In his New Year’s speech, Kim Jong Un said that North Korea would soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the continental United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump reacted to the statement almost immediately: in a tweet on January 2, he said that such a launch “won’t happen.” But even back then, few observers had any doubt that it would, indeed, happen soon.
And, this month, somewhat earlier than most analysts expected, the two launches of the Hwasong-14 have shown that Kim Jong Un means business: these two successful ICBM tests have changed the situation dramatically. It is time for the outside world to accept the truth, no matter how unpleasant it is, and start acting accordingly.
WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD
For a long time, policy towards North Korea has been treated in the U.S., as well as in many other countries, as a good way for a public figure to demonstrate toughness or other admirable qualities in front of voters. This is understandable, given how democracies function, but the time for theatrics has run out.
North Korea has now become the third U.S. adversary in the world capable of hitting the United States with a nuclear warhead, and this is a serious enough threat.
Compared to Russia and China, North Korea is far less predictable and, presumably, its nuclear weapons control systems are significantly less reliable than the systems used by Russia and China.
It also features an excessive concentration of power in the hands of just one man: it’s hard to imagine that the North Korean control and command structures will in any way limit the power of the Supreme Leader to launch a nuclear attack any time he feels like it.
Of course, the widespread description of North Korea as a “mad” or “paranoid” country run by a family of comical and irrational dictators is grossly misleading.
Rather, North Korea is a country run by people who have shown themselves to be smart and rational, if brutal: they are brilliant Machiavellians, masters of realist politics, and they are not suicidal at all.
The time for theatrics has run out
The emergence of an ICBM-armed North Korea constitutes a considerable risk, and there is an urgent need to face reality and to finally start doing something which might stop them, and not something which looks good and is going to be popular with voters.
THREE INEFFICIENT APPROACHES
Essentially, three possible approaches have been usually discussed when it comes to the North Korean problem: two of these approaches have been tried and failed, while the third one is prohibitively risky.
First, some suggest that it would be possible to arrange a buyout of the North Korean nuclear program through negotiations. These optimists, few of which are still listened to in Washington DC, believe that the leadership can be persuaded to surrender its nuclear weapons in exchange for generous political and financial concessions, as well as guarantees of security.
This negotiations-based approach has been tried a number of times, but every time it turned out that the North Koreans had entered talks largely in order to buy time and secure funds. Once the need for compromise disappeared, the North Koreans were quite willing to walk out.
Admittedly, in some cases it was the Americans, who, driven by their own miscalculations, chose to end such compromise agreements – this happened in 2002, when new intelligence about the uranium enrichment program, combined with the belief that the regime’s days were numbered, prompted the George W. Bush administration to break away from the 1994 Geneva Framework agreement.
The second possible option is sanctions. It is widely believed that a comprehensive and tough system of sanctions will provoke either an economic crisis within North Korea (an option few sanctions enthusiasts are willing to talk about frankly enough) or some elite discontent (an option they love to emphasize).
It is then believed that the North Korean government, facing growing problems with either the populace or elite, will bow to the domestic threat and agree to surrender nukes.
This option has been tried once, and it has failed. Nothing can demonstrate this better than North Korea’s remarkable economic performance throughout the period when sanctions were in force.
The introduction of UN-approved sanctions in 2006 roughly coincided with the first stage of the North Korean economy’s revival and in the days of Kim Jong Un, when international sanctions became significantly tougher, the country’s economy began to grow really fast – one could even say it is booming.
North Korea is a country run by people who have shown themselves to be smart and rational
It is significant that even the Bank of Korea, whose over-conservative estimates of North Korea’s economic performance have raised experts’ eyebrows for years, recently admitted the obvious and estimated the 2016 economic growth in North Korea to be an impressive 3.9%. One should not forget, of course, that 2016 was also the year when the toughest sanctions ever began to be implemented.
The major reason why sanctions fail is China’s attitude. China, in spite of its hostility to North Korea’s nuclear program, sees instability in North Korea as a greater threat and acts accordingly. However, even with full Chinese participation (a highly unlikely scenario), sanctions are not going to work. North Korean decision makers are not going to sacrifice the nuclear weapons they see as a major or even only guarantee of their survival in order to improve the lives of common folks.
The North Korean nuclear program has been largely defensive in nature, but one cannot be sure whether it will remain the case in future
Expectations of elite discontent are also unfounded. North Korean generals understand that the collapse of the Kim family regime is likely to be followed by the collapse of the country and the arrival of triumphant southerners – a scenario that would be extremely bad for them.
Even if sanctions successfully deprive them of their daily shot of Hennessey cognac or even the opportunity to drive in a Porsche, they will survive with their Soju and cheap Chinese-made Toyotas, since they believe that prison or death is the likely alternative.
