Living with a Nuclear-Armed North Korea
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 6)

The accelerated pace of nuclear weapons testing by North Korea is a reflection of its growing capabilities and competencies and – more importantly – signals a change in its (largely undeclared) nuclear strategy. Pyongyang has harboured nuclear ambitions for over two decades, but has only recently completely eschewed international negotiations to adopt a non-negotiable stance of becoming a nuclear-armed state (at any and all costs) with an arsenal capable of reaching both neighbouring and North American targets.

The genesis of the North Korean nuclear program stems from the early 1990s, at a time when Pyongyang felt particularly vulnerable with the loss of both its major power backers in the Soviet Union and China (dealing with the domestic and international ramifications of the Tiananmen Square protests). Regime survival, specifically protection against foreign intervention, has always been the major motivation underpinning its nuclear ambitions, however, in previous decades, Pyongyang displayed a willingness to negotiate certain aspects of this program for economic incentives (as epitomized in the 1994 Agreed Framework). Such diplomatic breakthroughs, though, saw repeated infractions (perhaps a tell-tale sign of a strategy of deception with no real interest in abandoning nuclear endeavours), culminating in a decision to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Despite being brought back to the negotiating table by China as part of the Six Party Talks, it became increasingly obvious that North Korea had no intention of ceasing, let alone dismantling, its nuclear weapons program, and culminated in the detonation of its first nuclear device in 2006, the collapse of formal talks in 2012, and its recent nuclear test in January 2016.

(Photo: EPA)

In addition to deterring foreign interventions, a multitude of other mutually-supportive motivations underpin Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, such as: rallying domestic support around the program as a nation building project; necessitating the involvement of major powers such as China and the United States (tempering the possibility of military action by regional neighbours); increasing international status by joining the nuclear club; and used as a tool within brinkmanship tactics to coerce political and economic concessions. Simple possession of nuclear weapons, however, is not seen as a suitable deterrent as Pyongyang moves towards building a survivable nuclear arsenal, able to conduct a secure second strike from a diverse array of delivery platforms (including submarines) able to threaten regional neighbours as well as the United States itself.

North Korea’s determination to build a survivable, credible nuclear force that cannot be negotiated is informed in part by the recent fates of a number of smaller states with antagonistic relationship with major powers. These include the removal from power of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003; the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011; and the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 from Ukraine. The last two cases, in particular, are examples where states had entered into agreements to surrender their nuclear program (Libya) or capabilities (in the case of Ukraine which returned its soviet nuclear weapons to Russia) in exchange for security guarantees, but where nonetheless victims of military interventions by the same major powers with which they had negotiated with.  

Sept 2016 – According to South Korean officials, three medium-range missiles were launched from an undisclosed location in North Korea. Travelling about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), they landed near Japan in an apparent show of force timed to coincide with the G-20 Economic Summit in China.

Sept 2016 – According to South Korean officials, three medium-range missiles were launched from an undisclosed location in North Korea. Travelling about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), they landed near Japan in an apparent show of force timed to coincide with the G-20 Economic Summit in China. (Photo: KRT via AP)

International Responses
Washington has for decades led global efforts to tighten sanctions against North Korea. Historically, the United States’ strategy aims for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through targeted sanctions and efforts to cut off nuclear resources and technologies to Pyongyang while simultaneously incentivising them economically to give up such ambitions.

In light, however, of Pyongyang’s complete rejection of negotiations, Washington has broadened its sanctioning measures away from surgically targeting entities or industries directly related to their nuclear program and towards those affecting the entire country, including energy exports. Such a move appears almost entirely punitive in nature, with Washington having given up persuading North Korea to abandon or limit its nuclear efforts (conceding that sanctions cannot stop Pyongyang from building a nuclear arsenal) and instead focus on a strategy of strangulation and perhaps even regime collapse. Such a strategy shifts the burden of influencing the regime onto China which is by far the largest (and presumably most influential) economic and diplomatic partner of North Korea.

Alongside these measures, the United States is re-affirming defence commitments to allies, particularly in South Korea where more than 30,000 American soldiers remain stationed and retains authority to assume full command of these and the South Korean military during war.

