How To Stop Worrying And Embrace A Nuclear North Korea

I’ve written a pithy blog-style piece for The Guardian on what the West should do to engage the DPRK. The editor axed a few of my more contrary statements directed at the media, but I’m pleased with the piece nonetheless:

It’s time to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and shift the focus from deterrence politics to human security. If anything, diplomatic efforts should go towards encouraging North Korea to sign up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and submit to regular IAEA inspections rather than stubbornly insisting that disarmament is a hard prerequisite for engagement.

Read the whole piece.

The Koreas, Bastion of Cold War Realism

In which I reluctantly defend neorealism as a grand theory applicable to the security situation in North East Asia:

Rather than asserting that realism or its offshoots are the ultimate International Relations grand theories, I suggest that neorealism remains a crucial aspect of IR security theory. The offensive realist behavior of the DPRK and the defensive realist policies of China and the South Korea serve to illustrate the unfortunate but continued significance of neorealism within international relations.

Read the whole lengthy article on The Diplomat.

Plutonium Restart at Yongbyon

Today, IAEA head Yukiya Amano told a closed-door meeting of the agency’s board of governors: “Activities have been observed at the site that are consistent with an effort to restart the 5 MWe reactor” with the disclaimer “however, as the agency has no access to the site, it is not possible for us to conclusively determine whether the reactor has been restarted.” He later told a new conference that the release of steam from vents and the apparent discharge into a nearby river indicate possible testing. This is the most recent in a string of speculations regarding the 5 MWe reactor, following 38 North’s satellite imagery since February and South Korea’s Intelligence Service closed-door report to parliament in October.

The probable restart comes at the end of a tense year for nuclear diplomacy which included a widely condemned North Korean nuclear test in February.

North Korea’s nuclear programme is centered around its 5 mega-watt electric (MWe) gas-graphite reactor at theYongbyon nuclear complex. The research facilities in Yongbyon were built by the USSR in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the North Korean specialists trained at these facilities were able to launch a civilian nuclear fuel cycle without external assistance. It became operational in 1986, using natural uranium for fuel. The state then built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing plant which could extract plutonium from the reactor, potentially for weaponization. By 1992, North Korea was capable of facilitating a full plutonium fuel cycle: the 5 MWe reactor was producing approximately 6 kg of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for one bomb) per year.

The reactor was shut down in 1994 under the Agreed Framework, restarted in 2002 when those discussions collapsed, and closed down again in 2007 under the Six Party Talks, culminating in the televised demolition of a cooling tower in June 2008.

Disabled nuclear fuel fabrication facility machine shop at Yongbyon | Image: Wikipedia; Edit: Morgan Potts
Disabled nuclear fuel fabrication facility machine shop at Yongbyon | Image: Wikipedia; Edit: Morgan Potts

38 North noticed construction via satellite imagery at the Yongbyon plutonium reactor in 2013-02 and suggested that the construction might be to restore the cooling system and restart the 5 MWe reactor. There was speculation on 38 North that it was not necessary to rebuild the cooling tower, instead connecting the cooling system to the pump-house near the Experimental LWR.

The KCNA announced on 2013-04-02 that it would be “readjusting and restarting all nuclear facilities in [Y]ongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5 MW graphite moderated reactor”.

The reactor appears to have become operational once again in September 2013. The implications of a once-more nuclear North Korea are tough to swallow for US policymakers, who continue to cite the state’s nuclear activities as a “serious cause for concern“. North Korean state news outlet Rodong Sinmun cries hypocrisy regarding the US calls for a “nuclear free world”, citing the dangers posed by the American atomic invention and the need for the world (i.e. the US) to denuclearize, yet supports Pyongyang’s pursuit of deterrence. In the absence of bi-/multi-lateral discussions and subsequent confidence building measures, neither state will make concessions and the DPRK will resume nuclearization, beginning with this unapologetic plutonium restart.

Is North Korea a Rational Actor?

The question “Is North Korea a rational actor?” is ubiquitous throughout both academic work and media speculation on East Asian security. BBC journalist John Sweeney clumsily claimed that North Korea is “mad, and sad, and bad, and silly all at the same time”; the Economist offers the options “Bad or Mad?” in their “Nuclear North Korea” article (failing to offer an answer to their question); and even the ROK government appears to think Pyongyang mad, recently calling the release of an aggressive North Korean press statement “an irrational act.”

Coloring the DPRK crazy does little to address security concerns or provide useful analysis of the multiple security crises on the Korean peninsula, instead serving only to support a narrative that promotes political policy that has already determined the DPRK to be irrational. The alternative argument is that North Korea is knowable; its behavior is predictable, conditioned by 20th century wars, threats of war, and nationalism.

In International Relations, the prevailing assumption is that rational actors are security-seeking. Security is seen as protection against or freedom from existential threats. From this understanding arises the “security dilemma,” in which the anarchical system and lack of perfect information encourage heavily arming, making rival states feel less secure resulting in them heavily arming, and so forth. In this model, war and military threats are the main concern.

The rhetoric surrounding dominant security dialogues focuses on the state rather than citizens, both as the relevant level of analysis and the object to be secured: perhaps no state has a stronger commitment to this idea than North Korea. International cooperation, economic stability, and human security are deemed peripheral to the survival of the state.

The Rationale Behind Nuclearization

North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to ensure security in a hostile international environment as the Cold War shifted threats from conventional military aggression to nuclear aggression. The security dilemma was at an unstable high as world superpowers sought nuclear arms as a means of deterrence through mutually assured destruction.

The USSR built nuclear research facilities in Yongbyon in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the North Korean specialists trained at these facilities were able to launch a civilian nuclear fuel cycle without external assistance. The DPRK’s first nuclear reactor, a 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor, became operational in 1986. The state then built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing facility which allowed for the extraction of plutonium which could be weaponized. By 1992 North Korea was capable of facilitating a full plutonium fuel cycle: the 5 MWe reactor was producing electricity and heat for the local town, and approximately 6 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for one bomb) per year.

