North Korea and its nuclear threats

Tjaco van den Hout*

Amid the numerous publications of late about North Korea and its leadership two books stand out. Jonathan Pollack's No exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security and Victor Cha's The Impossible State - North Korea, Past and Future. They are excellent sources for anyone trying to make sense of North Korea's recent nuclear threats.

In No Exit Professor Pollack points us to the North Korean leadership's unshakable commitment to a nuclear weapons capability. He elaborates that the driving force behind the country's nuclear endeavor has been the personal conviction of Kim Il-sung and subsequently Kim Jong-il in the importance of nuclear weapons for North Korea's security.

The author explains the regime's commitment to the nuclear enterprise as having developed out of, as he calls it, "the Kim family psychology". If his heavy use of leadership psychology in explaining the regime's commitment to achieving a nuclear arms capability entails a total exclusion of any meaningful responsibility for and instrumental role in nuclear decision making by the military he is challenged however by some of his peers.

That said, Professor Pollack argues convincingly that given this unwavering commitment to the development of nuclear arms denuclearization of North Korea is not probable without fundamental changes in the country: until there is "a different type of system in which leaders do not believe that the survival or prosperity of the state depend on continued possession of nuclear weapons."

This brings me to the second book, The Impossible State, in which ProfessorCha develops the argument that "... a growing space between the state and the people will cause a crisis of governance and uproot the foundations of the regime. This gap derives from state ideologies and political institutions that are becoming even more rigid and controlling, on the one hand, while society is moving in the direction of greater marketization and economic entrepreneurship, on the other."

Cha compares this gap to the ones that eventually triggered the Arab Spring and points out that, similarly, a situation in North Korea is emerging "where political institutions are no longer able to keep apace of societal changes." The North Korean state has woefully failed in turning-around the country's dire economic situation. According to Professor Cha it is this failure in the economic field that will trigger a crisis and eventually cause the regime's collapse.

Wishful thinking? Obviously a collapse won't happen any time soon but for policy makers tasked with developing options to deal with the current crisis any realistic longer-term scenario for the country is useful to have. With the U.S. insisting that North Korea denuclearize and North Korea remaining committed to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs the two won't be sitting around the table any time soon. The current deadlock will thus continue for the foreseeable future.

At a panel discussion on North Korea organized by the Brookings Institution on April 15, one of the speakers pointed out that in such a situation miscalculation is the greatest danger (that the crisis spins out of control). This danger is particularly acute with such a young and inexperienced leader like as Kim Jong-un who, although apparently in the process of consolidating his power and earning the trust of the people, still needs to prove himself convincingly vis-à-vis the military's top brass.

One speaker at the panel discussion questioned rhetorically whether North Korea's leadership had earlier really understood the full implications of the concept of "extended deterrence" offered by the U.S. to its allies South Korea and Japan. To erase any doubt about this the U.S. used B-52 and B-2 bombers and F-22 fighter jets in the ongoing prescheduled military exercises with South Korea, "Foal Eagle". Its stealthy nuclear capable B-2 bombers were flown over from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri for the occasion - a distance of more than 6,500 miles - and dropped inert munitions over South Korea as part of the exercises. In addition to getting the point across with the North Korean leadership this move on the part of the U.S. was also meant to reassure South Korea and Japan.

South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of a South Korean dictator during the cold war, is obliged to take a much tougher line than her predecessor in the event of any further provocation by the North. Her predecessor chose not to respond to the sinking by a North Korean torpedo fired from a mini-submarine of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in March 2010, and subsequently responded ineffectually to the shelling by North Korean artillery later of an uninhabited island in the South.

Most South Korean voters will no longer accept such a policy of restraint and now expect a more robust reaction from their military. The U.S. and South Korea have therefor recently drawn up plans to respond to any future provocation more forcefully but in a proportional way to avoid escalation. It is not unlikely that the U.S. might even have to restrain South Korea from any precipitous action. Accordingly, South Korea is obliged under the terms of the understanding between the two to consult with the U.S. before it carries out any retaliatory strike against the North.

There is a growing consensus among experts that North Korea is developing a miniaturized nuclear weapon to fit inside a ballistic missile warhead that can withstand the thermal and mechanical stresses of launch, flight and re-entry. But how far is North Korea in this development no one knows exactly. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently released a statement saying that North Korea "...has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for the launch of a nuclear-armed missile”, while a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Defense expressed "...doubt that North Korea has reached the stage of miniaturization.” Those doubts might be justified. However, it is only a matter of time before the North will have achieved its goal.

The prospect of North Korea having an operational nuclear deterrent is deeply troubling not only to the U.S. and its allies but also to China. It is, as one panelist put it, "deeply vexing for China" because it compromises China's vital security interests. In that connection the unpredictable nature of the current relationship with North Korea is a security liability for China. Since its leverage over North Korea might diminish as that country edges closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions, China should move fast to restrain North Korea's behavior while it still can. Failure to do so would pose grave proliferation risks.

Cash-strapped North Korea could become, as AFP's Seoul bureau chief Giles Hewitt aptly puts it:  "... a one-stop shop, selling nuclear material, technology and even weapons to other countries, terror groups, or states seen as sponsoring terror." North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs might also prompt others in the region to reconsider their non-nuclear status which could lead to the unraveling of the entire non-proliferation regime. Seoul's Yonsei University Professor Lee Jong-Hoon stresses the need for China do more to stop North Korea going any further. "Otherwise", he points out, "the consequences might be a nuclear South Korea, a nuclear Japan and even a nuclear Taiwan. Is that what Beijing wants?"

_________________

*Mr. van den Hout lectures in public international law and international affairs and global studies. He is a former ambassador of the Netherlands to Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos (2008-2011) and former secretary-general of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague (1999-2008).

Published 25 April 2013

Author Tjaco Van Den Hout