North Korea: Breaking The Impasse

Filed in Articles by on 3rd Sep 2017 6 Comments

North Korea has once again raised international tensions with its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. In Washington, President Donald Trump reacted quickly calling North Korea a rogue nation that continues to be hostile and dangerous to the United States. He also said “Appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing”. In August Trump vowed to stop North Korea if it didn’t stop its nuclear development. Describing the test as a “perfect success”, North Korea announced on state television that it had tested a hydrogen bomb designed for use on its new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Japanese and South Korean officials say the test registered as an earthquake about ten times more powerful than North Korea’s last nuclear test a year ago. North Korea’s test on the 5th of September 2016 registered 5.0 on the Richter Scale. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the quake at 6.3 suggesting that North Korea either has a hydrogen bomb or is close to one. A Norwegian agency that monitors earthquakes, NOSAR, estimates the yield of the underground explosion at 120 kilotonnes. That’s six to eight times the yield of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. There is no independent confirmation that the detonation was a hydrogen bomb. Other world leaders have also reacted to North Korea’s latest underground nuclear test. In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in said South Korea would push for new UN sanctions, and stronger steps to further isolate North Korea. Japan wants further restrictions on oil shipments to North Korea. China strongly condemned the nuclear tests, and called on North Korea to end its “wrong actions.” Great Britain and Germany have called for stronger sanctions against North Korea. In Paris, President Emmanuel Macron called on the international community to react firmly to North Korea’s “new provocation”. Russia warned that North Korea risked serious consequences, and called for restraint on all sides to avoid further escalation.

The underground test comes after Pyongyang conducted two missile tests in July. One of the missiles landed almost one thousand kilometres away in the Sea of Japan. North Korea then claimed its missiles could reach the United States. International experts are divided. Some say the altitude and distance of the missile shows North Korea can hit the US. Others say North Korean missiles can only reach the US if they use payloads lighter than Pyongyang is able to produce. To reach the United States, a missile would have to travel in a long arc that would take it into space. A warhead on the missile would then have to survive re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. So far, none of North Korea’s tests has revealed such a capacity. Developing a hydrogen bomb would give North Korea a lighter warhead. It’s not the first time North Korea has claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb. The first such test was on the 6th of January 2015. Monitoring stations from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation were unable to say with clarity that a hydrogen bomb was detonated.

Thermo-nuclear bombs

The tests on the 3rd of September 2017 had a higher yield. A Washington-based physicist says this high a yield “would likely require thermonuclear material”. David Albright, who is also founder of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security, questions whether the detonation came from a two-stage nuclear bomb, or used fissile material to create a larger explosion. North Korea maintains it was a two-stage thermonuclear explosion. A hydrogen bomb uses a primary atomic bomb to trigger a second much larger explosion. The first stage splits atoms by using nuclear fission, the second by nuclear fusion. Chang Young-keun of the Korea Aerospace University says that creates fast neutrons, which then bombard the uranium inside the bomb. This causes an explosion hundreds of times greater. North Korea’s official news agency also mentioned the possibility of detonating a bomb in the atmosphere to create an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. That would create a power surge, crippling the US electric grid.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It has been stated repeatedly that the 1950-53 Korean War ended with the signing of a truce, not a peace treaty, and that the two Koreas are still technically at war. North Korea regularly threatens to attack the south, and its main ally, the United States. The accumulation of tests and failed efforts over the years shows that North Korea is focused on becoming a full nuclear power so it can defend itself against US aggression. After years of international efforts at the six-party talks (North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States) and little lasting progress to show for it, the political and public mood has turned from despair to fear and anger.

There appear to be three options: the use of conventional military force, containment, and diplomacy. The worst thing about the situation at the moment is lack of clarity. The sense of not knowing how far a person will go, or when, can be unnerving and provocative underlining the need for strong, steady, informed leadership. It’s difficult to know if President Trump is playing to his supporters, or simply letting Americans know that he is aware of the situation, and looking for a solution. His words may be meant as an ultimatum to force China or Russia to rein in Kim Jong-un, otherwise he will. Trump might be hinting at possible options, and watching to see how people react to his words. Phrases such as “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, and “they only understand one thing” may seem clear and strongly suggest a military option. However, given the consequences, they leave little room for other options.

