Book Review Part I: “No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security”

The following will be a three-part series on Jonathan Pollack’s book“No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security” which came out in 2011. The reason for writing this book review is because it is highly relevant today given the third North Korean nuclear test in defiance of the international community.

Jonathan Pollack’s book is, in my opinion, the single best work that explains in great detail why North Korea continues to insist on developing and testing nuclear weapons despite international condemnation and the further risk of punitive sanctions.

Part I of this series will introduce the book, the author, and provide a synopsis of the book and an overview of Pollack’s analysis.

Part II of this series will continue with my personal thoughts, perceived strengths and weaknesses of the book, and also what other experts in the field have to say about Pollack’s book.

Finally, Part III of this series will wrap up the discussion with what has changed in North Korea since the book’s publication and whether or not the book needs to be revised, updated, or scrapped in light of recent developments.


Part I


Released in May 2011 and written by Jonathan Pollack, “No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security” follows the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea since the end of WWII. In following such a path, North Korea’s pursuit of what Pollack describes as “the forbidden fruit of global politics for non-nuclear states” has affected the stability of East Asia and influenced U.S. policy for decades.

The author, Jonathan D. Pollack, is a recognized and accomplished specialist on East Asian international politics and security having published extensively on the topic. Jonathan Pollack is currently a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution. Prior to his appointment at the Brookings Institution, he was a professor of Asian and Pacific Studies and former chairman of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the Naval War College. He has also taught at Brandeis University, the Rand Graduate School of Policy Studies, and UCLA.

So, who should read this book? Firstly, before diving right into this book, the reader should have a basic understanding of North Korea – the history, the ideology, and the politics. Only then should students and scholars with an interest in North Korean affairs and Northeast Asian security read this book on the history and analysis of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

Although only 209 pages in length (excluding the notes), this book is very dense with facts, dates, and people. This book is not intended for causal enthusiasts curious about why North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons despite strong international condemnation. This book reads very much like an academic textbook rather than a simple non-fiction narrative – you have been forewarned.

 Pollack’s book provides a highly detailed narrative beginning from the end of WWII and follows the major actors within North Korea, in particular Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as they work towards the development of nuclear weapons.

             Pollack begins by exploring the formation of the DPRK and its traumatic past. Pollack uses this approach because he is, “convinced that the how and why of the Korean nuclear impasse must begin with the DPRK system and its history.”

             In short, with regime survival of paramount importance, the actions of North Korea stem largely from deep mistrust of both the United States and it’s supposed allies: China and the former USSR.


“In North Korean eyes, Moscow’s failure to ensure the security of another small, distant socialist state meant that the DPRK stood alone, and could depend on no one to uphold its fundamental strategic interests.” (Pollack, p. 57)


North Korea distrusts its allies because it is unsure of whether or not they would truly honor North Korea’s defense commitments in the event of an attack by the West. And North Korea distrusts its sworn enemy, the United States, for intervening in a civil war, devastating the country with massive aerial bombing campaigns, and keeping the country under the constant threat of nuclear strike for over a half-century (with nuclear weapons actually kept on the southern half of the peninsula for more than a quarter of a century). Adding to the mix DPRK’s desire to avoid becoming like another Iraq and the uncertain impending leadership succession, Pollack makes the argument that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was the most rational thing to do.


“… the United States was preparing for preventive war in the Middle East, and the Bush administration had placed North Korea in the same category as Iraq and Iran… as [North Korean Senior Vice Foreign Minister] Kang stated caustically in October 2002, ‘we are part of the axis of evil and you are a gentleman. This is our relationship. If we disarm ourselves because of U.S. pressure, then we will become like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan’s Taliban, to be beaten to death.’” (Pollack, p. 141)


The traumatic past and mistrust of foreign powers lead to the idea of juche, which translates to “self-reliance” or more accurately “self-determination”. North Korea refuses to be controlled by external factors or powers and as such seeks to make North Korea an “impregnable fortress” in a hostile environment. Nuclear weapons are an essential part to this strategy. In conclusion, to the leadership in Pyongyang, nuclear weapons are intrinsically linked to regime survival, self-identity, power, and pride and nothing the United States or China says can change that.



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