10.10.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The End of North Korea’s Nuclear Program?

234213123123On September 27, 2016, the North Korean Embassy in the Russian Federation circulated a series of articles stating that North Korea had “basically completed” development of nuclear weapons, which are now fully ready for practical application.

One of the articles reads that, “during current nuclear tests the structure, behaviour, characteristics and power of standardized and unified nuclear warheads for further installation on ballistic missiles of Hwaseong artillery units – the strategic forces of the Korean People’s Army, were fully tested and approved.” Therefore, the WPK sends North Korean nuclear specialists its “warmest congratulations”.

It is also stated that there will be continued efforts undertaken in “taking measures for the qualitative and quantitative build-up of state nuclear forces to defend our dignity, the right to exist and the true peace from the increasing US threat of nuclear war”.

There are two messages to be found in this statement. First – this is an indication of the fact that North Korea has now become a fully-fledged nuclear power and not only possess nuclear explosive devices (which can only be used after attracting further enemies) but a fully-fledged nuclear weapon and the means for their transportation. The weapon in question: a missile that can reach Japan and possibly Guam, a submarine missile, and most importantly – a nuclear warhead, which can be fitted into missiles. This is this what “basically completed” stands for. Let us also bear the KCNA message in mind here, which states that the DPRK successfully conducted a ground test of a new missile motor and that Kim Jong-un has called for the launch of another satellite as soon as possible.

It is not the first time the north have stated they could demonstrate more, but North Korea does not have its own Novaya Zemlya or Moruroa atoll, and it “did not want to disturb Moscow and Beijing with adverse environmental consequences of more powerful explosions.” However, the speed of development of North Korean nuclear and missile potential has surpassed the estimates of a number of cautious experts – it took just two or three years to solve a number of sophisticated technical problems and make progress that otherwise could have taken ten years.

From a certain point of view, this statement sums up what we have seen throughout 2016. The North has shown that they have enough resources to conduct two nuclear tests per year despite the fact that previously the interval was on average three years. A new missile engine has been developed and a series of launches of small and mid-range missile were carried out. These accomplishments can be explained by a number of factors, but it seems that the change in international relations towards further tensions has pushed Pyongyang to consider that the idea of “wiping the DPRK from the face of the earth” may become a reality and nuclear weapons are the only adequate defence: the examples of Iraq, Libya and Syria are testament of this.

There has, however, not been a dramatic increase in “the North Korean threat to peace”. The probability of a military conflict, in which the North will act as an aggressor, is still minimal; it is even less probable that it will use nuclear weapons first. This is due to the fact that the military potential of the South and its allies is significantly greater than that of the DPRK. Moreover, even the use of nuclear weapons does not change the overall strategic balance, because should a country violate the taboo regarding their use, a nuclear response of incommensurable force will follow.

But for those who want to wipe Pyongyang from the face of earth, the situation is much more serious: Can the missile reach the target? Will it be intercepted or not? These and other related risks still have to be taken into account. And even if Pyongyang is wiped from the face of earth, but the ensuing wars sees at least one North Korean nuclear bomb explode in Japan or the Republic of Korea, it will be a “pyrrhic” victory, for economic, political, environmental costs and loss of reputation will significantly outweigh the pleasure gained from overseeing the end of the North Korean regime.

This situation has two possible outcomes: First, the United States start to take North Korea seriously as a potential threat and think about a preventive strike with high precision weapons, relying on its superior technological capabilities. This is very risky, but the supporters of this option have the same protective reflex, which in certain situations makes US police officers shoot first, and then find out what was so “suspicious” about the behaviour of the person they just shot.

Another version of the situation, which Kim Jong-un might expect and hope for, is that this demonstration will finally convince the United States and its allies that the solution of the North Korean problem by force is too dangerous and hopeless, after which Washington would finally start negotiations. But there are also many hidden obstacles. First, nuclear bombs protect against forced regime change, but they are not that effective against more subtle methods of destabilization. Second, the demonization of North Korea is now at such a high level that negotiations involving the DPRK might be more psychologically unbearable than the possibility of a North Korean attack on the US.

The second North Korean message, perhaps, lies in the fact that it has temporarily suspended actively bearing its teeth over this matter. It is possible that before the end of the year the North Korean leadership will try to reinforce its statements with new achievements. But the author looks at this statement and sees the hint that with due reaction from the international community, the country’s policy of systematic nuclear testing that aggravates the international community so much and does not comply with United Nations resolutions may come to an end. Russia’s representative to the International Organizations in Vienna, Vladimir Voronkov agrees: “This may indicate that nuclear testing, which disturbed the entire international community, can stop. If so, this can be accepted with cautious optimism.”

If so, North Korea has put an end to the process, which could otherwise lead it to further deterioration of relations with its northern neighbours. Moscow and Beijing will only welcome the lack of new missile or nuclear tests. And then, North Korea may try to enter a new round of negotiations aimed at the recognition of its nuclear status. It is no coincidence that some experts have already made a counterproposal – make the DPRK sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has not been ratified by China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States, either. And when in 2006 the United Nations called upon all countries to accede to this Annex, only two countries, the United States and the DPRK, openly voted “against” it.

Of course, the probability of success of these talks is not great, either – it does not eliminate the whole problem, because the missile tests will have to be carried out, and this, in the presence of the declared warhead, will become a cause of agitation. But still, it was a well-played, albeit risky move. Although the author does not believe that after such a statement North Korea will be immediately invited to join the nuclear club, he will be following further developments with interest.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.