Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?



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Reuters/Toru Hanai

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following soon after a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.

While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.

On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.

The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.

Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.

Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.

Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.

The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.

Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US



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North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner where the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test confirms it is very close to perfecting a miniaturised warhead for deployment on its missile delivery systems. The 6.3 magnitude seismographic reading registered by the test blast is approximately ten times more powerful than that recorded from its nuclear test in September 2016.

There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which US power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test. Let’s walk through the possible scenarios.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


War

If the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis responded to the latest test with a threat of an “effective and overwhelming military response”. This is the kind of rhetorical overreach that is undermining US regional standing under the Trump administration.

There are high risks in any military action against North Korea. There are essentially no good options for compelling it with force. As recently departed White House adviser Steve Bannon said:

There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.

The US loses in any war scenario, even though its combined military forces with South Korea would inevitably win such a conflict.


Further reading: Attacking North Korea: surely Donald Trump couldn’t be that foolish


Squibbing it

If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gifts China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia.

America’s northeast Asian alliances, particularly with South Korea, will be challenged regardless of what Donald Trump does next.

North Korea’s nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles increase the risk to the US of defending South Korea and Japan in the event of war. This undermines their governments’ faith in America’s security guarantee. It does not help that the Trump administration has been slow to fill the ambassadorial roles to South Korea and Japan.

Any military action that leads to an escalation to war risks a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, and missile strikes on other targets in South Korea, Japan and further afield.

North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. US alliances with South Korea and Japan would come under great stress if they were attacked, given that those alliances are in place to prevent such an occurrence.

Sanctions

If sanctions continue to be ineffectual, North Korea completes its end-run to having a deployable nuclear weapons capability.

This outcome undermines the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons development weakens this system by serving as an example to other would-be proliferators that they can develop nuclear weapons without any meaningful consequences – the ineffectual economic sanctions regime notwithstanding.

This outcome will also demonstrate that the US cannot prevent a determined nuclear proliferator from undermining its nuclear hegemony.

Nuclear monopoly, underpinned by the limit on the number of countries with nuclear weapons built into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is one of the pillars underpinning US global power. The “nuclear shadow” cast by countries with nuclear weapons provides them with greater leverage in dealing with the US and narrows America’s menu of choice for exercising power.

Trade war with China

If the US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.

Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. This is a not-so-veiled message to China, North Korea’s largest trade partner.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doubled down on this proposition. He claimed his department was working on a sanctions package that would strangle “all trade and other business” with North Korea.

There have also been calls to urge China to embargo crude oil deliveries to North Korea to further squeeze the Kim regime.

However, the US consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US$463 billion worth of goods. As Hillary Clinton pointed out while secretary of state, China has enormous leverage over the US as its largest creditor.

Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea.

Nuclear freeze

In the unlikely event that the US negotiates a nuclear freeze with North Korea, it simply kicks the can down the road.

When we strip back the ritualised tough talk that regional leaders routinely articulate after North Korean provocations, and the inane repetition of the meme that diplomacy equates to “appeasement”, talking to North Korea may be the least-worst option forward.

The Kim regime may agree to a nuclear weapons development and production freeze, or a missile testing moratorium to buy time.

But given the importance of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development) to his domestic legitimacy, and North Korea’s long history of coercive bargaining tactics in which it engineers crises to obtain concessions in exchange for de-escalation, this could only be a postponement of North Korea’s inevitable proliferation success.

The problem with the negotiation gambit is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway. and domestic political legitimacy.

A peace agreement

If the US sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged – and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate.

Another avenue for negotiations to progress may arise once North Korea has perfected and deployed its nuclear weapons capability.

At this time, North Korea may call on the US to negotiate a security guarantee and a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which remains technically alive since the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

But why would North Korea want to engage in such negotiations? It will have greater leverage in these negotiations when backed by a nuclear deterrent.

Yet such an agreement might be the least worrying option available to the Trump administration, given the unpalatability of other options. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea.

A marker of US decline

There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength.

