Dealing with Pyongyang


As the only country to conduct nuclear tests in the last 17 years and maintain an active nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, North Korea is a country of global concern. Its latest nuclear test highlights two truths. First, the failure to achieve nuclear disarmament within a foreseeable time frame is a constant stimulus to regimes interested in getting the bomb. Second, each fresh proliferation incident renders nuclear abolition even more distant.

North Korea is the only country to have defected from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Its pursuit of nuclear weapons began in the 1960s, accelerated in the 1980s and led to its withdrawal from the NPT and the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework that had frozen Pyongyang’s nuclear program. It has made repeated commitments to abandon the weapons path in return for security assurances and economic assistance, shelved its nuclear ambitions temporarily and then broken its promises serially. Its 2006, 2009 and 2013 nuclear tests drew international condemnations and U.N.-mandated sanctions.

On Jan. 6, Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, which is a step up in destructive power that gives more explosive yield for a lighter weight. The 2006 and 2009 tests were plutonium-fueled; we do not know if uranium or plutonium was used in 2013. Until then Pyongyang was not believed to have mastered the technology to miniaturize warheads and make them robust enough to withstand the rigors of a ballistic missile flight trajectory (high gravity forces, vibrations, temperature extremes).

That calculation will have to be revised dramatically if the H-bomb claim and the development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile delivery capability (which Pyongyang says it tested last May) are confirmed. Although independent international experts are skeptical, Pyongyang has demonstrated both the determination and the technical expertise to make and test nuclear explosive devices.

We cannot be confident of leader Kim Jong Un’s motives. They could range from trying to ward off a genuinely feared threat to bolstering leadership credibility by projecting toughness, locking in support of the military, strengthening domestic cohesion and trying to extract economic concessions.

It is part of established theories of strategic deception to make your enemy believe you will act irrationally and vindictively when your vital interests are attacked. The unfavorable demographic, economic and alliance comparisons with Seoul intensify Pyongyang’s anxieties. Nuclear weapons can also serve as a hedge against U.S. attack: Would Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have suffered their horrible fates had they acquired deliverable nuclear weapons?

Most countries and peoples of the world are deeply concerned about the grave dangers posed by the bomb and engaged in efforts to eliminate these inhumane weapons. Pyongyang’s provocative actions increase regional and international tensions, and hamper efforts to reduce nuclear risks, minimize the numbers and role of nuclear weapons and eventually abolish them.

The world lacks realistic options for responding. U.N. Security Council condemnations have become so ritualized that they corrode the United Nation’s credibility as its demands are serially defied. The path of still more punitive sanctions and isolation seems to lead nowhere. Unilateral punitive measures are impractical because of China’s fault tolerance for Pyongyang.

Denuclearization may no longer be practical. An arms control “solution” would limit the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and put firm restrictions on its export and transfer policies: no addition to the nuclear arsenal; no more tests; no quality upgrades in sophistication of its bombs; and no export of nuclear or missile material, components or technology.

A strategy of deterrence worked against the formidable and powerful Soviet threat in the Cold War. We managed to live with thousands of nuclear weapons being added to the Soviet arsenal year after year; why should the sky fall if a few more bombs are built by North Korea? Because, some answer, North Korea is a “rogue regime.”

Such demonization has two negative consequences. It adds to the North’s paranoia and deepens its determination to enlarge its nuclear arsenal to complicate the calculus of anyone seeking regime change. And it makes it difficult for outsiders to craft political responses to the security dilemma or seek a reconciliation based on compromise and mutual accommodation.

The key to any solution is Beijing and China’s ability and willingness to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea. As a status quo power, China has a strategic stake in preventing the NPT from unravelling. Preserving North Korea as a territorial buffer remains a critical security goal. The worst possible outcome for Beijing would be a collapse or defeat of the North Korean regime causing a flood of refugees to stream across the border into China — Europe’s experience with Middle Eastern refugees is not reassuring. This would also bring South Korean and U.S. forces right up to China’s borders — precisely the trigger that provoked China to intervene in the Korean War in the 1950s in the first place.

That said, Pyongyang’s unpredictable, erratic and provocative behavior heightens regional instability, could provoke a preemptive U.S. strike on the North, strengthens U.S. alliances with Seoul and Tokyo, and raises demands in the latter two for getting their own bomb. This would nuclearize China’s neighborhood. The risk of an unwanted conflict that would undermine China’s development goals lies more in the possibility of miscommunication, misperception and miscalculation that could see the cycle of provocation and escalation spin out of control, than in a war by design.

It is no longer enough for China to support others’ efforts. Instead Beijing needs to step up to the plate and assume the burden of leading the world’s efforts to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile manufacture and export programs.

In the end, the only lasting solution to any regional nuclear proliferation crisis is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide under a universal, verifiable and enforceable international convention.

The moral outrage from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who between them possess 98 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, rings hollow. Nor can allies who shelter under the nuclear umbrella, including Australia and Japan, occupy the moral high ground. Anyone who insists on the utility for nuclear weapons in safeguarding national security but rejects that argument for North Korea betrays gross hypocrisy.

To many non-Western countries, the major Western powers seem addicted to bombing countries that cannot defend themselves and promoting regime change if the leaders refuse to kowtow to Washington’s dictates.

So the second key component of a nuclear-weapon-free world is abandonment of forcible regime change as a policy goal, which motivates fearful regimes to risk all in the quest for nuclear weapons. Given the record of the regime change policy thus far, this may not be much of a self-sacrifice. Political tensions and grievances are best addressed by political means, not by aggravating existing tensions and escalating an arms race (North Korea), nor by issuing hostile threats and engaging in bellicose behavior (U.S.).

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy and director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.