Throughout the early 1990s, tensions rose between Pyongyang and Washington. Negotiations stalemated, and in 1994 the DPRK extracted at least 20 kg of plutonium from its reactor; the imminent nuclear crisis was only just staved off by former President Jimmy Carter, who brokered a freeze.

The Agreed Framework was the primary diplomatic effort to engage with North Korea and denuclearize the peninsula; it was also fraught with distrust, miscommunication, and failure to meet commitments. Following provocative rhetoric when the Bush administration accused the DPRK of illegally pursuing a highly enriched uranium program, a largely unfounded allegation, North Korea withdrew from the NPT, expelled IAEA inspectors, and restarted its nuclear program. The ensuing Six Party Talks in 2007 served as a second change at diplomacy and the DPRK agreed to close the Yongbyong facilities, but with the UNSC condemnation of North Korea’s failed satellite launch in 2009 North Korea pulled out and announced it would resume seeking deterrent.

Yongbyon’s 5 MWe cooling tower being destroyed in June 2008
Yongbyon’s 5 MWe cooling tower being destroyed in June 2008

In April 2013, Pyongyang announced that it would restart the mothballed 5 MWe reactor, and construction connecting the reactor to a newly built cooling pump-house (plus a new experimental LWR) was seen from satellite imagery. The 5 MWe reactor has been in operation since September of this year.

International Isolation

Abiding by international norms is a secondary concern for states struggling for survival in a hostile and anarchical environment; likewise, ensuring the safety of citizens is marginal. Thus the DPRK acts in attempt to secure its statehood despite international condemnation, going so far as to use the censure to further its security objectives in a (predictable) cycle: bellicose rhetoric, outburst, international condemnation, half-hearted reconciliation, repeat.

Since the 1980s, the DPRK has allegedly sold ballistic missiles to “countries of concern”, including: Yemen, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Myanmar. Most have since ceased buying from North Korea, either under international pressure or because they developed greater military self-sufficiency. There is evidence that North Korea attempted to export a plutonium-producing reactor to Syria, which was destroyed in an Israeli air raid in September 2007. It’s also been speculated that Pyongyang exported uranium hexafluoride (the precursor to HEU) to Libya. Cooperation with Tehran is also possible, and Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program compliments North Korea’s. Iran is considered to be the DPRK’s only regular arms customer.

The DPRK has made several military aggressions in recent years: the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, killing 2 military personnel and 2 civilians; the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, killing 46 sailors; and multiple missile and nuclear weapons tests despite international condemnation. In testing and demonstrating its missile and nuclear capabilities, the international community (specifically the ROK and US) have viewed the DPRK has hostile and aggressive.

Yet, North Korea is the only nation to date which announced its intention to carry out a nuclear weapons test in advance, giving the international community six days prior warning. These nuclear tests include: the first such test in 2006, resulting in nuclear fizzle; 2009; and 2013. A uranium enrichment program was revealed in 2010, opening up a second route to nuclearization.

There is no evidence that North Korea has successfully weaponized a nuclear device. The No-dong missiles and H-5 (Il-28) bombers could in the future be used to deliver nuclear warheads or bombs, but at present there is nothing to suggest the ability to deliver a warhead or bomb on either of these systems.


The securitization paradigm has a normative commitment to liberal capitalism, and as an “other” to liberal capitalist states the DPRK is deemed a threat which must be destroyed. North Korea is stylized as a “bad” actor, an unredeemable state with evil intent, whose actions are aggressive and hostile to “good” states. The regime is, in these cases, characterized as rational: it is manipulative, calculating, strategic; and it extorts aid and saber-rattles for international attention.

Alternatively, Kim Jong-un and his predecessors are often portrayed as “mad:” irrational, unpredictable, unknowable, and dangerous. Claims are made that North Korea eschews international norms to its detriment, resulting in rogue state status, sanctions, and the cessation of economic and food aid. The state is seen as secret, impenetrable; often times scholars who make this claim also make bold knowledge claims, despite North Korea’s alleged unknowability, the irony apparently lost on them. The Economist cited the 2010 Cheonan ship sinking as evidence of “a paranoid totalitarian state beginning to spin completely off the game-board of comprehensible action,” dismissing the possibility of calculated action to re-establish credibility within the disputed waters of the Koreas. The article also suggested that governments wishing to engage, apparently in a prisoner’s dilemma, with North Korea should be incredulous of the regime’s ability to be rational, writing:

It’s a lot harder to figure out a strategy for iterative negotiations when you suspect your negotiating partner may be insane. Or, worse yet, that there may not actually be any rational agent, human or otherwise, on the other end of the line at all.

Even compliance with international norms or agreements can be read as noncompliance: it’s labeled manipulative, sinister, and sneaky, with the intent of conning “us” into trusting “them” and later catching “us” off our guard.

The securitization argument also suggests that negotiations with North Korea are fruitless, because the DPRK’s interests are fundamentally misaligned with those of the international community. Securitization also suggests that North Korea’s inherent belligerence means it will always be an intransigent actor in negotiations.

The problems with the Securitization paradigm include: a lack of evidence to support claims; the inability to assimilate change; claims which are so stark they require little qualification; attempts to ignore data which does not fit into the framework; and attempts to distort and securitize data which cannot be ignored. (The latter four problems arise within all paradigms, which speaks to the difficulties with paradigms in general.)

Security narratives serve not only to explain, but to reinforce values. Security narratives have heroes and villains. There is danger to be averted, lives to be saved, and bad guys to be thwarted. A narrative is an effective tool in “othering.” The narrative implied in the rhetorical question “is North Korea a rational actor?” is that the DPRK’s rationality must be questioned, because the state’s behavior is irrational. It is a rhetorical question in which the answer is already provided: North Korea is irrational. This narrative has political objectives, with the aim of reinforcing the perceived need for a US presence on the peninsula, a fear of the North Korean Other, and continued diplomatic hostility toward the DPRK regime and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The narrative surrounding the North Korean nuclear question is laden with implications that North Korea is the “bad guy” (assigning personhood to the state) who must be stopped by the US, which has in recent decades taken on the role of “world police.”

