North Korea’s recent nuclear test, accompanied by July’s ICBM launches and Friday’s additional Hwasong-12 test, have confirmed that U.S.-led efforts from the international community have been largely unsuccessful. This, predictably, raises questions about what to do next. More of the same, or something new?
When it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue, the official position of the United States government has not changed much for nearly two decades, and in all probability, it’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.
From the official U.S. point of view, the only acceptable final outcome is the “complete, irreversible and verifiable and denuclearization” of North Korea.
This position is understandable, but it has one very serious shortcoming: it has been unrealistic from the very beginning and became completely unrealistic after the first North Korea nuclear test of 2006. This author, back in 2009 published an article (rather academic, I would admit) under the title “Why the United States will have to accept a nuclear North Korea.”
FACING THE FACTS, SLOWLY BUT SURELY
Back then, such a claim was somewhat of a heresy, but it seems that in the last two or three years, an understanding of the sad and, frankly, quite dangerous reality is beginning to settle in U.S. policy circles.
In this regard, it was quite remarkable that none other than the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last year: “a denuclearized North Korea, I would love to see it, but I don’t think it’s on the cards.” In these comments, he echoed what is seen as common knowledge by mid-ranking bureaucrats and analysts in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence community of the United States.
However, if denuclearization is a dead end and this sad reality is increasingly understood in Washington, what is the alternative? The answer is simple but rather disconcerting: the only alternative is a freeze of the North Korean nuclear program.
Such an idea was proposed by former director of the Los Alamos Laboratories, Siegfried Hecker, as early as 2008. For a long time, it has been advocated by a number of other people, including yours truly. There are some variables what we mean when we say “freeze deal”, but on balance, proponents mean an agreement through which the North Korean side will restrain from conducting further nuclear and missile tests in exchange for political concessions and financial aid from the United States and other parties.
The only alternative is a freeze of the North Korean nuclear program
Of course, it is politically impossible to be excessively frank about such a plan, as the admission that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state would damage international non-proliferation efforts and bring about a tidal wave of virtue signaling behavior from U.S. hard-liners, including many legislators.
To cushion these problems, a freeze deal will have to be presented as merely the “first step on the long and winding road to North Korea’s denuclearization” which will surely happen at some point in a rather distant future.
So far, the idea of a freeze, while widely discussed among the mid-level officials, remains a taboo at the higher levels of the U.S. bureaucracy. This is vital: this is exactly the levels where such decisions have to be made.
NORTH KOREA WILL LIKELY CHEAT
This author is skeptical about the immediate prospects of a freeze. It will take some time (probably, years) before U.S. decision makers get over their natural tendency to deny the unpleasant truth. Nonetheless, serious discussion of a freeze as a theoretical possibility has already begun, and numerous opponents of this idea have already made good arguments about what is problematic about such a plan.
Unfortunately, in spite of being a long-time proponent of the freeze idea, I cannot help but admit that many of their arguments are correct, but on balance, there are still valid reasons to accept the freeze solution as a deal which, while flawed and imperfect, is still better than its alternatives.
A freeze deal will have to be presented as merely the “first step on the long and winding road to North Korea’s denuclearization”
It is often stated, for example, that a freeze would allow the North Koreans to continue their work on nuclear and missile devices, and at the right moment, they will walk away from the agreement and test some new weapons – like they have done so many times.
This is a fair argument: even though a freeze agreement should include as tough monitoring regimes as possible, few reasonable people would have much doubt about both the North Koreans’ willingness to cheat and their ability to outsmart international monitors.
There is little doubt that, in spite of the agreement, the North Korean engineers and scientists will continue their work, striving to increase the lethal power of their weapons.
However, there is one crucial difference between a freeze scenario and its alternatives: if a freeze is implemented, the speed of the North Korean nuclear and missile development will decrease dramatically. One cannot successfully develop sophisticated technology without testing it regularly. This is especially applicable to a country like North Korea, which likely has serious problems with computer simulations and has only a small amount of raw data necessary for such studies.
So even if the North Korean engineers prepare detailed blueprints for their future missiles and nuclear devices, it will remain unknown how well these designs are going to work in real life. As long as the freeze agreement holds, all technological advances can be called into question.
