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Gregory J. Moore (ed), North Korean Nuclear Operationality: Regional Security and Nonproliferation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), pp. 320.

Reviewed by: Benoit Hardy-Chartrand (Senior Research Associate, CIGI; Lecturer, University of Montreal)

The nuclear issue in North Korea, or the DPRK, has been one of the most salient international security issues in the last two decades and is the topic of multiple books and academic articles. North Korean Nuclear Operationality, edited by Gregory J. Moore, provides a useful addition to the literature on North Korean nuclear politics and non-proliferation.

Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyeongyang, North Korea. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Ryuugakusei

Throughout the book, the authors examine the implications of North Korean nuclear operationality for regional security and the international non-proliferation regime. Nuclear operationality refers to the capacity to carry out a nuclear attack. For instance, this could be done by miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and placing it on a ballistic missile for delivery. It is the last step in a nuclear program, and one that is fraught with tremendous technical challenges. While there is disagreement among security experts and national intelligence agencies as to whether North Korea has reached this critical point, there is no doubt that the regime of Kim Jong-Un has accelerated nuclear and missile development and has made operationality a central objective.

Authors in the volume offer various ideas, some forward thinking and others of questionable feasibility, on how to deal with a nuclear North Korea. In Chapter 1, for instance, Hayes and Bruce advocate a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Given the deep-seated mistrust that mars relations between North Korea and its neighbours, it would be difficult to implement this zone. Although “the DPRK’s nuclear force does not yet represent a major military threat” (p. 28), according to the authors, its rhetoric and conventional military forces must be taken seriously. This explains the need for a nuclear weapon-free zone, which could help solve the security dilemmas in the region (p.31). A more promising option is put forth in Chapter 2, where Moore argues that Washington should offer Pyongyang a peace treaty that would end the Korean war prior to denuclearization talks. This would completely reverse the longstanding U.S. posture, which dictates that North Korea must embark on the road to denuclearization before any treaty is considered.

In the second part of the volume, the contributors examine what an operationally nuclear North Korea would mean for South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. These five countries were involved in the now defunct denuclearization talks with North Korea. This section presents insightful assessments on the implications of North Korea’s actions on specific neighbours. For example, Kang thoroughly weighs the merits (or lack thereof) for the main options available to the US. Moore, in Chapter 4, offers a thoughtful analysis of China’s perception of North Korea’s nuclear program, examining among others the deterioration of ties between the two formal allies.

Some of the chapters in this section contain dubious assertions or prescriptions that occasionally undermine the authors’ theses. For instance, in Chapter 6 on Russia’s view of North Korea, Toloraya writes that the responsibility to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue largely rests with the United States. Although the author does not entirely absolve Pyongyang of responsibility for the tensions, he places an inordinate amount of blame on Washington (p. 142-146). Given the bellicosity of North Korea’s foreign policy, laying the blame largely on Washington for the longstanding tensions strips Pyongyang of agency and disregards the North Korean regime’s willingness to manufacture crises to further its grip on power.

The third section of the book delves into nuclear non-proliferation and examines how North Korea’s actions could impact global efforts to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In Chapter 9, Twining explores the case of India. The unique case of India is occasionally compared to that of North Korea, as New Delhi was for a long period of time the target of international sanctions for its nuclear program, before being accepted as a legitimate nuclear weapons state. Twining examines the records of both countries and highlights the major differences that explain the varying responses of the international community to the two cases. Twining demonstrates that, in contrast to North Korea, India was never a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and was much more transparent with regards to its nuclear weapons. Unlike Pyongyang, New Delhi has a major stake in “containing nuclear proliferation and strengthening the non-proliferation regime” (p. 200). This explains India’s more open policies and its acceptance in the nuclear club.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attends Plenary Session of Nuclear Security Summit. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In what is perhaps the volume’s most thought-provoking contribution, Rost Rublee looks beyond Northeast Asia to explore the ripple effects that North Korean nuclear operationalization may have on the world, more specifically on the Middle East. Rublee warns that developments in North Korea may lead to, among others, an emboldened Iran, a weakened NPT, and incipient nuclear programs elsewhere in the Middle East. With a tendency on the part of researchers to focus on regional security, the author’s analysis serves as a reminder of the potentially far-reaching consequences of North Korea’s actions. Continuing in the same vein in the following chapter, Yuan examines the DPRK’s nuclear challenges. Yuan writes that the North Korean nuclear program “has important implications with regard to potential future breaches and even withdrawal by member states” (p. 234).

The volume was released in 2014, and as a result does not reflect the latest developments. Therefore, in light of the two latest nuclear tests and Kim Jong-Un’s increased belligerency in 2016, recommendations related to increased engagement may be harder to implement. Furthermore, some chapters would have benefited from further editing. This does not, however, overshadow the strengths of the volume. The greatest value of North Korean Nuclear Operationality lies in the variety of contributions. Its chapters focus on all the main countries that have a stake in the North Korean issue, and contributors look at the topic through various ideological lenses. The volume is geared towards students who are learning about North Korea and people looking to better understand the complexities of the nuclear issue. Although readers with a thorough understanding of the nuclear politics of Pyongyang may gain little new knowledge, they will still be confronted with propositions and ideas that advance the debate.