Proliferation Limitation

The rhetoric surrounding the North Korea, especially in a security context, asks self-defeating questions riddled with unchallenged assumptions. The security concerns raised by questioning the DPRK’s rationality are limited to proliferation, ignoring the more immediate human security issues; some nuclear weapons scholars argue that the “gravest” security threat posed by North Korea is its nuclear weapons program despite abysmal living conditions for millions and a potential refugee crisis. Perhaps worst of all, the “rational actor” question does nothing to illuminate the security situation, instead seeking to convince us that continued “othering” is the optimal solution. Rather than offering insight into the multiple security crises on the Korean peninsula, the dominant rhetoric feeds into a narrative that is used to support the current political policy of bloated US military presence in the region and international complacency with the suffering of millions of DPRK citizens.

Academics, government agents, and the media continue to ask the “rational actor” question in an attempt to delineate the boundaries of our relative security. It is also used to reinforce the value system of American capitalism over North Korean communism, and to solidify the legitimacy of the continued US presence on the peninsula and the potential use of force against the DPRK state.

It is cowardly and all too common for scholars to criticize without offering alternatives. “Is North Korea a rational actor?” is an unhelpful question; allow me to suggest instead: “Why has North Korea isolated itself in pursuit of nuclear weapons?” to understand the DPRK as knowable rather than othered; “What is necessary for brokering a disarmament deal on the peninsula?” to stagnate proliferation from North Korea; or “What can be done to give assistance to the millions of people in North Korea with an inadequate nutrition?” and “How can we prepare for the potential DPRK refugee crisis?” to begin to alleviate the suffering of millions in the North. These questions might provide more productive answers than the “rational actor” line of inquiry, while rightfully keeping the focus on praxis.

New Nuclear Initiative talk by Women in War and International Politics

Yesterday evening in the Kings College Maughan Library was a two-part event by Women in War and International Politics on being a woman in nuclear studies and so-called New Nuclear Initiatives. The panelists were:

  • Andrea Berger, Research Fellow in Nuclear Analysis at RUSI
  • Heather Williams, Research Fellow on Nuclear Weapons Policy at Chatham House
  • Dr. Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst in Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at IISS
  • Dr. Nicola Horsburgh, British Academy Post-Doc Research Fellow at Oxford


The first part of the event was off the record, but suffice it to say that the panelists gave frank advice on what can be expected in nuclear work as someone with a uterus. While slightly depressing, it was encouraging to see four successful women who had tackled academia, think tanks, and defense departments on the panel in front of me.

New Nuclear Initiatives

M. Berger began the second half of the talk by outlining the lack of leadership in the P-5 process: no state seems comfortable or interested in spearheading a public discussion on nuclear disarmament. While the UK began the initiative in 2009, it now is only interested in a supporting role; US domestic stakeholders are disinterested; Putin continues to benefit from taking a tough stance toward Washington and so won’t engage in bilateral disarmament; France  prefers to have nuclear discussions in private rather than public; and China is disinterested. The result is stagnation.

M. Williams focused on US-Russian arms control and outlined three possibilities for disarmament: unilateral reduction in nuclear arsenal on the part of the US; pressure for bilateral US-Russian disarmament from non-nuclear states; and status quo. Unilateral disarmament is attractive because it lends itself to informal discussions and potential reciprocity while bypassing a lengthy debate in Congress (see H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative); however any reduction of US missile defense in Europe would require NATO’s approval. Additional difficulties lie in Russia’s national identity as a nuclear superpower, and the declining credibility of Congress in Moscow (and elsewhere).

Dr. Horsburgh discussed China’s nuclear history and its current stance on disarmament. China was a “late-comer” to nuclear politics, but has since become a skilled and confident actor. Only possessing approximately 240 nuclear weapons, China does not consider the technology to be special in the same guarded way other P-5 states do. China’s approach to nuclear policy is supportive of the NPT regime but not the PSI, which it sees as too aggressive; weary of multilateral arms control, and as such is fairly obstructionist; and it is not an initiator in nuclear politics, excluding the No First Use Treaty. China is currently developing a glossary of nuclear terms, which sounds fluffy until you realize that the P-5 do not agree on the definitions of “warhead” and “fissile material”, impairing negotiations. Finally, China is less worried about nuclear terrorism than about a civilian nuclear accident which would affect economic growth.

Dr. Nielsen examined the humanitarian initiative with an eye toward the NPT review in 2015. States supporting the humanitarian initiative fall into two camps: those who promote salience regarding nuclear weapons and “ban fans”; while the former wish to prepare for the use of and potential accidents involving nuclear technology, the latter seek to challenge the role of nuclear arms in security doctrines, contesting the social construct of deterrence. She suggested that if the ban fans want to keep the P-5 on board with the humanitarian initiative, they should be careful and slow or else the P-5 will block it, as France as done with the February 2014 conference in Mexico.

Following questions from audience, the panelists discussed France’s difficulties regarding the Iran nuclear deal, the opaque nature of P-5 nuclear policies and the lack of confidence building measures taken by P-5 states, Egypt’s strong position regarding the Middle-East WMD-free zone, and the false distinction between “nuclear” and “non-nuclear” states. Finally, they summarized that any dialogue between P-5 states is a success, and that the NPT review in 2015 won’t make or break the regime but we should not expect much progress.

UK PONI Roundtable

Last Tuesday evening the UK Project on Nuclear Issues (UK PONI) hosted a roundtable event with British nuclear policymakers on the subject of Trident. Participants included:

  • Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, MP – Labour MP for Derby South since 1983. British Foreign Secretary from 2006–2007, and first female to hold the position. Served in Blair’s Cabinet. Involved in the 2009 MP Expenses scandal.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Browne of Ladyton (Desmond “Des” Browne) – Labour MP for Kilmarnok and Loudoun (Scotland), 1997–2003. Secretary of State of Defence, 2006–2008. Secretary of State for Scotland, 2007–2008. Served in Blair and Brown’s Cabinet. Signatory of Global ZeroRejected as UK Special Envoy to Sri Lanka.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Owen (David Owen) – Labour Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords since 1992. British Foreign Secretary, 1977–1979. Co-founder of the Social Democratic Party (which after a merge became the Liberal Democrats); Leader from 1983–1987, 1988–1990. EU co-Chairman for the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia, 1992–1995. MP (various constituencies), 1966–1992.

