North Korea as a global extortionist
Aug 23, 2017

Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain naïvely described the pre-WWII disputes as being a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. It seems that Canada’s government is looking at the North Korean (DPRK) problem through the same lens: as a regional conflict that will involve South Korea, Japan and America, but remain peripheral to Canadian interests and security – definitely not an existential threat to Canada.

From this perspective, little attention has been paid to threat assessments of DPRK, most of which are wildly optimistic, and wistfully deny the possibility that North Korea will ever use its nuclear or WMD arsenal because they "surely" will lose a nuclear war with the United States.

Canadians implicitly believe that the extended deterrence by the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be enough to discourage an attack by North Korea, which is widely considered suicidal for DPRK given the U.S. superiority in conventional and nuclear weapons. However, by this logic, the vastly outnumbered British would have been defeated at the Battle of Plassey, instead, they prevailed; the huge Jin Dynasty army would have withstood Genghis Khan, and yet it did not; and the Persian army of King Darius III would not have fallen to young Alexander the Great’s comparatively small force.

We would all be wise to recognize the determination of a small force of destruction. In modern times, Hitler came dangerously close to victory in WWII. Today, it is by no means clear that DPRK will lose a nuclear war (or be the only loser).

North Korea has many plausible pathways to winning a war against the United States, and its odds of winning are sharply increasingly over time. It could strike at U.S./allied bases in Japan, Guam, South Korea and others in the region. Another option would be a high altitude nuclear strike that would blind sensors. The ensuing confusion could allow at least one EMP device to be launched, causing electromagnetic disruption all the way to CONUS, where it could take out critical infrastructure.

Within two years, when DPRK possesses a substantial thermonuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles that reach anywhere in the world, they will be in a positon to inflict great damage if not win a nuclear war outright.

In its Defence Policy, released in June 2017, Canada’s Liberals have failed in their threat assessments, let alone doing whatever it takes to defend against this existential threat to Canada.

Threat assessments always begin with the enemy’s technical capabilities. Documenting known, proven, and regularly-exercised military capabilities is at the heart of a technical threat assessment, as they define the art of feasible military options. From this perspective, much of the work of western analysts and the intelligence community have focused on whether North Korea can credibly threaten North America with ballistic missiles topped with nuclear warheads.

Western analysts have downplayed the North Korean threat because the country has not demonstrated an “end-to-end” ability to reliably launch an ICBM (at ranges that include major Canadian or U.S. cities), or miniaturize a nuclear warhead and ensure that it survives re-entry to detonate “on target”. What is wrong with this assessment?

North Korea has deliberately de-rated at least some of their tests to conceal their rate of progress. Thus, the Hwasong 14 tested in July 2017 is presumed by some analysts to have insufficient range to reach the continental U.S. (CONUS).

Not a single “open source” analyst (except this author) has publically acknowledged that the North Korean Hwasong 12/14 missiles can get a substantial boost in payload and range by the addition of solid fueledstrap-on” boosters, which North Korea is capable of building today,   making it a reality that they can range anywhere in North America with a payload in excess of 650kgs for a nuclear warhead.

The nuclear arsenal under the command of Kim Jong-un is almost certain to be more advanced than has been demonstrated in tests to date. The Mount Mantap site, made ready for the 6th nuclear test, is sized for 282 kilotons (well above boosted fission weapons and at the low end of a hydrogen bomb deliberately derated for testing). Lithium 6, a crucial ingredient for hydrogen bombs, with few other applications, is being produced by North Korea. The country is intentionally holding back on testing, or should we say, demonstrating, their hydrogen bomb. It is entirely plausible that the first DPRK hydrogen bomb warhead can be brought in at around 1,000kg. This is heavier than the 360kg US W88, but would be viable atop a Hwasong 12/13/14 missile.

Combine these two facts, and it is probable that DPRK will have ICBM systems with thermonuclear warheads deployed within 2 years (2020) that will be able to reach anywhere in the world.

Critics argue North Korea has not demonstrated the ability to deliver a bomb to North America.   Without a tested re-entry vehicle and any degree of proven accuracy, North Korea can still deploy the warhead for an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) device that can knock out most of the electronics infrastructure of North American in one strike – killing 90% of all Americans and most Canadians. With a proven re-entry vehicle, a megaton range hydrogen bomb from DPRK can wipe out entire population centers like Metro Toronto.

The absence of testing / demonstrating is not evidence that such capability does not exist. Israel is a good example; few doubt their nuclear arsenal will work even though testing has only been suspected. There are many ways to assure that a nuclear arsenal will work without testing (such as using simulations).

Maintaining a capability does not always define intent. USSR/Russia, China, the UK, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan have all had nuclear arsenals for decades, but consider them a deterrent. First Nuclear Age States continue to view nuclear weapons as an insurance policy for regime survival, and a retaliatory instrument of last resort – not as an offensive weapon.

North Korea, as the first of the Second Nuclear Age Nuclear Powers, cannot be assumed to behave like prior nuclear powers any more than anyone could believe that jihadists would “refrain” from using nuclear weapons if they acquired them.

Moreover, nuclear weapons can be “used” without ever setting off a nuclear blast for war. For instance, when they were on the verge of losing the 1973 war, Israel considered demonstrating a nuclear weapon in the desert as a bargaining chip. This threat of using nuclear weapons was used to expedite U.S. conventional military aid.

