anything. In other words, they have the bluff and North Korea has lost its nuclear bargaining chip.

*The views expressed in herein do not necessarily represent the views of Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies or the editorial board of North Korean Review.

[i] Shapiro, Fred R.. 1987. “Bargaining Chip”. American Speech 62 (2). Duke University Press: 183–83.

[ii] Oberdorfer, Don, and Robert Carlin. The Two Koreas : A Contemporary History. New York: Basic Books, A member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014.

[iii] Szalontai, Balázs, and Sergey Radchenko. "North Korea's Efforts to Acquire Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons: Evidence from Russian and Hungarian Archives." Wilson Center. July 7, 2011. Accessed November 12, 2015.

[iv] Downs, Chuck. "Commentary: A New Standard for Negotiation With N. Korea." Defense News. September 21, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015.

[v] "Six-P arty Talks, Beijing, China." U.S. Department of State. Accessed November 16, 2015.

[vi] Saunders, Philip. "DPRK Briefing Book: Confronting Ambiguity: How to Handle North Korea’s Nuclear Program." Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. December 19, 2011. Accessed November 16, 2015.

[vii] Myers, Steven, and Choe Sang-hun. "North Koreans Agree to Freeze Nuclear Work; U.S. to Give Aid." The New York Times. February 29, 2012. Accessed November 16, 2015.

[viii] Hayes, Peter. 2015. "Overcoming U.S.-DRPK Hostility: The Missing Link between a Northeast Asian Comprehensive Security Settlement and Ending the Korean War 1." North Korean Review 11 (2): 79-102.

[ix] Ibid

[x] "The DPRK’s Nuclear Constitution", NAPSNet Policy Forum, June 13, 2012,

[xi] Gladstone, Rick, and Gerry Mullany. "Study Suggests North Korea Is Doubling Area Devoted to Uranium Enrichment." The New York Times. August 7, 2013. Accessed November 21, 2015.

[xii] "U.S. Rejects North Koreas Demand for Bilateral Talks." Radio Free Asia. February 11, 2005. Accessed November 17, 2015.

[xiii] Shim, Elizabeth. "North Korea Demands Peace Treaty from U.S., Defends Nuclear Program." UPI. November 10, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015.

[xiv] "Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy | Arms Control Association." Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy | Arms Control Association. May 1, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2015.

[xv] "U.S. Seeking Six-party Talks for Denuclearized Korean Peninsula: U.S. Defense Chief." - Xinhua. November 1, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2015.


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