A Storm in a Korean Teacup
On April 4 the Pentagon announced that it was sending a mobile missile defense system to Guam as a “precautionary move” to protect the island from the potential threat from North Korea. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) comprises ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California, as well as naval vessels capable of shooting down missiles.
On the same day, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that North Korea posed a “real and clear danger” to the island, to U.S. allies in the region, and even to the United States. Its leaders have “ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric,” Hagel told the National Defense University in Washington. Areas at risk include South Korea and Japan, he added, as well as Guam, Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. “We have to take those threats seriously,” he said.
It is the job of defense secretaries to take all threats seriously, but there is less than meets the eye to this one. While media coverage of tensions with North Korea makes it appear that its recent threats in response to the ongoing “Foal Eagle” U.S.-South Korean military exercises came unexpectedly, Pyongyang has a long history of objecting vehemently to such war games. North Korea is using bizarre rhetoric—as it has done many times before—but there is no “real and present danger,” because the country’s nuclear and missile delivery capabilities are rudimentary now and will remain so for years to come. Its three nuclear tests thus far—in 2006, 2009 and on February 12 of this year—amounted to a total yield of around 10 kilotons, or less than one-half the power of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in August 1945. At least two, and possibly all three, of those tests used plutonium as the fissile material. Crude and bulky, plutonium devices cannot be fitted onto a missile.
North Korea’s claims to have miniaturized its latest device are unproven and probably untrue: no tell-tale isotopes indicative of weapons-grade uranium have been detected. In addition, at the moment, its uranium-enrichment facilities are not producing requisite quantities of highly-enriched uranium (HEU). The Yongbyon site—the country’s main nuclear facility—has been limited to electricity generation for the past five years, as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal signed in September 2005. The agreement’s implementation was always wrought with difficulties, however. Last month, the regime vowed to restart all facilities at Yongbyon—presumably including uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels (HEU). They have the technical ability to do this, but even if the enrichment program proceeds immediately North Korea will be several years away from producing a deliverable device on a reliable missile.
In the final months of Kim Jong-il’s life it appeared that the talks with the U.S. on the control of North Korea’s nuclear facilities would be restarted. After he died in December 2011, his young son and successor Kim Jong-un soon shifted emphasis from hoped-for cooperation to confrontation. In February 2012, Pyongyang unexpectedly announced that it would suspend nuclear activities and observe a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in return for American food aid. That agreement was suspended after North Korea unsuccessfully launched a rocket carrying a satellite a year ago, which caused major embarrassment to the regime. A successful launch came last December, swiftly followed by the tightening of international sanctions in January (this time supported by China), a third nuclear test in February, and the ongoing escalation of warlike rhetoric since early March.
That rhetoric is a mix of bluster and bravado. Even if it had the theoretical wherewithal to threaten the United States—which it does not have—North Korea could not do it credibly: a single missile, or two, or five, would be fairly easy to intercept and destroy, and the ensuing retaliation would turn much of the People’s Democratic Republic into a parking lot. In the fullness of time the North may develop a device capable of fitting into a warhead, but it will have no guidance system necessary for accuracy and no re-entry technology to bring an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) back to Earth. According to the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, North Korea has something that can hit American shores, but a “functioning nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is still at least several years away.”
Even if it were to miniaturize a half-dozen nuclear weapons and perfect some form of functioning delivery system, North Korea would not be able to use them as a means of blackmail to alter the regional balance of power. The U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel have possessed nuclear weapons for decades. None of them has ever been able to change the status quo in its favor by threatening to use the bomb. The possession of nuclear weapons by one of the parties did not impact the outcome in Korea in 1953, or Suez in 1956, or prevent the two superpowers’ defeats, in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. It makes no difference to China’s stalled efforts to bring Taiwan under its control. South Africa had developed its own nuclear arsenal in the 1980s—it has been dismantled since—but this did not enhance its government’s ability to resist the pressure to dismantle the Apartheid in the early 1990’s. The political effect of a country’s possession of nuclear weapons has been to force its potential adversaries to exercise caution and to freeze the existing frontiers. There is no reason to think that North Korea will be an exception to the rule.
The root causes of North Korea’s apparently reckless behavior are predominantly domestic, as usual. Kim Jong-un, the third absolute ruler in the dynasty established by his late grandfather Kim Il-sung, is young (29), untested and insecure. When his father Kim Jong-il died on December 17, 2011, the military and Party leadership accepted his third son as the designated successor, but it was not immediately clear whether Jong-un would in fact take full power right away. A cult of personality started developing right away. With no track record of achievement and no sign of outstanding talent, he was hailed as the “great successor to the revolutionary cause,” “outstanding leader of the party, army and people,” “respected comrade identical to Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il,” even as “a great person born of heaven”—an eccentric metaphor for a society nominally based on the teaching of dialectical materialism. The titles followed: within days of his father’s death, Kim Jon-un was declared Supreme Commander of the Korean Peoples Army, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and “supreme leader of the country.” In March of last year, he was appointed first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea; three months later, he was awarded the rank of a field marshal.