The event was chaired by the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, professor at Queen Mary’s. The Tories were notably absent (that is not a complaint). The event took place in the House of Lords, only slightly uncomfortable choice of venue on the 5th of November.

The roundtable was introduced by M. Richard White of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), stating that the roundtable was a forum of tech-heads meet policymakers. Below are what I thought to be the highlights of the discussion.

Owen, charismatic and entertaining, opened up the dialogue by saying he is confident that a nuclear weapons accident is inevitable. His assessment of Trident was that nuclear deterrent usually goes way over budget, and that it is impossible to justify the high cost of a submarine fleet which does nothing else. He also pointed out that the US contributes 85% of NATO’s budget and that NATO will not subsidize the UK’s deterrent. He closed the comment by suggesting nuclear cruise missiles as a possible alternative to Trident.

Beckett came across as quite the hawk with a confident air reminiscent of another Margaret in British politics. She began by stating: “I left the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] when it became pacifist, because I’ve never been a pacifist.” She went on to say that the greatest threat of the 21st century is climate change (“expect massive Chinese migration”), and though she doesn’t advocate Trident, the motors are made in her constituency and she’s not too bothered about what they’re used for once they’re made.

Browne began with the solemn thought that after the Cold War ended politicians stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He went on to describe the shocking matter-of-factness with which people talk about the weapons, as though they’ve forgotten the massive damage they can cause.

He then made the point that Trident was renewed in 2006 because naive policymakers (himself included) were told that if it wasn’t renewed, the boats would wear out before they could be replaced.  This illustrated his point that independently verifiable expertise is crucial to nuclear policymaking, and the disparity in knowledge between experts and policymakers is too wide. In short, nuclear technology is not so special or inaccessible that policymakers cannot understand it.

Questions from the Audience

The first question taken was from a young Tory woman (I’m pleased to note that this audience was much more diverse than the last event I reviewed): “Who does Trident deter now?” The panel answered that it was indeed a Cold War holdover, persistent as part of the status quo in an international environment still seen as anarchical and uncertain. Owen said that the US should reassure the UK that scaling down its nuclear deterrent would not cost the British their international relevance or their seat on the UNSC.

Another RUSI intern noted that the UK already has less nuclear weapons than most nuclear states, and that the cruise missile alternative might increase uncertainty through miscalculation. Browne disagreed, saying that duel-capable systems were effective deterrence. Beckett was unconcerned about war through miscalculation, worrying instead about India-Pakistan. Owen replied that the MoD lies, and we need to have an honest debate.

The question of disposing of retired nuclear weapons was raised – Browne said they could be treated like land mines or chemical weapons, Beckett reminded us that it’s been done before (see South Africa).

An American woman was appreciative of this debate she feels is absent in the US. Owen said that the reduction in conventional weapons spending has generals challenging the high costs of deterrence, implying that the US has a much larger defense budget and so does not need to choose between convention and nuclear weapons.

Hugh Chalmers of UK PONI asked: “How easy is it to work toward the disarmament goal?” Beckett replied that politicians must be engaged, and too often they are distracted by other issues (namely elections). Browne said that we are stuck in the status quo, and we need space, time, and political capital to change it (but that there’s none left after the 2008 financial crisis). Owen said that the CBTB was close, and he believes that eventually someone will get elected in the UK on the platform of nuclear disarmament, supported by the armed forces who want a bigger slice of the defense budget.

Newly Declassified Able Archer 83 Documents

The possibility for nuclear war was at an all-time high in 1983, rivaling the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis: the Soviets had just shot down the civilian Korean flight KAL-007, and Reagan gave his manichean “evil empire” speech. Able Archer 83, the 1983 NATO command post exercise (CPX) which threw the Soviet Union into a panic over the perceived threat of a surprise first-strike attack from the US, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. What we didn’t know before was that the UK was absolutely aware of the danger posed by Able Archer.

Documents from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence, and Thatcher’s office regarding Able Archer and the Soviet response were recently declassified through a Freedom of Information Act request by Peter Burt. Below are the “new” documents and my transcription of each one (for the sake of search-ability). Note that much of the text has been redacted. Click on the image for the full-size .pdf file (originally posted by Peter Burt on Nuclear Information Service. Another great resource is the National Security Archive).

These documents are the comments and notes surrounding the as-of-yet still classified 1984 UK Joint Intelligence Committee report, called JIC(84)(N)45 (3rd revised draft). This document is the UK Government’s internal response to the Soviets’ reaction to Able Archer. We can infer from the surrounding documents that it was determined that a perceived threat by the Soviets arising from the NATO CPX may cause Moscow to “over-react”, potentially preemptively striking if the Kremlin believes NATO to be mobilizing for nuclear war. After what appears to be much deliberation, it is proposed that NATO inform the Soviets of nuclear CPXs to avoid miscalculation, improve communication, and build confidence; this would be done much in the way that Field Training Exercises (FTXs) and ICBM test launches are disclosed to the “other side” beforehand to avoid accidental military confrontation.

E2 Note

D/DIS(CS) 12/1/2
20 March 1984
File 11/1/2
DI3 (Air)
DI3 (Army)
DI3 (N)
DS 17                                     
Copy to: DDI (WP)
AUS (D Staff)

Ref: JIC(84)(N)45 (3rd Revised Draft)

1.   I attach the Committee Draft of the above paper.
Formerly titled “WP: Reactions to NATO Exercise Able-Archer-83”,
This paper has aroused █████████████████████
at CIG level, and has been returned for further action
twice by the JIC. The latest CIG (last Friday) decided
on a █████████ re-draft. Despite this, and promise
to circulate the draft early “for comment”, the attachment
has only just been reviewed (1415 hrs).

