Written by Liang Tuang Nah.

Recently, analysis has concentrated on whether North Korea’s entry into the club of nuclear weapons states is inevitable, and whether it must be recognised as such in international relations, according it the same status and legitimacy as other powers such as India, Pakistan and Israel. While the former might be true for the foreseeable future, the latter is certainly contestable and for the survival of global nuclear non-proliferation norms, must never be acquiesced to.

Previous loose enforcement of sanctions and their lack of severity have meant the DPRK has been able to cross the technological threshold of acquiring long range ballistic missile technology, and the ability to manufacture functional high yield nuclear warheads, as evident from Pyongyang’s claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb on 3rd September.

Even as the North Korean nuclear crisis seems intractable, dispassionate analysis reveals two outcomes. One involves eventual bottom-up pressure to denuclearise. The other ends with the eventual collapse of the Kim regime, attendant instability, and regrettable bloodshed.   

Thus, any serious belated attempts to directly stymie the North Korean missile and nuclear programmes, or inhibit the North’s economy to indirectly deprive the programmes of funding will not work. Arguably, the Kim regime has access to enough resources to build a nascent nuclear arsenal of a few dozen nuclear tipped missiles comprising an assortment of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs), and medium ranged Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). However, if the international community refuses to grant Pyongyang the legitimised nuclear recognition that Kim Jong-un craves, a basic nuclear deterrent will be the DPRK’s only possession of note.

So what if the North has nukes?

According to Kim’s Byungjin national strategy, he aims for both nuclear munitions as well as economic prosperity. As the DPRK has neither the regional strategic significance (as India and Pakistan do), nor a network of supportive great power friends (as Israel does), Byungjin is slated to fail, given that the international community will not acquiesce to North Korean ownership of nuclear arms or let it participate in the international economy. Hence, despite Pyongyang’s pride at maintaining the ultimate weapon in the form of nuclear armaments, the North still faces and will continue to face poor economic prospects and stunted development for most of its people.

Assuming that all current United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanction resolutions from 2006 onwards are strictly enforced, North Korea has already been banned from importing military products, luxury goods and items related to its nuclear and missile programmes. Additionally, the DPRK’s lucrative exports such as gold, vanadium, titanium, rare earth metals, along with more mundane minerals like coal, iron, copper, nickel, zinc, lead and silver have been declared internationally forbidden. Lastly, the UNSC decreed that the North be excluded from the global financial system and further tightened the economic thumbscrews by prohibiting textile and seafood exports, along with capping the petroleum supply to the DPRK and stopping the Kim regime from sending more North Koreans to work overseas. Even if unilateral national sanctions are not considered, it is difficult to envisage how Kim Jong-un can encourage economic development via official diktat.

Under such economically isolated conditions, a strong case can be made that North Korea will end up a stagnating entity, left in the dust as its economically vibrant southern cousin grows from strength to strength, whilst even other nominally communist countries such as Vietnam and Laos eclipse it in absolute material advancement. In this context, Pyongyang’s nuclear munitions would be a cold comfort, as they would not have won it any legitimacy, not have compelled Western and Western aligned adversaries to normalise relations, and most importantly, not ameliorated Pyongyang’s security anxiety. Arguably all that North Korean nuclear missiles do is deter a US-backed South Korean invasion. As this is extremely improbable, and the use of Pyongyang’s arsenal is similarly deterred by the US’s vastly larger and superior nuclear capabilities, the Kim regime’s “nukes” would effectively be neutralised as de facto white elephants.

Two Outcomes: Internal Collapse or Explosion

With its basic nuclear deterrent and enduring pariah status, the Kim regime might have bought itself a measure of regime security in the short term, but could well face the highly probable prospect of internal collapse in the long run. Assuming that UNSC sanctions remain strictly enforced and are tightened with each and every new missile or nuclear provocation from Pyongyang, the North Korean economy would face ever more dismal prospects. Coupled with economic mismanagement and a penchant for showcase construction projects which consume resources but yield little returns, the DPRK’s official economy would muddle along at best and likely face shrinkage, as has happened in recent years.

All this would not be a threat to Kim if the North existed in a vacuum, but the hermit kingdom, despite its best efforts, cannot insulate itself from external news and influences. Whether by South Korean loudspeaker broadcasts from across the demilitarised zone, helium balloons tethered to packages containing hard currency and other contraband released by southern activists in the direction of the North, or thumb drives filled with South Korean drama serials played on smuggled video players, external news and information is increasingly filtering its way through to the North Korean masses. While such influences would merely contribute to the ROK’s benign soft power in otherwise open societies, they serve to seriously disrupt the socialist “workers’ paradise” narrative promoted by Pyongyang. As such, when ordinary North Koreans realise that they have been kept in economic stasis, that the result of their backwardness is due to the Kim family’s incompetence and nuclear pursuits, and that Kim Jong-un cannot fulfil their aspirations and is not to be venerated, demands for drastic policy changes or even political change from the DPRK’s grassroots could well be irresistible. In such a milieu, Pyongyang might be far more willing to negotiate denuclearisation in order to gain re-admittance to the global economy and avert regime collapse. Alternatively, leadership change could de-emphasise nuclear deterrent centrality and lead to disarmament.

Such an evolutionary path to nuclear abnegation is by no means assured. If knowledgeable analysts are able to forecast the eventual demise of the Kim regime, it is safe to presume that Jong-un can read the tea leaves too. If he decides not to metaphorically “go quietly into the night”, the region will likely witness much instability and a horrific conflict.

Upon realising that the international community and the US in particular is not going to accord his state with the dignity and acceptance that the PRC received in the 1970s, Kim might well decide to engage in progressively bolder and more antagonistic military adventurism beyond anything previously attempted, as a form of coercive bargaining to encourage diplomatic flexibility towards the DPRK. Such destabilising provocations could include:

  • Conducting a “live fire” test of a nuclear tipped missile into international waters by firing such a missile over Japan and detonating the warhead over the Pacific Ocean.
  • Firing non-nuclear tipped IRBMs into the waters off Guam, just out of the 12 nautical mile limit of U.S. waters.
  • Attempting to or successfully shooting down U.S. aircraft in international airspace off the North’s coast.
  • Sending covert special forces teams into ROK territory to violently disrupt annual US-ROK joint military exercises.
  • Using conventional anti-ship missiles to attack U.S. and/or ROK ships in international waters.
  • Using deep cover sleeper agents to launch terrorist attacks disrupting the 2018 winter Olympic games in South Korea.
  • Selling nuclear technology to rogue states or even terrorists.

Pyongyang has already issued the first three as threats in recent months while the latter four form plausible scenarios given the Kim regime’s penchant for state initiated violence and terrorism.

With hawkish leaders or presidents needing to portray their strength in Seoul and Washington, all of the aforesaid actions form sufficient justification to authorise retaliatory military force against North Korea. In this regard, Jong-un would have seriously miscalculated, and US-ROK joint action will re-ignite the dormant Korean War, with the inevitable loss of at least hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers on both sides. That this will mean the end of the Kim regime and the destruction of its nuclear and missile programme will be a poor consolation.             

The Road Ahead

If the international community wishes to uphold the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and will not capitulate to the Kim regime’s grand strategy, it is obvious that a quick resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is impossible. However, if the determination and patience to maintain ironclad economic pressure, and the grim fortitude to persecute a military solution to Pyongyang’s violent adventurism exists, we may yet see a denuclearised Korean peninsula.

Liang Tuang Nah is a Research Fellow with the Military Studies Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Image Credit: CC by UNC – CFC – USFK/Flickr.

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