King Kim clutches a nuclear chalice
By Andrei Lankov
In February 2013, North Korea tested its third nuclear device, one that seems to have been significantly more powerful than the those tested previously. In December 2012, it also put its first satellite into orbit.
The North Korean official media until recently had talked about "peaceful exploration of space" and the "development of nuclear power generation" as major reasons behind their intense nuclear and rocket research. However, these pretexts have now been discarded. Pyongyang has finally openly admitted what has been widely assumed for decades: it aims at becoming a full nuclear
power, capable of deploying Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) equipped with nuclear warheads.
As if desiring to drive the message even further, North Korea in early March fired a full broadside of unusually hysterical threats, promising to employ its nuclear weapons and missile to make "not only Seoul, but also Washington into a sea of fire". Gone are the days when Pyongyang diplomats talked that they need nukes and missiles for purely peaceful, research oriented purposes.
So far, all attempts to prevent North Korea from achieving this goal have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Neither sanctions nor aid have stopped the North from advancing towards a full-scale nuclear capability. This is not all that surprising. North Korea's leadership firmly believe that they need to go nuclear to deter invasion and to gain diplomatic leverage. Unfortunately, they are not all together wrong in these beliefs.
North Korea has not yet become a real nuclear power. The country's technicians have to spend more time perfecting their missile technology and they also have to further miniaturize their nuclear devices, so they can produce a reliable warhead (and, of course, developing a sturdy re-entry vehicle is another important technical problem). However, these tasks are doable, and therefore it is highly likely that within a few short years North Korea's scientists and engineers will achieve nuclear capabilities equal to that of the USA and USSR in the mid- or late 1950s.
North Korea's nuclear program has raised much international concern and widespread criticism. It is often described as a "threat", but one cannot help but wonder how the program is dangerous. It surely is dangerous, but it seems less dangerous than many presume.
The North Korean government needs nuclear weapons for two main reasons as already mentioned - deterrence and blackmail. It is scared of attack, especially from US forces. The fate of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi does little to allay such fears. It is worth remembering that Saddam was a fellow member of the "axis of evil" and the illustrious colonel already did what the international community implores the North to do: he once swapped nuclear weapons for aid and lifting of sanctions.
The North Korean leadership rightly believes that even a few crude missiles with not particularly reliable warheads will nonetheless make attack upon them all but unthinkable. They have probably learnt from the Libyan case how nuclear weapons can be useful in scenario of a domestic insurgency. There is very good reason to believe that Libya's anti-Gaddafi forces would not have received military support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had Gaddafi's regime possessed nuclear weapons.
That said, there is little or no sign that North Korea's leaders plan to use their weapons if unprovoked. They are fully aware that the use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal. They will eventually able to deploy a dozen or so crude ICBMs, most of which will have little chance of hitting their targets. They do not have first strike capabilities and they are fully aware that retaliation would be devastating. By launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on the US, Japan or any other neighboring state, a North Korean dictator would sign a death sentence, not only for himself but also for the entire North Korean elite.
Contrary to what is often said about North Korea's leadership, it is not irrational. The Pyongyang leaders pursue highly rational goals in a highly inhospitable environment. They are not zealots of a mechanistic ideology or religion; rather, they are a hereditary oligarchy where a young king, Kim Jong-eun, is surrounded by aging lords whose forefathers once served the kings that came before. These people have not the slightest desire to initiate a nuclear holocaust and bring the threat of nuclear annihilation merely for the pleasure of killing a few ten thousand Americans, Japanese or South Koreans.
North Koreans therefore needs nuclear weapons for both defense and diplomatic blackmail. After all, without nuclear weapons it would be virtually impossible for them to attract international attention and squeeze unconditional aid from the international community. This does not mean, however, that the world should take a nuclear North Korea lightly. While it probably does not constitute a significant direct threat, its nuclear program is still very threatening indirectly.
To start with, probably the most significant of negative consequences of a nuclear North Korea is the emergence of a dangerous precedent that may further jeopardize the effectiveness of the non-proliferation system.
It is often overlooked that three other "new" nuclear states - India, Pakistan, and Israel - are different from the North in one important regard: they have never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The three were candid from the outset in the way they rejected the NPT as an unequal treaty designed by the great powers - ie nuclear powers - to perpetuate their strategic advantage in the international system.
North Korea is different. It first signed the treaty, then unilaterally withdrew from it having gotten some useful technical knowhow. This was a blatant act of cheating. If North Korea is allowed to remain nuclear (frankly the most likely eventual outcome), this will create a dangerous precedent of a cheating with impunity, probably gaining significantly in the process. In the long run this might be rather be too tempting for other states not to follow.
Second, proliferation is also a possible threat. The North Korean government is known for its willingness to sell pretty much anything if price is good. In the past, they have produced counterfeit foreign currency, and they have used their embassies for liquor and tobacco smuggling on an industrial scale. With such a track record, it is to be expected that they will be quite willing to sell nuclear technology, expertise and components to the highest bidder - especially if they believe that the chances of instant detection are not high.
The third threat that is associated with North Korea's status as a nuclear state is the potential to unleash a nuclear arms race in East Asia. So far, talk of going nuclear within South Korea and Japan is just talk. With the eventual emergence of a deployable nuclear forces, combined with domestic changes in Seoul and Tokyo may lead to something new and highly worrying. Japan may decide to develop nuclear weapons and this will unavoidably push South Korea and Taiwan in the same direction.
We are talking about rich and technologically advanced societies that can acquire such a potential rapidly, much quicker than Pyongyang has. It must also be stressed that East Asia is home to some of the world's most emotionally charged territorial disputes - this is an area of explosive nationalisms, after all. Therefore, a nuclear arms buildup across the region could be very dangerous and result in much tension.
Last, but not least, there is an ever present danger of a nuclear incident.
During the Cold War it must be remembered, the Soviet and US military, in spite of the fact that they were both far better organized and financed than the North Korean army, had a number of narrow escapes related to nuclear weapons. North Korea seems to be far more prone to such eventualities - accidents at storage facilities, accidental launches, or overreactions to perceived threats cannot be ruled out.
One must also keep mind that the North Korean state is inherently unstable. Its implosion is by no means impossible. If this were to happen, the world would face the unenviable task of trying to deal with anarchy in a nuclear-armed country.
So, the emergence of a nuclear North Korea is decidedly bad news - though, it is somewhat less frightening than many people think. However, not much can be done about this: experience over the last couple of decades has demonstrated that the world can do little to stop the North Korean leadership's determined advance toward nuclear capability. It therefore seems that we will have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, while working out ways to deal with the resultant threats.
Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.
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