The third option is, of course, military strikes. Early this year, this option was discussed seriously in Washington, but by now it has been largely discarded.
There are good reasons why military strikes have come to be seen as a prohibitively risky option. Most likely, the North Koreans will react to a sudden attack against their military facilities and/or centers of command with a counterstrike against Greater Seoul, a metropolis with a population of 24 million people. Such a strike is nearly certain to result in a second Korean War, a massive land war in Asia, which is currently seen by the U.S. military planners and political leaders as a true nightmare.
While all these three oft-discussed options are completely unrealistic, sanctions supporters are dominant in American political discourse, and this can be partially explained by the general environment in Donald Trump’s Washington – where the hard-line is selling much better than other options.
Even to a greater extent, though, it is a result of how the American policy operates. When the American voters learn about (a quite real) North Korean threat, they expect their leaders and elected representatives to “do something.”
Since, as we have seen, easy solutions are not going to work, while realistic solutions (to be discussed below) are going to be imperfect, complicated and controversial. It is any politician’s instinct to do what will look good to the voters, and sanctions are what looks good. Even though they are not going to produce the slightest bit of difference, they sell well with the public.
After North Korea’s second ICBM test, this approach must finally be discarded.
North Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons, no matter what
If the North Korea nuclear and missile program is not slowed down dramatically now, it will get more and more dangerous. When Kim Jong Un finds himself in control of a nuclear force roughly similar to that of say, the UK or France, he might start seriously thinking about his grandfather’s unfinished business: the unification of the entire Korean peninsula under his power.
In the past, the North Korean nuclear program has been largely defensive in nature, but one cannot be sure whether it will remain the case in future.
Kim Jong Un might start entertaining hope that now he can threaten the U.S. with strikes against a number of major American cities, the Americans will be, so to say, “unwilling to swap Chicago for Seoul” and will not get involved in a military conflict should one erupt on the Korean peninsula.
Another potential threat associated with the fast growing North Korean nuclear and missile potential is the threat of proliferation. The North Koreans are quite likely to sell nuclear technology to any state or perhaps even a non-state actor who is willing to pay sufficiently good money. Their attempt to assist Syria with nuclear development in the early 2000s tells it all, and the more material land expertise they have at their disposal, the more likely they are to be involved in such an activity.
Finally, in the new situation, a grave domestic crisis in North Korea, be it a revolution or a coup – always a probability – becomes more dangerous. If Kim Jong Un learns that his capital is undergoing rebellion and he has no place to run, he might decide to go down fighting, that is, killing as many enemies as possible. He might consider ordering a nuclear attack against countries who he will, rightly or wrongly, believe to be responsible for his domestic problems. Most likely it will be the United States, but it also might be Japan or even China.
SO, WHAT CAN BE DONE?
One thing should be admitted: North Korean denuclearization is not going to happen as long as the Kim family remains in control. North Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons, no matter what.
Therefore, we should not talk about “solving the North Korean nuclear problem” if, by solution, we mean the denuclearization of the country. The only realistic option is managing the North Korean nuclear program. Instead of chasing an impossible and unachievable goal of a non-nuclear North Korea, the U.S. and other interested parties should quietly switch to a less pleasant, but realistically achievable goal: North Korea with small and stable nuclear arsenal.
We are talking about an imperfect compromise. The North Koreans will likely cheat
This means that a freeze seems to be the only compromise which can be realistically discussed. It is still an open question, though, how much time it will take for the U.S. political class to realize the obvious, and it remains to be seen whether the North Koreans are interested in such a deal.
Such a deal would see North Korea stop nuclear and missile testing in exchange for generous economic aid and political concession. Of course, Pyongyang will keep the nuclear and missile capabilities it has already developed, even though some claims about supposed commitment to the ‘eventual’ nuclear disarmament of the country, perhaps, should be inserted in official papers – just to limit the damage such an agreement will inflict on the nonproliferation regime.
We are talking about an imperfect compromise. The North Koreans will likely cheat (this is what they always do) and can walk from the agreement at any moment. However, as long as it holds, the advance of the nuclear and missile program will be slow: you cannot do much without regular testing.
If the program continues unhindered, it will bring even more threats. The North Koreans are likely to develop a solid fuel ICBM which can be ready for launch in minutes, they are likely to manufacture thermonuclear warheads, far more powerful than warheads they currently have, and they will sooner or later find ways to counter missile defense systems, whose ability to intercept ICBMs is doubtful anyway. Last but not least, they will also increase the number of the missiles at their disposal, and improve their design.
U.S. decision makers face a bad choice, but if they do nothing now, the future is likely to be even grimmer. It is time to act, not to engage in showmanship. It is a serious crisis.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: North Korea — Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games) by (stephan) on 2007-08-01 20:54:33