Motohide Yoshikawa, Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN, speaks to journalists following urgent Security Council consultations on the 6 January nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Motohide Yoshikawa, Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN, speaks to journalists following urgent Security Council consultations on the 6 January nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

The South Korean military is more than capable of handling and besting their counterparts in the North, due to the better training, equipment and resourcing they receive. Pyongyang, however, would most likely (especially if they initiate hostilities) inflict massive damage to the South, with much of the northern half of country (including the capital Seoul) well within their artillery and missile range, before being thoroughly annihilated. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, though, combined with the possible entrance of Chinese or Russian forces during hostilities greatly complicates and thus marginalizes the possibility that any sort of conflict would remain conventional or absent of major power entanglements.

In order to provide greater security against North Korea’s growing missile forces (which are still largely at a rudimentary stage of development as evidenced by numerous test failures), the United States has agreed to station its Terminal High Area Air Defense (THAAD) systems in South Korea. This deployment has not only drawn the ire of Pyongyang, but of China and Russia as well (due to the ability of its advanced air radars to monitor the edges of its airspace). As North Korea develops a capacity to not only strike regional neighbours but the United States homeland, questions have been raised as to Washington’s willingness to honour its Extended Deterrence commitments to Japan and South Korea. Some academics, and President-elect Donald Trump, argue that these states should develop their own nuclear arsenals to offset North Korea, thereby allowing the U.S. to disengage from an increasingly complicated, costly and dangerous situation. Despite such trepidations, though, Donald Trump has made personal reassurances to South Korea that the U.S. remains committed to providing the full range of military measures to protect its Northeast Asian allies (with the partial exception of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons on the Peninsula).

These states are part of a growing chorus of other actors calling for greater American participation regionally – not only in relation to North Korea but more importantly to counterbalance the rise of China’s geopolitical ambitions, which are also increasingly affected by Kim Jung-un’s nuclear endeavours.

July 2013 – North Korean soldiers at the military parade in Pyongyang with the portrait of Kim Jonhg-Il of the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean War. Pyongyang, North Korea.

China and North Korea are not allies due to the lack of common world outlooks and strategic frameworks, with ideologically affinities a thing of the past. Over the last two decades, though, there has been an alignment of interests between the two as the relationship has been one of pragmatism for Beijing and necessity for Pyongyang. Beijing’s motivation to support North Korea stems from a strategy of frustrating American dominance regionally. For Pyongyang, China is their only diplomatic protector, major trading partner, and outlet to the outside world is critical in the survival of the regime.

In general, China supported the Pyongyang regime and a divided Korea (but one not at war) to prevent a refugee crisis and nuclear fallout from affecting their borderlands; avoid entanglements diplomatically and militarily with American forces; and inhibit the formation of a united Korea as a South dominated, pro-US ally. The benefits of a divided Korea, however, are now beginning to become untenable as Kim Jung-un’s war mongering and nuclear tests compromise East Asian security to the detriment of China’s regional long-term interest. Not surprisingly, China remains indifferent to North Korea’s massive human rights violations. As North Korea becomes more of a strategic liability than a strategic buffer for China, the relationship is moving towards one of estrangement, with Pyongyang seemingly impervious to Beijing’s pressure, despite the fact China accounts for upwards of 90% of foreign trade with the hermit kingdom. 

The unwillingness and/or inability by China to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and provocative language does not assure neighbours that Beijing can meaningfully contribute to regional stability. Instead, regional actors are promoting greater US involvement and leadership, undermining China’s attempts to become a major regional power, in part by minimizing Washington’s influence.

For Beijing, North Korea has created a strategic catch-22 in providing justification for greater American presence (which Beijing opposes). Any sort of retrenchment by Washington from Northeast Asia would most likely motivate South Korea and Japan (and possibly others) to become nuclear-armed state themselves – a far more complicated and equally unappealing geopolitical landscape to Chinese leaders.  

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army Naval Unit 167.

(Manageable) Challenges of a Nuclear-Armed Korea
Addressing North Korea’s nuclear endeavours has not been a top security or foreign policy priority for either China or the United States. Pyongyang’s augmenting nuclear capability, combined with the high uncertainty with which it is employed in diplomatic strategies, will most likely propel it up the prioritization ladder. In particular, four interconnected challenges confront regional and major powers alike in adjusting to the new reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

First, due to the tightening of imposed sanctions, the proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies and know-how is one of the few remaining sources of hard currency for Pyongyang. With the United States leading efforts to tighten the economic noose, China is placed in a difficult of position of either maintaining trade with Pyongyang (though they have supported and enacted United Nations Security Council mandated sanctions), in part to dissuade them from relying on proliferation activities for income, or curbing such linkages which may drive North Korea to take ever greater risks to export one of its dwindling number of wanted commodities to other authoritarian, rogue states or non-state actors.

