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

This is part III of a three-part series on the book “No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security” by Jonathan Pollack  

             Since the publication of Pollack’s book, there have been two significant events that warrant a new edition: (1) the death of Kim Jong-il and successful transition of power to Kim Jong-un, and (2) successful launch of a satellite into orbit and test of North Korea’s third nuclear bomb that is hypothesized to be in the 6-7 kiloton range. Toward the end of Pollack’s book, he raises numerous questions regarding the impending leadership transition and whether or not Kim Jong-un would be able to successfully take the reins from his father. Over a year later, it seems that most of those questions have been answered. Furthermore, while the first two nuclear tests were small in scale and considered by some experts to be a flop, the recent third test disproves the notion that North Korea is a technologically backwards nation living in the stone age. (The number of nations that have both launched a satellite into orbit and successfully tested a nuclear weapon stands at just seven: USA, USSR/Russia, UK, France, China, India, and North Korea.)

Jonathan Pollack’s book offers a concise, though extremely dense, historical backdrop and analysis of why North Korea developed nuclear weapons and why it has “No Exit” strategy of dismantling its program anytime soon. As he states early on in his book:


“… no state has ever developed nuclear weapons by accident or inadvertence. It reflects purposive long-term commitment and the large-scale mobilization of scientific, technological and material resources… the DPRK’s nuclear development is thus inseparable from the history of the North Korean state.” (Pollack, p. 24)


Obviously, the book needs to be updated with new facts, dates, and people, but the original analysis is still as relevant today as it was the day the book was published in May 2011. His conclusion that North Korea wishes to:


“… posit a ‘no landing’ scenario – that is, the perpetuation of the existing system based on the unquestioned power and authority of the Kim family and of the ruling elites that support it, retention of its nuclear weapons capabilities, and a measure of economic recovery.” (Pollack, p. 192)


Along with the idea that:


“Periodic hints by the North that it might be prepared to exchange its nuclear capabilities for economic aid cannot be taken seriously…. The ultimate goal remains nuclear abandonment by the North, but a more practical objective is risk minimization, both in relation to the DPRK’s extant weapons and in any potential transfer of technology and materials beyond North Korea’s borders.” (Pollack, p. 209)


Pollack’s book does a fantastic job of seamlessly weaving together hundreds of interviews with the countless works of other experts in the field to present a coherent (though extremely dry) narrative to give the reader a chance to literally step into the shoes of the North Korean leadership and follow their journey toward nuclear weapons from 1945 to 2010. It is highly recommended that this book be read by officials directly involved with North Korea along with scholars and students who are learning about North Korean affairs or Northeast Asian security.




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