Similarly, the U.S. and USSR routinely used nuclear weapons and nuclear platforms to signal resolve (e.g. by transits of nuclear capable bombers). The USSR nearly used nuclear weapons against China in 1969, but backed down when the U.S. threatened World War III. Since then, China has successfully deceived the world as to the size of its nuclear arsenal, its pre-emptive strike capability, and its nuclear first strike posture as it test-fires nuclear missiles and has its official news agency reporting (Nov 2016) that these missiles “can destroy US Asia-Pacific bases at any time.”

These are just some of the ways a nuclear arsenal can be used without having it used.

A nuclear weapons state, no matter how small the arsenal, will always give an opponent pause.   Indeed, the United States and allies are now self-deterred in acting against DPRK precisely because of this. If the world must live with a nuclear DPRK, what does Kim Jong-un want? Can North Korea become a responsible nuclear power? Why are we not talking to them to find out?

DPRK has never abandoned its aspiration for total victory of the Korean war. That is to say, expel the U.S. and allies from the Korean peninsula; impose a peace treaty on the U.S. and allies with war indemnities; and then to reunify the Korean population under DPRK terms.  These long-term goals have been pursued since Kim Il-sung’s leadership, and have not changed, and are, as Professor B.R. Myers noted, central to the DPRK regime’s raison d'État. Regime survival or status quo is a minor consideration compared to the goal of victory in a fashion not dissimilar to Genghis Khan’s motives.

The posture of DPRK’s ICBM forces suggests its aims are offensive in nature, however, its Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile posture suggests a second strike deterrent against China. Short/Medium range missiles aimed at Japan, S. Korea and U.S. bases are poised to prevent U.S. intervention when used either defensively or offensively as a preemptive strike. It is not surprising then, that North Korea has routinely used its nuclear arsenal to threaten the U.S., and allies like Australia, with an inherently offensive posture for their ICBMs, recently threatening “merciless revenge” in a propaganda video. What does DPRK wish to gain from this?

Financial Extortion

What is unique about North Korea’s goals for its nuclear arsenal program is that it is the only nuclear power making sizable financial demands for “compensation” from the U.S. and allies as a condition for a peace treaty to end the Korean War. Despite there being no clear winner in the Korean War, which ended with status quo ante bellum, Kim Jong-un expects the U.S. to pay indemnities due to the victor. This behaviour is entirely consistent with Northeast Asian political traditions, where war for profit was routinely and successfully practiced right up to the defeat of Japan in 1945.

Western powers last fought major wars for profit (or indemnity) during the Franco-Prussian war, when Prussia extorted 5 billion francs from the defeated France after the 1871 armistice, and occupied France until it was paid in 1873. Victorious Japan followed suit and received 40m pounds sterling indemnity from the Ching Empire after the Sino-Japanese war, and also profited from the First World War. For the western powers, World War I and II ended with war indemnities being replaced by reparations (presumably smaller), but even that was banned after WWII. In the Western world, war became not-for-profit.

DPRK rejects the otherwise now-universally-accepted concept that war-for-profit is not a legitimate practice. This is amply demonstrated in their outsized demands for compensation (traditionally demanded by the winner of a conflict).

Kim Jong-un has demanded US $75 Trillion dollars in compensation for the Korean War and other damages (to 2006) from USA. This followed the 2002 talks that led to Japan apologizing for its years of colonial rule (1910-1945), and then paying compensation in the form of “economic assistance” and food aide to North Korea. For its part, DPRK then apologized for abducting Japanese citizens.

It is not known if similar demands are being made to UN participants in the Korean War, like Canada and Australia.

The use of a nuclear arsenal for economic and financial extortion by DPRK is quantitatively different from every other nuclear power, and puts a different perspective on its drive to acquire a nuclear arsenal and their longer-term intentions, doesn’t it? DPRK’s intentions for their nuclear arsenal cannot be reduced strictly to regime survival without considering the extortion angle.

The question for Canada is: what are the consequences and security threats, short and medium term, to Canada from this fundamental change in international norms if DPRK is allowed to succeed in becoming a nuclear-armed extortionist?

Will North Korea stop at obtaining compensation from the United States? Japan? Canada? Australia? What if it is not deterred by the USA, or not defeated by the U.S. in war? Will DPRK acquire even more lethal weapons in its quest for “compensation”?

The question for Canada is: What demands are being made of Canada, that we are not being told about, for “compensation” or “reparation” for the Korean War? The brazenness of the DPRK demands on USA, Japan, and others, strongly suggest they will not let Canada off the hook without a sum measured in the billions or trillions – and enforced with nuclear weapons… after all… we are still at war.  There is no peace treaty with Canada.

Once DPRK becomes a thermonuclear weapons power in two short years, will a refusal to “pay tribute” be an option for Canada without U.S. support?


Understanding DPRK’s motives and long term intentions is crucial to a credible threat assessment. Canada needs to have both credible technical and behavioural components of North Korean intentions in order to craft a viable defence policy.

Financial extortion is over and above the dangers from destabilizing Asia, or even the prospect of a major arms race or a cold war. Kim Jong-un will fight a hot war, and will fight to win.

Canada cannot afford to get this wrong, and may not be able to appease or defend against North Korea in a few years if something is not done now.

PM Chamberlain got Hitler’s intentions wrong at Munich (with entirely predictable consequences). Let us not repeat history.

Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.