It is often argued that the North Koreans could walk away from an agreement at any time. This is clearly true but, once again, every year they prefer to spend ostensibly honoring the conditions of the freeze agreement will mean a year when their nuclear and missile development will be less efficient and much slower. This is a way to buy time, it is true, but with no immediate solution in sight (at least as long as we are talking about the near future), it is better to stall the program as much as possible.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
One has to admit realistically that there is little, if any, chance that the North Korean government will accept an agreement before it reaches its stated goal: the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets in the continental United States. However, once the necessary ICBMs are developed, tested and partially deployed, it will be time to make a deal.
If this deal is not made – perhaps because the North Koreans will not find American concessions good enough or because the United States will see the necessary concessions as excessive and bow to firebrand domestic ideologues – the DPRK will continue its development and the situation will become even worse.
Indeed, if a freeze agreement is not reached in the next few years, it is likely to have quite unpleasant consequences for both international stability and security of the United States as well as other interested parties.
On balance, there are still valid reasons to accept the freeze solution as a deal which, while flawed and imperfect, is still better than its alternatives
To start with, it is quite likely that the North Koreans will work hard on a thermonuclear device, traditionally known as an ‘H-bomb’. Indeed, there are reliable indicators that the North Korean scientists and engineers are already working on such weapons. If they have such a thermonuclear device, much more powerful than what they have now, it will partially compensate for the major problem their missile systems face: low precision.
Another surprise, to quote Kim Jong Un’s recent public promise to deliver “a lot of surprises to the United States,” is likely to be a solid propellant ICBM. The Hwasong-14, their recently tested ICBM, uses liquid fuel, and therefore it takes a significant amount of time to prepare it for launch. The TEL moving the missile also has to always be accompanied by two large tankers, one moving the necessary fuel and another one moving the oxidizer.
Such a motorcade is rather easy to spot, and the ten or twenty minutes it normally takes to fuel a missile before launch might become decisive, given the U.S. command of the air. A solid propellant missile, on the other hand, can be launched within a couple of minutes of an order being issued.
PROGRESS STILL TO COME
Currently, North Korean solid fuel missiles have a range slightly in excess of 1000 km –enough to threaten Tokyo or Busan, but not enough to become a threat even to Guam, let alone the continental U.S.
The North Koreans don’t make a secret of their plans to improve this. It is not incidental that a recent trip by Kim Jong Un to a factory producing solid fuel for missiles was so heavily advertised in North Korean media. This publicity was meant to be a hint to the world on what we should expect – and a solid fuel ICBM will become far more difficult to locate and destroy before launch.
Third, the North Koreans are likely to work on various ways to outsmart American antimissile systems. One of the possible ways is to develop a payload warhead with multiple warheads (MIRV), but they could limit themselves to learning how to equip warheads with decoys. Such decoys will create additional difficulties for the U.S. anti-missile systems, making a successful interception of a North Korean missile even less likely.
Every year they spend ostensibly honoring the conditions of the freeze agreement will mean a year when their nuclear and missile development will be less efficient
Finally, the North Koreans are not going to stop work on submarine-based ballistic missiles (SLBM). They have recently made some significant success in this direction. So if a freeze agreement is not reached and the North Korea nuclear and missile development continues unhindered, in due time, they will be able to keep a couple of submarines patrolling the waters near the coast of California and ready to shoot at the first order.
All this means that the alternative to a possible freeze is to sit down and try to influence North Korea via the sanctions regime. Perhaps, sanctions and associated tough talks are necessary for the domestic audience, but they utterly useless when it comes to influencing the behavior of North Korea.
Therefore, while U.S. legislators show off their rhetoric skills and engage in virtue signaling, passing one tough (and useless) sanctions legislation after another, we will watch the North Korean engineers and scientists produce more and more dangerous missiles which will be more and more difficult to intercept or locate, and which will also be able to deliver much more powerful strikes to their targets.
Is this a suitable option? The answer is no, even though the present author’s long personal experience indicates that it will take some time before American decision-makers realize what’s really going on. By that time, it might be already too late.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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