North Korea has been on a long march to acquire a usable nuclear weapon. Since 2011, when Kim Jong-un replaced his father at the head of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the pace of that march has quickened markedly.
Contrary to claims made by Nikki Halley, the new US ambassador to the UN, North Korea’s leader is not crazy – he has decidedly rational motives. Kim wants nuclear weapons to provide security from a world that he believes threatens North Korea’s existence.
So far, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests – in 2006, 2009, 2013 and two in 2016. The decision to acquire nuclear weapons was initially prompted by the perception that without such a deterrent, North Korea risked Iraq’s fate: invasion and regime change.
Although North Korea has one of the largest militaries in the world – its army alone has more than 1 million soldiers – it is an antiquated fighting force whose principal advantage is its proximity to South Korea. Its ability to win a fight against a technologically sophisticated opponent is widely questioned. Nuclear weapons offset that weakness markedly.
An independent nuclear capacity would also reduce the country’s dependence on China. Beijing has long believed that North Korea is a useful buffer between it and an American-allied South Korea. Pyongyang realises, however, that were Beijing to change its attitude then it would find itself dangerously exposed.
North Korea perceives it is isolated in a world that is hostile to its existence. However loathsome the regime may be and however badly it misallocates resources to bolster the ruling elite, the reason for acquiring nuclear weapons is entirely rational: they are a vital means for North Korea to protect itself.
Kim has made the acquisition of nuclear weapons a core priority. It is central to government propaganda, figures prominently in nationalist iconography, and indeed the country’s nuclear standing is now enshrined in the constitution.
Most analysts believe North Korea has not yet mastered all three parts of the “nuclear trinity” required to make a usable weapon. This entails first developing a controlled nuclear explosion. The second is miniaturising and hardening that technology so it can work reliably while attached to a means of delivery. The final step is an accurate and reliable delivery system, such as a ballistic missile.
North Korea definitely has the first step and is getting close to both the second and third steps. Barring either a change in heart from the regime about its nuclear ambition or some kind of effective international intervention, North Korea is very likely to have a functioning nuclear weapon within a few years – if not sooner.
The acceleration of the nuclear program – three tests since 2013 compared with two tests between 2006 and 2012 – reflects most obviously the higher priority Kim has placed on it.
Development of missile technology – the third step in the nuclear trinity – has also increased in tempo, with more than 20 tests since January 2016. The recent acceleration is an attempt not just to “sprint” to the finish but also to take advantage of the sense of uncertainty in the region.
North Korea’s more adventurous tendencies are most effectively kept in check when the US and China are able to align their interests and policies. That has most assuredly not been the case over the past year or so.
During his “reassurance tour”, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the old policies toward North Korea had failed – and “everything was on the table”. Many interpreted this as a new appetite for strategic risk from the incoming administration.
As with other aspects of America’s Asia policy, Tillerson was light on detail about what new approach Washington might pursue. One assumes it was a major point of debate in Seoul and Beijing. But speculation abounds that pre-emptive attacks may be being considered more seriously than in the past.
The problem with managing North Korea’s nuclear ambition is that there are so few options, and none of them are appealing. As an isolated economy that cares little for international public opinion there are precious few carrots and sticks.
Sanctions have had some effect, but they largely punish the population and not the regime. And they are regularly flouted by China on an opportunistic basis.
Due to the compressed geography of the peninsula, military action would come at a heavy price – North Korea would retaliate by unleashing massive force on South Korea. Seoul is within 60 kilometres of the border with North Korea; pre-emption would be extraordinarily risky.
North Korea will be the most pressing issue at this week’s Donald Trump-Xi Jinping summit. What can be done? There are three main options.
The first is to somehow convince North Korea to step back from its nuclear ambitions, possibly using the stalled Six-Party Talks framework. Given how important it has become to the leadership, both as a security goal and as a sense of national purpose and identity, this seems highly unlikely.
Many once assumed North Korea had started down the nuclear path as an elaborate means to receive international aid. That is, it didn’t actually want them as such, but sought them as a means to extort international financial support. This no longer appears to be the case, if it ever was.
The second option is to coerce North Korea into giving them up. This is equally fraught.
Not only is the risk of major war significant, but even short of war, more targeted and better-enforced sanctions seem unlikely to halt the run to the finish line.
The third and least-worst of the options is a tried and tested policy but one that is politically unsavoury. That is, to engage with the regime, bilaterally or in the Six-Party mode. The aim here would be to retard but probably not prevent its nuclear weapon development while devising ways of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea.
Well-managed deterrence can produce a more stable strategic environment in northeast Asia than has existed in recent years. Engagement could also lead to reduced tension, greater stability and possibly even economic reform in North Korea.
Of one thing we can be sure: North Korea acts rationally, and the one outcome above all it wants to avoid is its own demise.