Wednesday, 13 February 2013

North Korea's clever nuclear strategy


Internationally operated detectors based in South Korea picked up a rumbling in the earth February 11 registering as a magnitude 5.0 tremor. The seismic activity was the result of a small nuclear device detonated on the North Korean side of the tense 38th parallel.

The North Koreans had been issuing warnings for a few weeks prior to the detected tremor but the event has nevertheless stirred worried activity in South Korea and Japan and caught observer nations off guard. Which is exactly what Pyongyang intended.

North Korea nuclear test site - BBC 
There are two things for certain in North Korea: that they will continue a well-rehearsed charade of appearing unpredictable by launching missiles and detonating crude nuclear devices just when it appears they will not and that when they do the West will sit up, take notice, and “strongly condemn” those unpredictable actions.

Following this latest test, which appears to be larger than Pyongyang’s previous two, the United Nations issued another toothless response denouncing North Korea’s belligerency. Once the U.N. agree on their wording, probably using copy and paste from similarly unheeded denouncements, a new resolution reflecting a high filing number will be issued.

South Korea, Japan, and China each have new leaders this year so the hermetic North Korea’s recent provocation of missile launches and nuclear experiments will themselves be useful litmus tests for the fresh heads-of-state. Pyongyang took advantage of a similar leadership transition in 2009 also by detonating nuclear devices. But pursuing a strategy of condemnation and tightening sanctions may not be the prudent step this time around.

And it is hard to know what to meaningfully do about the provocations. There is a fine line between too little pressure and too much in this situation.

The North Koreans are extremely adept at playing the rogue state but never pushing their actions too far and risk outright military intervention. Bringing war to the peninsula would be extremely unpredictable and probably existentially destructive for both of the two Koreas.


The United States and South Korea have invested great sums of money to ensure the safety of the more docile Southern division of the Korean peninsula. Thousands of U.S. troops are permanently stationed in bases close to Seoul and the Demilitarised Zone, and American warships make regular visits to the country.

However, the fact remains that North Korea’s real ‘nuclear option’ is actually their conventional force. Satellite imagery over the so-called “Demilitarised Zone” reveals one of the most heavily weaponised regions on the globe.

Demilitarised zone - Google Earth
With their conventional assets only, it has been conservatively estimated that any conflict with the North would result in almost complete destruction of Seoul. Worryingly, the two Koreas are still officially at war but apart from the occasional belligerent salvo from the North hostilities have not recommenced in decades.

North Korea’s strategy for survival is complex but rests on one key aspect. It may appear like a weak state with little resources, and their craziness is certainly a practised manoeuvre, but threatening the world with nuclear weapons is probably not the hand-wringing danger it may first appear.

To clarify, the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons is very dangerous and clearly real. The unpredictability of the regime coupled with the destructive power of these devices, crude or not, rightly keeps the international community returning to the negotiating tables.

But there is an important difference between detonating a nuclear device and actually having the capability to deliver the device to a target. Just blowing up a few bombs underground does not mean the North Koreans can level Seoul or place a device in Toyko or Los Angeles.

The December 2012 launch of a satellite by Pyongyang may indicate advancing intercontinental ballistic missile technology suitable for arming with a nuclear device. Yet the rocket test itself was messy and the satellite very soon fell out of orbit.

So even if the North possesses a reliable nuclear weapon, a dubious claim no matter how many officials confirm otherwise, mounting that weapon onto an equally unreliable rocket system would be a risky move which not even the chancy North Korean regime would be likely to make.

Rather, it is the long and winding process of attaining a nuclear device that is Pyongyang’s true goal
If North Korea truly did have a deliverable nuclear weapon, then the rhetoric from the West would be much more vitriolic and hawkish than it currently is. Removing the threat would be a very high priority, and military means would definitely be on the table.

Such a device would provide the perfect cassis belli to resolve the North Korean problem once and for all. Obviously this outcome would be very bad for Kim Jong Un and his government. Pyongyang would much prefer to continue receiving the constant flow of aid from Western nations who try to convince the rogue regime with food and money to stop its dangerous quest for nuclear weapons.

So far, this deft geopolitical dance has tamed the far more powerful Western nations, convincing them to treat North Korea as an equal on the world stage.

Why would Pyongyang want to give up such prestige by taking the foolish step of creating a deliverable and reliable nuclear weapon that would only encourage attack? At the moment, the stages of the lengthy nuclear development path are much more lucrative and politically stabilising than actually having a ready nuclear weapon.


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