It is increasingly common to see media reports alluding to Kim Jong-un as being irrational. Accepting such a phrase assumes that it’s pointless to talk with him because he only understands force. Such a phrase quickly leads to talk of “pre-emptive strike”. People reveal their frustration, fear and anger with such phrases. Such talk may help a person feel justified, but it blinds people to the real cost of such action. Conventional warfare is likely to trigger a nuclear conflict resulting in the death of millions of people in the Korean Peninsula, possibly along North Korea’s border with China, and certainly in Japan. Attacking a country that has devoted itself to acquiring nuclear arms to the detriment of its own people does not seem a wise option.

On the surface, a non-military option such as containment appears to be better than a pre-emptive strike. Using the South Korean, US, Chinese, Russian, and Japanese militaries to enforce more sanctions is decidedly less drastic than nuclear conflict. However, years of sanctions have not prevented North Korea from acquiring nuclear technology. At times sanctions have seemingly worked. In September 1999, Pyongyang agreed to continue high-level talks with Washington, and to suspend long-range missile tests for the duration of the talks. In return, the United States promised it would partially lift economic sanctions on North Korea. Nine months later in June 2000 North and South Korea agreed to work on reunification. They also agreed to economic and cultural exchanges, and to reunite families divided by the Korean War. The United States responded by relaxing sanctions. This enabled greater trade in commercial and consumer goods, easier investment, and direct personal and commercial transactions. A day later North Korea reaffirmed its moratorium on missile tests. That same month, a US National Intelligence Estimate said that North Korea would most likely develop a missile that could carry a warhead to the United States mainland by 2015.

What Does Kim Jong-un Want?

The third option, diplomacy, requires knowing what Kim Jong-un wants. Looking at the recent history of North Korea reveals a fair amount of information. Kim Jong-un spent his early years in power by getting rid of potential rivals. That suggests that he considers his personal security as a way to not only stay in power, but to maintain stability in the country. Like his father before him, Kim Jong-un has consistently worked to acquire nuclear capability as a deterrent to US aggression. Such capability would also enable North Korea to command more respect in the rest of the world. Looking at the United States from the North Korean point of view, only Washington can end North Korea’s economic isolation, gradually letting it reduce its dependence on China so it can establish relations with other countries.

To list all the various stages of talks, advances, retreats, successes and failures between North Korea and the United States over the past few years would fill several pages. However, in going through North Korea’s history of nuclear tests, sanctions and brinksmanship with the west, it is clear that North Korea has a sense of Realpolitik. It knows what it wants, and plays hard to get it. Diplomacy is a chess game at the best of times. In the case of North Korea, the game reveals an almost pathological need to obtain what it wants. In true cat and mouse style, North Korea has surprised the west on several occasions with an unexpected willingness to negotiate. This was evident in efforts to work on reunification of the Korean Peninsula at the turn of the century. This reveals a desire to rebuild its economy, to establish a positive relationship with the rest of the world, provided it obtains certain things in return. The key to resolving such brinksmanship is to negotiate a face-saving way for both sides to let North Korea have access to the funding it needs to build its economy. By promoting positive links between North Korea and other countries, the establishment of commercial trade with other countries will end the need for North Korea to sell nuclear technology to such states as Iran, Yemen and Syria.

Diplomacy is not selling the farm for a few fancy baubles. Negotiation is willingness to lose certain things in exchange for an agreement that helps all sides. It means hard choices. Persuading North Korea to gradually phase out its nuclear programme and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement in return for long-term prosperity and eventual peace is far preferable to mistake-prone exchanges between Presidents Trump and Kim Jong-un. The west will have to set a good example by honouring its negotiated commitments. Without the threat of nuclear holocaust, negotiators can then make adjustments. North Korea might even be allowed the same “recessed deterrence” granted to its age-old nemesis Japan, that is, keeping the ability to build a nuclear weapon if other western states fail to honour their commitments. When the leaders of two countries each have their hands on their respective nuclear buttons, the question becomes who acts first. The alternative is for each to sit down at the same table and find a way to let the other have what it wants.


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Comments (6)

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  1. Derek Quinn says:

    Quick response to Ken’s comment: N Korea was member of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty from 1985 to 2003. In 1999 Clinton recognised Pyongyang’s desire for survival and economic benefits, and persuaded N Korea to give up its nuclear programme. However, they could not agree on verification procedures. In 2002 President George W Bush said ‘no verification, no agreement’. Shortly afterwards he branded N Korea as part of the “Axis of evil”. N Korea left the NPT and started its nuclear tests.

  2. cameron Macdonald says:

    Nicely written article. I agree with Brian insomuch as NK’s internal politics drive its behaviour as much as that of its external threats.

    Nuclear weapons are traditionally seen as deterrent, not offensive weapons, and I think Kim Jong-un and his leadership consider these weapons in this light.