2.    Since the paper covers aspects of interest to all the addressees,
DIS(CS) are required to coordinate all MoD comments.
Depending on their nature, these will be put to the
Assessment Staff by the DI(AG)I in advance of our pre-JIC
meeting tomorrow, so that DGI can then be briefed

3.    Time is therefore extremely short and addressees are
asked to provide an initial response to this office by
close of play TODAY and, depending on the nature and
extent of them, further details should be passed to AG(I)
early tomorrow.

████   ██████████

E3 Note

21 March 1984
File 11/1/2
Seen by DI(AG)I
Seen by DCDS(I)
Seen by DIAG(I)

Copy to:
Head of DS17


I have been interested to see the drafts of JIC(84)(N)45
which have, in the course of their preparation widened the issue
from reaction to Able Archer to Soviet Union concern about a
surprise NATO attack.

2. As this change of emphasis indicates there are two policy
issues for consideration, both deriving from the evidence which
is quoted and evaluated. The first of these, the issue of per-
ceived [perceived] Soviet reactions and concerns about Western intentions,
is clearly extremely important: there inference to be drawn from
the evidence will need, evidently, careful consideration.

3. The other issue, that of the implications for NATO exercises,
is also extremely important and had I been commenting on that
aspect in relation to the previous draft I would have expressed
some scepticism of the need to curtail exercise activity on the
basis of ██████████████████ To continue on that point:
I do see some merit in discussing with Allies the possibility
proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play, as a
useful confidence building measure.

4. Reverting to the point which is now primarily addressed in
the new JIC paper, for reasons I have briefly set out it
does seem to me terribly important █████████████████
██████████████████████████████ (though it
is fair to say that paragraph 10 – the conclusion of the paper –
is quite mild and balanced in tone).████████████████h
██████████████ Is sufficient attention given to the
fact that Soviet reactions to Able Archer ██████████████
███████ How should one evaluate overall the military evidence
to support the view that there are signs of heightened concern
in the Soviet Union about the West’s nuclear strike interventions?
5. Having said all this I do certainly very much agree with
last sentence of the paper.

6. Since I knew you were shortly to have your briefing for
tomorrow’s JIC I have taken the liberty of minuting you direct,
DUS(P) not at this moment being available.

AUS(D Staff)

E4 Loose Minute

Copy No 2 of Copies 3
21 March 1984

DIS(CS)DI(AG)1 (███████)

Copy to:
DS17 (█████)


A.   JIC(84)(n)45 (3rd Revised Draft) 20 Mar 84
B.   D/DIS(CS)12/1/2 20 Mar 84

1. Thank you for the opportunity to comment upon the latest
draft JIC paper on Soviet fears. My first and general comment
concerns the tenor of the paper which, I believe, still purports
to show a level of ████████████████████████████
████████████████████████ I would find the thrust of
the paper more persuasive ████████████████████████
███████████████████████████████████████ . I
therefore find the conclusion that there is genuine ████████

2. On points of detail I would make the following points:
a. Paragraph 1 line 1. After ‘definitive’ delete ‘tends
to’ insert ‘could’.
b. Paragraph 3 line 4. █████████████████████
c. Paragraph 5 lines 3 to 6. The two sentences
indicated are in part incorrect. Able Archer 1983
reflected changes in the detail rather than the substance
of procedures and included less rather than more
headquarters-to-subordinate commands messages.
d. Paragraph 6. The reference to Soviet reactions to
Able Archer are ██████████████████████

Lt Col
DPS(N)Team 2
21 Mar 84

E7 Annex A



4. Add at end of para:–
“wholly balanced picture: in particular the first
sentence of the concluding paragraph is considered
to be ██████████████████████████████

5. Second sentence. Amend to read:–
“I would therefore wholly endorse the final sentence
of the conclusions to the paper which propose further…”

6. Line 3. Amend to read:–
“….of each major exercise to…..”

Line 14. Spell “source”

8. Delete brackets. Amend to read:–

9a. Amend to read:
“…. tentative, and ██████ is sceptical of its
validity; we must….”

E9 Note

D/DS17/4/1 11/1/2

JIC(84)(N)45(3rd Revised Draft)
Soviet Union: Concern about a Surprise NATO attack

1. Our main concern with the paper as now
drafted is that it relies primarily █████████
████████████ .   ████████████████
████████████████████████ . It should
also be made clear in the conclusions that the we
have had ████████████████ of heightened
concern in the USSR about a surprise nuclear strike
of Soviet reactions to Able Archer ███████████
████████████ Paragraph 10 might therefore be
redrafted along the following lines:
██████████████ may reflect concern in the
Soviet Union that the West might initiate a
nuclear war and that this might be done through
a surprise attack under cover of an exercise.
We have ████████████████ of heightened
concern within the Soviet Union although some
of the Warsaw Pact reacted to Able Archer
may represent the take-up of limited and low key
precautions against a surprise attack. ██████
████████████████  .

2. Further comments on the text of the paper are:
Para 1 Suggest this is ███████████████
redrafted as ██████████████████████

Para 2 █████████████████████████
██████████████████ it is not clear from
the structure of the paper what the others are.

Para 3   It is not clear whether this paragraph
is ██████████. If it is at should from [illegible]
of para 26 and the phrase “in connection with
Able Archer” deleted. This exercise was not referred
to by name in the █████████

Para 4 Surely “corroborated” is far too strong.

Para 5 Some introduction is required to explain why
Able Archer is being considered in this report.

Para 6a Able Archer was not specified.

Para 6d It should be noted that there was increased ███
activity throughout 1983.

Para 9 Without more information there appears to
be no justification for the inclusion of this paragraph.


