The nuclear weapons program of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, has been of great concern to its neighbours in Northeast Asia and the international community. It has carried out five nuclear tests since 2006, and two of those were in 2016 alone. The most recent nuclear test in September 2016 was about 10 kilotons in explosive force, about the same as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during WWII.
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Under its dictator Kim Jong Un, DPRK has also conducted 10 missile tests in 2017. These missile tests matter because they are part of the key target that DPRK is pursuing – the ability to miniaturise and install a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach the continental United States (US). In fact, DPRK may already have an arsenal of 20 about nuclear bombs. It is the capability to strike a powerful adversary like the US that is thousands of miles away with one of these bombs that is the key issue now. How long away the Hermit Kingdom is from accomplishing its mission is uncertain as expert estimates range between one to five years. Some even argue that DPRK may already have that capability but is just waiting for the right time to show its hand.
This entire affair with DPRK has a great impact on efforts to stop the proliferations of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and on the geopolitical stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Amid all the weapons tests and media coverage, it becomes relevant to ask: Why is DPRK so intent on nuclear weapons? What are the political and security implications of its pursuit? Can it be stopped?
Survivor: North Korea
Experts generally agree that the number one reason for DPRK’s nuclear ambitions is the survival of the totalitarian regime of the ruling Kim family dynasty now in its third generation. Nuclear weapons are seen as a guarantor of the sovereignty and security of the country. Possessing a nuclear deterrent would force foreign adversaries think twice about invading or attacking DPRK. Pyongyang perceives this military threat from the annual military exercises conducted by the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, and the US, which it has long suspected are a rehearsal for an invasion of DPRK.
At one point in time, the nuclear weapons program was also effective in providing DPRK with diplomatic leverage. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, DPRK has repeatedly wielded the threat of nuclear proliferation to extract concessions from the US. For instance, in the early 1990s, DPRK threatened to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons unless Washington provided energy assistance. But each time, DPRK went back on its end of the bargain to resume development of nuclear weapons.
This strategy of “coercive diplomacy” only worked for a limited time range – during the early phases of the nuclear weapons program in the 1990s when it could stop or disable the program in exchange for concessions. Once the nuclear program became more mature and nuclear tests were being carried out in the early-2000s, it became too costly for the regime to halt its activities or undo its progress.
North Korea in the Nuclear Club: What does it mean?
DPRK as a fully-fledged nuclear power threatening to use its nuclear weapons would greatly upset stability in Northeast Asia as each of the involved countries reacts to protect itself. Having nuclear ICBMs is seen as the final piece of the puzzle before this unfavourable scenario is reached.
A nuclear-armed DPRK is obviously a serious threat to the ROK, whose capital Seoul is under 60km away from the border with DPRK. Not to forget, the two neighbours are technically still in a state of war since only an armistice was declared in 1953 during the Korea War. The worst-case scenario would be a DPRK holding ROK hostage with the threat of nuclear weapons each time it was displeased with something. As ROK does not have nuclear weapons, it relies on the nuclear capabilities of the US, known as the nuclear umbrella, for protection and to strike DPRK if necessary. However, if the situation worsens, ROK may choose to develop its own nuclear weapons, which may spark a nuclear arms race in the region.
For the US, before DPRK acquires the capability to strike the continental US with a nuclear missile, US President Donald Trump would have to consider a pre-emptive strike on DPRK to take out its nuclear facilities. The stakes are getting higher in this scenario as DPRK tested what is thought to be an ICBM, never seen before, on 4 July 2017. The missile was assessed to be able to travel about 5,500 km, which would classify it as an ICBM and place all of Alaska, US within its range. In swift response to the test, the US and ROK conducted a ballistic missile military drill in South Korea as a show of force to DPRK.
China has taken a more measured approach, condemning DPRK’s weapons tests but urging for a diplomatic solution. As DPRK’s only military ally, main trading partner and neighbour with a land border, China is keen not to destabilise the situation. A stable DPRK is in China’s interests as Beijing does not want a military conflict in a neighbouring nuclear-armed state. Any military escalation between DPRK and the US would be against Chinese interests as that would mean increased US military presence in its backyard, the Korean Peninsula. Already, China has expressed its disapproval of the deployment of the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile defence system in ROK.
Japan, like ROK, relies on the US nuclear umbrella to protect its citizens, though it would be less of a target to DPRK than ROK or the US. That being said, if the situation worsens, as previously mentioned, Japan too may choose to develop its own nuclear arsenal. This would be a major departure from the pacifist constitution which Japan adopted after WWII that renounces war and maintains military forces purely for self-defence. Already, DPRK provocations have led to Japan PM Shinzo Abe pushing for a broader interpretation of the pacifist constitution to allow a strengthening of the country’s military.
Can the Nuclear Conundrum be solved?
Any approach to handling the DPRK conundrum should see DPRK and the US as the main players as Pyongyang perceives the US to be its chief threat. There are four broad options to be considered: (1) Prevention, (2) Increased pressure, (3) Decapitation and (4) Acceptance.
1. Prevention would see a devastating US military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of WMDs, take out its leadership, and destroy its military. It would conclusively end DPRK’s standoff with the US and ROK, as well as the Kim dynasty. However, this is a highly difficult and risky strategy as it would have to be executed so swiftly and decisively that DPRK would not have time to respond. This is a strategy that places millions of the civilian population in ROK at risk. Even if only a few of its worst weapons survive the strikes, DPRK could probably retaliate with its own attacks on ROK. The end result would be an absolute bloodbath.
2. Increased pressure would still see military action in the form of a series of limited strikes involving aerial and naval assets, and Special Forces. This strategy will be a delicate balancing act as it would have to be big enough to significantly lower DPRK’s capability, but also small enough to avoid being interpreted as the beginning of the all-out strike in option 1. The end game here would be to allow the regime to survive, but compel it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
3. Decapitation would see Kim Jong Un and his inner circle neutralised most likely by assassination. A new and more moderate regime willing to constructively engage with the world would be installed instead. The downsides of this strategy are that the DPRK military, fiercely loyal to Kim Jong Un, could retaliate with a fierce military response if its Supreme Leader is taken out. Also, there are no guarantees that a replacement regime would be a cooperative one.
4. Disappointingly, acceptance is the hardest and yet most likely option to go with. Allow Kim Jong Un to develop the weapons he wants, while continuing efforts to contain his ambition. Acceptance is likely because there are no military options that offer a high probability of success. As frightening as it is to contemplate a DPRK with nuclear ICBMs, such a scenario would not be that much worse than the current state of affairs. In reality, DPRK already has the capability to cause massive loss of life even without nuclear weapons. Right now, it has thousands of rocket launchers and artillery guns pointed at Seoul, capable of taking out thousands of civilians. Its missile are also capable of reaching Japan and the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. And yet, no ruler in DPRK has ordered any such strikes. That is because, for all its threts, DPRK’s leadership is rational enough to know that a launch of a nuclear weapon or other major conventional weapons would be met with a devastating retaliatory strike by the US, ROK, Japan, or all of them.
Acceptance of a nuclear DPRK need not be the end of the road. The international community needs to work together on a framework of engagement with DPRK that has the right combination of incentives and disincentives to persuade Kim Jong Un that abandoning his nuclear ambitions is in the country’s best interests. The Hermit Kingdom needs to be convinced that it does not need a nuclear bomb to find its place in the world.