Second, the successful acquisition of nuclear weapons, and their deterring effect against foreign intervention by North Korea, may by emulated by other rogue regimes. The inability to deter or inhibit North Korea from acquiring a nuclear arsenal is of particular relevance to the international community’s engagement with Iran, specifically in providing security guarantees in order to ensure Tehran does not determine that regime survival is only possible as a nuclear power. Such determinations by regimes with hostile relations with major powers may lead to regional proliferation as other states join the nuclear fray (i.e. Saudi Arabia going nuclear to balance Iran), threatening the existence of the non-proliferation regime writ large.

Third, achieving deterrence against the United States may incentivise North Korea to become more brazen and hostile. This condition, known as the Stability-Instability paradox, posits that as Pyongyang feels increasingly confident the United States (or others) would not attack them due to their nuclear arsenal (producing strategic stability and reducing the prospects of full-scale war) it will become ever more aggressive against the South and others via limited conventional attacks. Despite the hostile rhetoric and periodic and limited attacks on the South, however, North Korea does not appear to be markedly more risk-taking as it furthers its nuclear capabilities, but may become so if the stresses of international isolation and sanctioning begin to threaten their rule.

The Earthquake and Volcano of the Korea Monitoring Division points at the epicenter of seismic waves in North Korea, in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea's Yonhap news agency says Seoul believes North Korea has conducted its fifth nuclear test explosion. (AP Photo:Ahn Young-joon)

Finally, it remains unclear how Pyongyang will operationalize and codify key aspects of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in terms of command and control, authority to launch, levels of readiness and exercising and training. Kim Jong-Un is and will increasingly become the centralizing authority in the nuclear command structure, but if they decide to deploy launch of warning weapons scattered throughout the military and the state the risk of accidental or unauthorized use by lesser commanders is a real potentiality.

Whether Pyongyang is willing or receptive to learn from other nuclear powers, specifically China, to develop robust safety and control processes is unclear. There is precedence for such cooperation, specifically U.S. assistance to Pakistan (a state that become nuclear despite Washington’s objections), to ensure these weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue elements plaguing parts of that country.

Regime survival is undoubtedly the primary objective of North Korea’s nuclear efforts, but how such weapons achieve this end-state is far from certain. Nuclear weapons may support constant tension and threats of pre-emption, emboldening Pyongyang to make ever-greater demands on the international community and increasing the risk of accidental or unauthorized use. Possession of these weapons, on the other hand, as posited by proliferation optimists (Ken Waltz most notably among them) may have a socializing effect on Pyongyang into accepting the realities of deterrence and the decreased freedom of action this creates, thus reducing tensions on the Peninsula, as evidenced in the relationship between Pakistan and India before (marked by constant tensions and three major wars) and after (tensions remain, and lower intensity attacks continue but not large scale conflict) they both became nuclear-armed states.

The North Korean case further aligns the interests (but not necessarily strategies) of China and the United States as it relates to non-proliferation – with both appreciating that small powers in possession of nuclear weapons greatly complicate regional affairs and limits their option of engagement and degrees of influence they can level against them.

The newest missile, the Taepodong 3 is said to have a range of 12,000 km.
The newest missile, the Taepodong 3 is said to have a range of 12,000 km.

The preservation of the non-proliferation regime, furthermore, will require Beijing and Washington to not only lead efforts at instilling mechanisms to control and limit the spread of nuclear technologies and know-how but, more importantly to provide real, robust and durable security guarantees to both friends and foes alike.

Simultaneously, they must take the lead in efforts to engage and negotiate new nuclear powers to adopt the language of deterrence (which Pyongyang shows some signs of accepting) while ensuring its arsenals are safe enough to avoid accidental or unauthorized use. The acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state necessitates a drastic change in expectations and engagement strategies on the part of Beijing and Washington. If denuclearization is not a realistic objective then, the question becomes how to ensure deterrence and achieve (and maintain) strategic stability.

Keep in mind that North Korea remains a small, poor and isolated state, and while the acquisition of nuclear weapons has marginalized the risk of foreign intervention, it has neither improved its stature in the world nor its ability to coerce others to give in to its demands; despite this and the enormity of direct and indirect costs it has so far endured, the regime still believes that going nuclear is the only way to preserve its existence.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax. He can be reached at