E10 Draft Minute from Sir Robert Armstrong

File 11/1/2

Soviet Union: Concern about a Surprise NATO Attack

Before the meeting of Ministers on 4 April to discuss
action which might be taken with the United States on the
evidence of Soviet concern about recent NATO military
exercises set out in JIC(84)(N)45, the Prime Minister may
wish to see the ████████████████████████

2. ████████████████████████████
███████████████ Its scenario, summarised
in paragraph 15 of the report, shows the concern of the
Soviet Union over a possible NATO surprise attack mounted
under cover of exercises –   █████████████████████
██████████████████████████ practice of NATO
nuclear release procedures in Able Archer. ██████████
███████ Able Archer-83, ███████      ██████████

3. All this contrasts with the Soviet response to Able
Archer-83, analysed in the JIC Note. That response does
not appear to have formed part of the Soviet exercise
programme ███████████████████████████
█████████████████████ it took place over a
major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military
activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was
limited geographically to the area, Central Europe,
covered by the NATO exercise which the Soviet Union was

4. I am sending a copy of this minute to the Private
Secretaries of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary,
the Defence Secretary, the Lord President and the Home

E12 10 Downing Street Memo

Copy to:– PS/PUS
File 11/1/2
From the Private Secretary 10 April 1984
1. NA/DCDS/2
4. Hd of DCS(CS) – for disposal
5. ██████  1. AD(RG)  2. AGI
We don’t seem
to have got the
right [illegible] inspected


The Prime Minister held an ad hoc meeting today which
was attended by the Lord President, the Foreign and Commonwealth
Armstrong, ████████ and “C”.

The purpose of the meeting was to consider what action
should be taken about the conclusion of the Joint Intelligence
Committee in the JIC(84)(N)45 of 23 March, 1984 and in particular
the Committee’s conclusion ███████████████████████

The Prime Minister recalled the in her conversations with
Communist leaders, especially during her visit to Hungary, she has
tried to impress upon them the sincerity of the desire of the West
for disarmament and the fact the NATO was a defensive organis-
tion [organisation] which threatened no one. ████████████████
We should consider what could be done to remove the danger that,
by miscalculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would

████████ explained that there had been some difference
of view in the JIC on the weight to be put on the Soviet reaction
Nevertheless, the Committee stood by its conclusions in the JIC
report under reference. And the unusual nature of the Soviet
reaction to Able Archer had been highlighted by a ████████
The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said that, taking
account of the evidence ██████████████████████
████████████████████████████████ he felt
that the JIC conclusions must be accepted. It was desirable to
discuss the conclusion with the US Government, ████████


██████ (the Prime Minister felt that insufficient attention might
have been paid to the significance of the latter point). On the
other hand, it was pointed out that the Russian had just notified
the United States for the first time of ICBM flights within the
Soviet Union.

Discussion then turned to the action to be taken on the
JIC report. It was agreed that officials should meet urgently to
consider the nature of an approach to the United States, including
the question of ████████████████████████████████
█████████████████████ The Foreign and Commonwealth
Secretary would discuss our concerns with ████████  at the two
meetings he expected to have with him in May. In preparation for
this, HM Ambassador, Washington, would be instructed to do over
the ground with the US State Department.

There was a more general need to continue and perhaps
intensify HMG’s efforts to promote an atmosphere of greater
confidence between East and West. The Minister for Trade would
go there in July for discussions with Mr. Gromyko and planned to
visit some of the Eastern European countries in September. It was
for consideration whether the Prime Minister should invite a senior
member of the Politbureau, perhaps Mr. Gorbachev, to visit this
country later in the year. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary
was invited to consider whether it would be wise to accelerate our
programme of contacts with the Soviet Union. The Prime Minister
stressed that we should seek to maintain the momentum created by
her own visit to Hungary and the Soviet Union.

I am copying this letter to ████████ (Lord
President’s Office), █████████████ (Ministry of Defence),
Sir Robert Armstrong, ████████ and “C”.

██████████████ Esq.,
Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

E13 Note

Copy No 3 of 4 Copies
PS/Secretary of State
Copy to:
AUS(D Staff)
Head of DS12
Head of DS17


Thank you for your minute MO14/10 of 27 March which [E6] sought
advice on the line which the Secretary of State might take at
the meeting which the Prime Minister has called on Wednesday,
4 April, to discuss JIC(84)(N)45.

2. Heightened Soviet concern about the possibility of a
surprise NATO attack would of course be a very proper cause
of concern for Western Governments. But it is I think necessary
to consider the strength of the available evidence and the
implications of possible NATO reactions carefully.

3. ███████████████████████████████████
████████████████ Soviet reactions to Exercise
ABLE ARCHER (an annual NATO command post exercise testing nuclear
procedures). ████████████████████████████
████████████████████████ Soviet reactions to
ABLE ARCHER ██████████████████████████

4. In the view of the Defence Intelligence Staff there is
certainly ████████████████████████████
████████████████████████ Furthermore the
report brings together ████████████████ which are
not necessarily related. We have reflected this ████ in JIC
discussion, and the present report reflects a compromise ███

5. These reservations notwithstanding, we clearly need to
guard against any possibility of Soviet misinterpretation,
however slight the evidence. I would therefore wholly endorse
the concluding final sentence of [the conclusion of] the paper which proposes further
“close examination of the degree and scope of Warsaw Pact
reactions to NATO nuclear exercises”. The Prime Minister will
however wish to consider whether any further steps need to be
taken to allay possible Soviet concerns.

6. ████████████████████████████████████
Exercise activity is however crucial not only to the effectiveness
of our political and military command structures, but also to
the credibility of deterrence. ████████████████████

7. There is however one possibility that clearly merits
discussion which might go some way to allaying possible Soviet
concern, and which is compatible both with deterrence and with
the Western position on confidence building measures, ie that
NATO should informs the Soviet Union on a routine basis of
proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play.
Such an approach would be wholly consistent with Western efforts
in the CDE, and makes sense ███████████████████████

8. ███████████████████████████████████

9. Line to take In discussion, Secretary of State may wish to
make the following points:
a. ████████████████████████
b. exercise activity is a vital element of deterrence; ███
c. nonetheless we must view with unease any evidence,
████████ of heightened Soviet concern. ███████
d. there may also be considerable merit in discussing,
████████████████████████████████ the
possibility that NATO should inform the Soviet Union on
a routine basis of proposed NATO exercise activity involving
nuclear play, as a useful confidence building measure.