The plethora of titles does not mean that Kim Jong-un automatically commands the same level of authority and unquestioning obedience enjoyed by his father and grandfather before him. According to a psychological profile put together by U.S. intelligence, Kim Jong-un may feel compelled to prove just how tough he is in order to make up for his inexperience. One of the CIA’s former top experts on North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, regards him as a young man insufficiently well prepared for the position, with limited foreign exposure, who has the urge to prove his toughness to his own military by emulating his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. But the heir is unlikely to start a general war, which he knows he cannot win, and in which China—his often reluctant backer—would likely remain aloof. “It would probably mean his defeat, and his defeat would probably mean the downfall of his regime and, very probably, the end of him as well,” according to the Telegraph’s David Blair. “Assuming that he’s not suicidal, he is very unlikely to start a general conflagration.” The danger remains, however, that North Korea, having ratcheted up the rhetoric for so long and having issued so many blood-curdling threats, feels that it has to do something.
My hunch is that in the end Kim the Third will do nothing. South Korea refrained from retaliation when one of its naval vessels was sunk under mysterious circumstances in disputed waters in March 2010, or when North Korea bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November of that year. This time the leaders in Seoul appear determined to respond to any hostile act. While China is urging all sides to tone it down, its warnings are primarily directed at North Korea. Beijing has conveyed a warning to Pyongyang that any incident would subject the North to swift and vigorous retaliation. It is noteworthy that there are no significant troop movements along the 38th parallel, and the feverish tone of North Korea’s state media appears to have abated in recent days. The specific warnings that preceded the Yeonpyeong attack are now absent. The regime is well aware of North Korea’s inadequacies in the nuclear and missile technologies. Economically it is a mess. According to the CIA economic assessment issued last month, North Korea’s industrial and power output have receded to pre-1990 levels, while frequent crop failures since the catastrophic 1995 famine have produced chronic food shortages and malnutrition. Its people depend for survival on international food aid deliveries, mainly from China.
Once this latest teacup storm is over, a coherent long-term American response should address the question as to why North Korea feels it needs nuclear weapons in the first place. This is not because Kim Jong-un plans to reunify the peninsula by force—that he cannot do, with or without the bomb—but because Pyongyang regards the United States as a real threat. North Korea is one of the tightest despotisms in existence, but ever since it was designated the eastern pivot of the “Axis of Evil” in President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address its leaders have rational grounds to feel threatened. According to President Obama, the nuclear test offered only an illusion of greater security to North Korea. This is incorrect. The possession of nuclear weapons, far from providing an “illusion” of greater security, is the only reliable insurance policy to those states that Washington may deem fit for regime change. Had Serbia had the bomb in 1999 or Iraq in 2003, they would not have been subjected to illegal American attacks on patently spurious grounds.
Some imagination is needed in Washington, including a rethink of the old orthodoxy that nuclear proliferation is inherently dangerous. It is not. Since 1945, there have been many wars, but no catastrophic ones on par with 1914-1918 or 1939-1945. This long peace—lasting for close to seven decades thus far—is due almost entirely to the existence of nuclear weapons and to their possession by an expanding circle of powers. Contrary to the will of the United States—whose leaders do not want other countries to possess what America has possessed, and used, since 1945—nuclear proliferation has been a major factor in the preservation of peace. The “Balance of Terror” is a grim term which denotes a comforting reality, and its logic applies to the lesser powers, such as India and Pakistan, which went to war three times after the Partition—in 1947, 1965, and 1971—but not since then. On previous form, the violence in Kashmir in March 2008 and the Pakistani-linked terrorist attacks in Bombay in November of that year would have reignited the conflict—but they did not. The possession of nuclear weapons by both adversaries has been a major war-inhibiting factor for over four decades, and it will likely remain so for many years to come.
What is valid for the Subcontinent should apply to the North Korean peninsula. Sanctions or no sanctions, Pyongyang will not give up its bomb. For the sake of regional peace and stability, South Korea should acquire one as well—and there is no reason for Japan not to follow suit. Back in the 1970’s, the Ford Administration induced South Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for not withdrawing American soldiers. Now is the time to reverse the sequence. Washington should grant a free nuclear hand to Seoul in return for the mutually agreed U.S. troop withdrawal. The latest crisis strengthens the case for the long-overdue withdrawal of the remaining 28,000 American troops from the Korean peninsula. It is high time to let the countries directly affected by Pyongyang’s actions—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—deal with North Korea themselves, to the best of their abilities.