    President Putin says harsher sanctions will not work. The North Koreans will eat grass before they give up their nuclear programme. He appreciates that the deterrent of nuclear weapons offers a sense of surety from all who seek Kim Jong-un’s downfall. The more the world—especially South Korea, the US, Japan, and now China—isolate this state, the more the deterrent is relied upon.

    We must accept this is a nation of nuclear arms that holds them as a deterrent for its own survival. In doing so, the objectives become containment, not de-nuclearisation; legitimisation, not regime change; nuclear stand-down, not nuclear readiness. The focus should be ratchet down the war footing, Mr. Trump. We have to consider Kim Jong-un and his military as rational. The US and other’s refusal to accept that a mouse should be allowed to roar is folly. The reality is this mouse will soon have the capability to roar, if not already, as a means to assure its own survival. We might not like the way this regime runs its affairs and treats its people, we might not like its policy towards a unified peninsula, we might not like its outbursts of rhetoric which it plays to a domestic audience, we might not like its military option of ‘attack me and I will assure you I will bring about great pain even if it brings about my own self destruction’, but this regime is the legitimate regime of this nation state. The alternative of war in this circumstance is not just.

  3. Derek Quinn says:

    Hello Brian. While Kim Jong-un pressures the United States in hopes of gaining funding to set up a more-open economy, he is also acting against China. North Korea’s underground nuclear test was ‘conveniently’ on the same day the BRICS annual conference opened in Beijing, stealing attention from President Xi. At the upcoming congress of China’s Communist Party Xi needs to be seen by the membership and Politburo as a strong leader so he can continue to play a strong hand in Chinese policy past a second five-year term. Being upstaged by North Korea does not help his cause.

  4. Ken Harrison says:

    A most informative article. I found your history of negotiations with North Korea very interesting. The only thing missing was what caused the pleasant relations with North Korea at the start of this century to come to a crashing end ? I do feel, however, that your thoughts about renewed negotiations at this time to be rather hopeless, considering the current comments by the U.S.

    Nikki Haley certainly pulled no punches in her speech Monday at the U.N. Security Council. Her comments on how all of the resolutions of the U.N. have not worked, how Kim-Jong-Un’s abusive use of missiles and his nuclear threats show he is begging for war, and how the suggested freeze for freeze is insulting in that when a rogue regime has an ICBM pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard.

    I consider the United Nations useless. The Security Council is hampered by the fact that several of the major powers have a veto. “Speeches” have become their agenda. “Results” are not part of their history. Kim-Jong-Un’s wrists must by now be aching and bleeding by all of the slaps on his wrist that he has received from the U.N. “Naughty, naughty, you must not do that again” after which he and his military advisors have probably gone running and laughing all the way to their launch pads.

  5. Brian Langis says:

    The world might actually work together on this one. Letting Kim Jong-un do his crazy thing sends the wrong message. The globe can exert a lot of pressure on him. Even China and Russia is siding with the U.S. and the rest of the world. I think China still has a role to play here. Tension between China and North Korea has been escalating for a over a year now. Maybe China will snap and “take care” of NK. China and North Korea are growing further apart by :
    1) NK refusing to denuclearize
    2) When the North Korean Workers’ Party held it’s 7th Congress in May 2016 – the first in over three decades – despite China being regarded as the country’s only official ally, no senior official from Beijing attended.
    3) China’s increasingly assertive behavior in Asia, most notably in the maritime arena, worries Kim Jong-un.
    4) Jong-un killed his older half-brother, who at one point was living in Beijing under the eye of Chinese authorities. NK worried they could use him as a replacement.
    5) President Xi Jinping’s engagement with North Korea marks a departure from his predecessors. Xi is reportedly not a huge fan of Kim Jong-un.

    Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and satellite launch have little to do with antagonizing the South or the West. These events, plus the reported execution of the country’s army chief (the uncle, 2nd in command), point to a high-stakes internal struggle that aims to loosen the military’s grip on an increasingly market-oriented economy. Kim is making changes to the government and military structure. Think of the North Korean army as the 800-pound gorilla holding the cookie jar. The army controls much of the country’s natural resources and assets. Release of these assets might ultimately bring a surge of economic development. As defender of the state and sovereign security, the military has long been an obstacle to structural change and real economic reform. This new shift – in essence, to establish power of the Party over the military – goes a long way to explaining the leadership’s push on nuclear and missile technological developments.

  6. Who knows what Kim Jong-un has in mind? But one thing about a bomb and a slingshot, they give you a lot of leverage. “Tell us what you want,” the neighbors say, “just put that thing away.”

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