E14 Report

8 MAY 1984
Copy No 5 of 8


This paper considers whether specific option exist
for minimising the risk of Soviet misinterpretation of NATO
Command Post Exercises (CPXs), particularly nuclear ones.
Although it has been prepared in the context of an unprecedented
Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged
concern about a surprise NATO attack (JIC(84)(N)45), the paper
examined the inherent advantages and disadvantages of prior
notification of nuclear CPXs as an overall Confidence Building
Measure (CBM).

2. ██████████████████████████████████████

3. Although the JIC reached no firm conclusion, we cannot
discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials/
officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly
other nuclear CPXs as posing a real threat. Quite apart from
their reaction to Able Archer and ██████████████████
████████████████████████████████ If their
response involves the taking of actual precautions against what
they judge to be threatening and ambiguous warning indicators,
should we seek to establish a system which makes the holding
of high level nuclear CPXs subject to an obligation to notify in
advance? Should the practice of promoting military transparency
through Confidence Building Measures be extended from field
exercises and the movement of actual forces to CPXs themselves?
Provided a proposal can be assembled which does not constrain
nuclear CPX activity, (which is militarily vital for the training
of commanders and their staffs in extremely complicated procedures)
could there be advantage in exploring this with the Russians? ████

4. While an element of uncertainty is implicit in the concept
of deterrence, it is assumed that there is mutual benefit in
ensuring that each side does not misconstrue the other’s CPXs as
posing a real threat. Since certain notification measures relating
to test ICBM launches already exist for reducing the possibility
of misinterpretation (SALT II, Chapter XVI) there seems no
inherent reason why similar procedures could not be devised
which extended to certain nuclear CPXs as well. Prior warning
of field exercises has become an accepted feature of the
conventional arms control process, and as such, could be capable
of expansion, although not perhaps within existing for (see
paragraph 7 below). It is for discussion whether notification
of nuclear CPXs would have to be balanced (the reciprocal nature
of conventional notification is an important factor which needs
to be taken into account) or whether notification might be
asymmetric or even unilateral.

5. It is also for discussion what CPXs might be notified and
the extent of information which might be provided. It may for
example be asked whether awareness of the existence of a nuclear
CPX would of itself generate confidence. In our view simple
notification could indeed be effective in reassuring the other
side if it was given sufficiently far in advance to make it clear
that such exercises formed a normal pattern of activity and
took place in relative isolation from the changing temperature
of political relationships between major powers. It might
prove possible to construct notification in such a way as to
avoid giving details of particular scenarios or inhibit in any
way US or NATO exercises.

6. Although the Russian appear to have reacted in an
unprecedented way to the NATO exercise Able Archer 83, ████
████████ This, coupled with the fact that the Soviet Union
is the only nuclear power in the Warsaw Pact, indicates
that super-power nuclear CPXs should form the centrepiece of any
notification procedure, supplemented perhaps on the West’s side
with notification of NATO-wide exercises involving a substantial
American nuclear role. We do not consider that every exercise
involving simulated nuclear release would require notification
████████████████ In the immediate future it might
be enough to attempt early discussions with the Russian. ██

7.  ████████████████████████████████
██████████████████████████ There may
be a requirement for speed ████████████████
███████ This effectively rules out most of the existing arms
control negotiations as suitable fora since discussion of CBMs
in any of these is likely to be unduly prolonged (MBFR),
complicated by an involvement of extraneous participants (CDE,
CSCE) or indefinitely delayed (START). A number of existing
bilateral US/USSR agreements theoretically provide a framework
(‘hotline’ agreements 1963/71, Article XVI of SALT II or
Prevention of Nuclear War Agreement 1973), but none of them seem
easily adaptable to current requirements.

8. An ad hoc forum may therefore be required. A special
contact between the US and the USSR seems the most practical
option in terms of speed, simplicity and security. Although it
was a NATO CPX about which the Soviets appear to have been
concerned, prior consultation within a NATO forum, ████████
████████████████████████ . Although we could
fully justify attempts to increase confidence about nuclear matters
and anticipate considerable support for such efforts, on balance
the search for CBMs is likely to be more effectively pursued ████
However recent experience suggests that a bilateral discussion
involving possible notification of NATO and US national nuclear
CPXs is unlikely to cause problems within the Alliance ██████
████████████████ strengthen the case for discussion
of CBMs relating to Command Post Exercises, specifically
nuclear ones, to be conducted bilaterally between the United
States and the Soviet Union. █████████████████████

9. The President’s Commission on Strategic Forces (the
Scowcroft Report, 21 March 1984) proposes a bilateral exchange
information between US and Soviet Defence officials about steps
which could be misconstrued as indications of an attack. The
Report proposes that a variety of measures should be constructed
to improve communication and predictability which would
‘contribute to stability by improving mutual understanding
and reducing surprise and misinterpretation’. It is our view
that ███████████████ should be acted upon
as soon as possible.

E15 Memo

4 May 84
Copy to:
PA/AUS(D Staff)
Head of DIS(CS)
Head of DS17


Earlier this month, the Secretary of State discussed a recent
JIC Report (JIC(84)(N)45) about Soviet reactions to Exercise
Able Archer 83 with the Prime Minister and the Foreign and
Commonwealth Secretary. At the conclusion of the meeting the
Prime Minsiter said that officials should urgently consider how
to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet
misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack.

2. ██████ has now had a preliminary discussion with
█████████████████████████████████ who
confirmed that ███████████████████████████
the unusual Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83. █████████
██████████████████ about the conclusions reached in
JIC Report (JIC(84)(N)45), and we need to ensure that we are not
perceived in Washington as ████████████████████████
████████████████████████████ However, it may be
significant that, as a consequence of the JIC report, ██████████

3. We now need to put the discussion on to a more political level.
Whatever the reliability of the specific JIC assessment, its paper
has served as a catalyst for consideration of the inherent advantages
of agreeing some confidence building measures relating to nuclear
command post exercises along lines similar to those which already cover
some nuclear and conventional field exercises. FCO and MOD have
therefore agreed that attached paper setting out a number of themes
which would serve as a basis for more detailed discussion with the

4. If the Prime Minister agrees, it is our intention to pass this
paper urgently to the Americans and to aim at a detailed discussion
with US officials in mid-May, ideally before the Foreign Secretary
raises the matter himself with ██████ during the NATO Ministerial
meeting in Washington at the end of the month.