Could current events on the Korean Peninsula represent America’s “Suez Crisis” moment? In 1956, Britain over-reached in its attempt to maintain a post-war imperial toehold in Egypt, exposing the chasm between its imperial pretensions of a bygone era and its actual power in the aftermath of the second world war.

The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s US is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of US decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As it launches another missile, we must realise there are no easy options for dealing with North Korea



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Reuters/KCNA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Here’s the script accompanied by a lot of bombast, signifying not much.

  • North Korea launches another missile – its 18th for the year and 80th since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011. This time it travels over Japan itself.

  • The “international community” expresses outrage. Australia echoes these imprecations – at a distance.

  • Meanwhile, US-South Korean war games proceed, according to schedule, on the Korean peninsula.

  • North Korea ignores the threats, and prepares for its next missile launch.

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Clearly, a “fire and fury” strategy is not working. The question then becomes: what are the alternatives?

Back in July, the Council on Foreign Relations provided a useful primer. In that post, the author referred to a proposal by Chinese delegates to a US–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington in June in which they advanced a two-step strategy based on previous remarks by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.

  • First, the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises (the twice-yearly ones now in progress) in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile development and testing.

  • Second, China would monitor North Korean compliance. Should North Korea infringe on such an agreement China would withhold economic benefits and security assurances.

In other words, China would have skin in the game – and perhaps, more to the point, risk losing diplomatic face if such a process faltered.

The above approach is not dissimilar from the one the Obama administration adopted in negotiations with Iran over a freeze on its nuclear program.

There was no single “big brother” standing in the wings to exert pressure on Iran. However, the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany contributed to a satisfactory – far from perfect – outcome. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program and subject itself to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has belittled the plan to such an extent that this makes it more difficult to arrive at a similar solution to the North Korean crisis.

Donald Trump himself has described the Iran agreement as the “the dumbest deal … in the history of deal-making”. This criticism is echoed by administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – although the US continues to certify Iran’s compliance each 90 days. Such is the febrile nature of American diplomacy these days.

As things stand, no amount of huffing and puffing by the Trump administration or its allies seems to have much effect on North Korea. The rogue state appears intent on engaging in a game of brinkmanship on an almost-weekly basis, thumbing its nose at round after round of UN sanctions and other measures designed to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

China has backed the latest round of sanctions and applied some of its own, but it is caught between its perceived obligations as a responsible international stakeholder and its more immediate concerns about stability on the Korean peninsula.

China displays legitimate anxiety about a conflict between the two Koreas spiralling out of control, destabilising East Asia in the process and, no doubt, causing a tidal wave of refugees to cross into China itself.

From China’s perspective, maintaining relative calm on the Korean peninsula is a number-one priority. This leaves aside other considerations like its usefulness to China of a divided Korea as a buffer against a US-Japanese-South Korean security bloc in East Asia.

These are all complex calculations made more so by Kim’s personality. Perhaps even more than his father and grandfather, he appears willing to push the limits of what the rest of the world – including China – might tolerate.

The Kim personality contributes to understandable alarm about risks involved in a game of bluff on the Korean peninsula, given the near-certainty of the annihilation of thousands if conflict erupted. There is no more potentially destructive and volatile corner of the world.

Among challenges for the international community in its dealings with North Korea is that country’s apparent imperviousness to sanctions – or, at least, its ability to withstand what are now four rounds of UN sanctions resolutions since 2006.

The Council on Foreign Relations writer makes the point that unlike oil-dependent Iran – which yielded eventually to international pressures, including sanctions against imports of Iranian crude – North Korea remains adept at exploiting loopholes in a sanctions regime. It lives with its isolation.

Each new round of missile tests, accompanied by further evidence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, should be prompting a searching review of options beyond hyperbolic threats detached from reality.

What’s required is a new approach that would draw on experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China would be a critical component of such a diplomatic offensive whose aim would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and place limits on its missile development.

The point is that where North Korea is concerned there are no easy options, simply ones that are less bad. Policymakers in the US and among its allies, including principally Japan and South Korea, should be resisting the temptation to grandstand.

The existing approach is not working. A military option does not exist, except in the minds of less rational players.

The ConversationIn any solution, China remains the gatekeeper.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.