North Korea’s nuclear arms programs represent perhaps the sternest security challenge facing the global community. They cost Pyongyang scarce economic resources and erode any lingering international goodwill, while infuriating the United States and vexing key ally China. Yet the impoverished state’s aim in pursuing these costly programs is unclear; even experts are divided over Pyongyang’s rationale.
There are three broadly recognized theories – not mutually exclusively – for the development. The first is that they are a deterrent, protecting the regime against external attack. The second is that are designed to fracture the South Korea-US alliance, leaving Seoul at Pyongyang’s mercy. The third, most alarming, theory, is that they are designed for actual use. Question marks also hang over whether Pyongyang might proliferate.
How do these theories stack up?
The defensive theory: Deterrence and regime survival
Following the collapse of European communism, North Korea did not reform or open, as did China and Vietnam. Instead, facing a more powerful competing state and ideological foe in South Korea, backed by its mighty US ally, Pyongyang withdrew ever deeper into isolation and paranoia. North Korean media also makes clear that states which give up nuclear arms – such as Libya and Ukraine – are vulnerable to attack. Given these factors, possession of nuclear arms and related delivery systems underwrite regime survival – widely assumed to be the foremost priority in Pyongyang – by threatening an attacker with MAD, or mutually assured destruction.
“North Korea had two paths to choose after the collapse of the USSR: One was the path of economic reform, but if applied, that would have made the regime outdated and useless,” said Myong-hyun Go of Seoul’s Asan Institute. “So, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il probably figured that becoming a nuclear state would be the ultimate guarantee of regime survival.”
Moreover, nuclear arms grant North Korea something the decrepit state – home to a personality cult that grants colossal “face” to leader Kim Jong-un – otherwise lacks: international relevance. “If you are a nuclear power, you automatically have an invitation to the table,” Go said. “Even if you detest them, it would be irresponsible of South Korea or the United States not to invite North Korea to talks.”
The offensive theory: Detaching the US from South Korea
Others, however, suggest that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal grants is a key advantage over South Korea – a country with double the population, and an economy that is 30-40 times the size of the North’s. “I believe that the core reason is inter-Korean relations”, said Choi Jin-wook, a research fellow at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University. “Without South Korea, they don’t have to develop nuclear weapons. The nature of inter-Korean relations is confrontation: absorption, attack, collapse”.
This makes North Korea’s program more than defensive. To disempower non-nuclear Seoul, Pyongyang must drive a wedge between Seoul and the provider of its nuclear umbrella – Washington. “The Kim regime is concerned about its survival, but the threat comes from its own people who may demand a better system, and their desires would emerge by looking next door in South Korea – thus, the existence of South Korea is a grave threat to the Kim regime,” said Tara O, an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. “Eliminating South Korea is the key to the regime’s survival, but there’s something in the way: The South Korea-US alliance.”
By forcing America to focus more on its own defence that South Korea’s, the alliance could be cracked. “This aspect of deterrence may be the number one purpose of nukes,” said Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.” “To tell the US: ‘You protect South Korea – we bomb Chicago’.” O agrees. “North Korea has been, and will continue to try to sever the alliance, remove US troops and dominate the entire peninsula by not just force – it tried with the Korean War of 1950-53 – but also through subversion,” she said. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is designed to leverage the US away from South Korea with nuclear blackmail.”
Conservatives fear that this strategy is maximally effective with a left-leaning administration in power in Seoul and a right-leaning administration in Washington – the case today. A breach could open between both parties if the US launches a pre-emptive attack – something Seoul is firmly against. But if Washington disengages, Pyongyang faces another issue. “If US troops leave South Korea, Pyongyang will face a dilemma whether to communize the South by force or open up and become capitalist like the South,” said Leonid Petrov of Australia National University.
But there could be a midway strategy. Washington withdraws; Pyongyang lures the weakened South into some form of confederation; then implements a creeping takeover wielding both nationalistic carrots and atomic sticks. And there is an even more worrisome scenario.
The nightmare scenarios: Weapons of use and proliferation
While for Cold War-era NATO and Warsaw Pact – and arguably for today’s India and Pakistan – the nuclear concept was broadly “no first-use” due to the likelihood of MAD, North Korea may be more willing to use atomic arms.
A high-level defector recently told foreign reporters that North Korea’s nuclear force would be willing to vaporize one or more South Korea cities to force the country’s surrender. This belief is backed by Martin’s interviews with North Korean military defectors. “My sense has been and is that they would use weapons of mass destruction in the conquest of South Korea if they thought they could get away with it,” he said.
However, such use would be precluded by first detaching the US. “They are willing to use nuclear weapons but not as a first strike, as they know that would invite massive retaliation, and against the US, any nuclear arsenal they grow will be minuscule,” said Go. Yet, if conflict erupted while the US was still in the game, nuclear arms may deter US reinforcements – hence threats against Japan and Guam. “It is a weapon of denial,” said Go. “This is a little bit of a more active idea than just possession.”
This explains Pyongyang’s testing of not only Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which can reach the United States, but also Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs).“They are obsessed with delivery capabilities,” said Go. “IRBMs are for denial; ICBMS are for strategic parity.” And if regime survival was at stake, Pyongyang would go critical. “If attacked, the North would use its arsenal without reservations,” said Petrov.
With North Korea heavily sanctioned, poverty-struck and desperate for hard cash, some worry that Pyongyang might sell nuclear technologies. “North Korea certainly would proliferate nuclear weapons and technology for foreign currency,” said O. Still, selling atomic materials to non-state actors is a red line even Pyongyang might hesitate to cross, said Go. “The Chinese would be upset as the only terrorists with the money to buy a nuclear device are Islamic terrorists, and China have their own Islamic insurgency in West China; the Europeans would be concerned and the Russians too,” said Go. “I think they will not proliferate nuclear technology, though they might proliferate missile technology.”
No way out?
Some speculate that once Kim has enough reliable delivery systems to survive US strikes and to US breach missile defense systems, and enough fissile materials to arm them, he may negotiate. But while he may be willing to offer an atomic testing freeze, a missile test moratorium and/or international oversight of his fissile stockpile, no expert believes he will completely denuclearize.
Doing so would undermine his own policy, while his grandfather Kim Il-sung was associated with “juche” (self reliance) and his father Kim Jong-il with “songeun” (military first), Kim’s most noted line is “byungjin” (simultaneous development of the economy and nuclear arms). Hence, there is “not a chance” of denuclerization, said John Nillson-Wright of London’s Chatham House. “The Libyan lesson is overwhelming, and to become non-nuclear would undermine the byungjin line and Kim’s own legitimacy at home.”
And Kim, a third-generation dictator facing no electoral timetable and no known opposition to his rule, is playing the long game. “His time frame is longer than ours,” said Go. “That does not mean the next election – it could be a decade from now.”