5. I would be grateful for the Secretary of State’s agreement for
the paper to go forward.


The Rationale Behind North Korean Nuclearization

A Primer on Pyongyang’s Nuclear History and the Ensuing Diplomatic Failures –

North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to ensure security in a hostile international environment. During the Cold War, the threat shifted from conventional military aggression to nuclear aggression. The security dilemma was at an unstable high as world superpowers sought nuclear arms as a means of deterrence through mutually assured destruction. Developing and demonstrating the use of nuclear weapons technology was considered the ultimate deterrence against military aggression from rival states; obtaining nuclear weapons also marked states as “relevant actors” in international security. Today, nuclear weapons in North Korea serve as a counter-balance to the presence of the US in the ROK and its nuclear umbrella.

In the early 1950s the Soviet “Atoms for Peace” initiative (modeled after Eisenhower’s program of the same name) allowed several hundred North Korean students and researchers to be trained and educated at Soviet universities and nuclear research centers. The USSR built nuclear research facilities in Yongbyon in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the North Korean specialists trained at these facilities were able to launch a civilian nuclear fuel cycle without external assistance. The DPRK’s first nuclear reactor, a 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor, became operational in 1986. The state then built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing facility, which allowed for the extraction of plutonium which could potentially be weaponized. These facilities were not declared to or inspected by the IAEA, as North Korea was not yet a signatory of the NPT and was under no legal obligation to do so; it only joined in 1985 on the condition that the Soviets would provide Light Water Reactors (LWRs; a promise never fulfilled as the USSR collapsed). The hitherto secret facilities were seen from US reconnaissance satellites in the 1980s, and the images were leaked by the South Korean government in 1989, making the world aware of North Korea’s indigenous nuclear program.[1]

By 1992, North Korea was capable of facilitating a full plutonium fuel cycle: the 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor was producing electricity and heat for the local town, and approximately 6 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for one bomb) per year. Until then, North Korea would not allow IAEA and international inspectors into its facilities; however inspectors were given access to the facilities that year following the US withdraw of all nuclear weapons from the ROK. The IAEA found the facilities to be operational, with two larger gas-graphite reactors under construction. The IAEA noted discrepancies between their findings at Yongbyon and the information provided by Pyongyang; North Korea responded by announcing its intent to withdraw from the NPT. Negotiations were stalemated. In 1994, the DPRK extracted 20–30 kilograms of plutonium from its reactor, and tensions between Washington and Pyongyang rose until former US President Jimmy Carter negotiated a freeze.

Enter Agreed Framework: North Korea halted its nuclear program but expanded its missile program, firing a long-range missile over Japan in 1998. It was speculated that North Korea explored HEU and may have received centrifuge technology from Pakistan;[2] there is further evidence for these claims in the purchase of aluminum rods suitable for centrifuge rotors from Russia and an attempted purchase from Germany. Members of the US Congress during the Clinton administration disagreed with the provisions of the framework, arguing that it rewarded bad behavior; because funding was withheld for key provisions of the agreement, the US fell behind on its commitments early on. In 2002, the Bush administration accused North Korea of illegally pursuing a HEU program; Pyongyang responded by withdrawing of the NPT, expelling all IAEA inspectors, and continuing their then-halted enriched plutonium program. It has since been suggested that these allegations were largely unfounded, and it is highly unlikely that the DPRK had a HEU nuclear plant even if materials for production-scale uranium were present in the country.

In February 2005, North Korea announced that it had developed nuclear weapons. On 19 September 2005, the DPRK agreed to readmit IAEA inspectors, and dismantle its nuclear arsenal and WMD program in exchange for LWRs to replace indigenous North Korea nuclear power plants as per the Agreed Framework. This issue was tabled, and the following day North Korea announced that until the agreed LWRs were provided it would not dismantle its nuclear program or rejoin the NPT.

Following the NPT withdrawal, North Korea joined the Six Party Talks under pressure from Beijing. Though heralded as a diplomatic breakthrough at the time, the Talks yielded no progress until the fifth round in 2007 when North Korea agreed to denuclearize in exchange for fuel aid and normalized relations with the US and Japan. However, this progress was lost after the UNSC’s Presidential Statement condemning the DPRK’s failed satellite launch in 2009; North Korea quickly declared that it would be pulling out of the Talks and intended on resuming its nuclear program to increase its deterrent.

North Korea is not irrational in its actions: the Songun military policy which prioritizes obtaining a nuclear deterrent above all else was born out of a hostile Cold War environment as a means to protect its statehood. In an anarchical international system, ensuring state survival is the most rational action to be taken.

[1] Andrew Mack. International Herald Tribune (Paris), 1990-01-08.
[2] Pervez Musharraf. In The Line of Fire: A Memoir, Free Press, New York NY, 2006.

“Tailored Deterrence”

At the 45th Security Consultative Meeting this past week, US Defense Secretary Hagel and South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan Jin announced a bilateral “tailored deterrence” strategy regarding the North. The Joint Communiqué released after the meeting states that the two nations “reaffirmed” their alliance and “mutual commitment” to protecting the ROK from Northern threats. Unsurprisingly, it also condemned the North’s 2012-12 missile launch and 2013-02 nuclear test, and urged the DPRK to irreversibly abandon its nuclear program. The new deterrence strategy is vague:

This strategy establishes a strategic Alliance framework for tailoring deterrence against key North Korean nuclear threat scenarios across armistice and wartime, and strengthens the integration of Alliance capabilities to maximize their deterrent effects. The ROK and the United States are committed to maintaining close consultation on deterrence matters to ensure that extended deterrence for the ROK remains credible, capable, and enduring. (Joint Communiqué, point 6)

The KCNA responded yesterday (Sunday) by calling the strategy a dangerous move preluding a preemptive strike against the North, and claiming that any signs of the North using nuclear weapons are “cooked up”. Today, Yonhap reported that the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) released a statement threatening to preemptive strikes to counter the “military plot” hidden in the tailored deterrence.