Few countries intrigue and perplex like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Isolated by choice from the ebbs and flows of the international system, North Korea is an island of its own making. It is often painted as a weak, fearsome lunatic with delusions of grandeur and aspirations to become a nuclear power, but the truth is a little more complicated. Despite outward appearances, Pyongyang is not reckless in its ambition. Nor does it foolhardily invite destruction. It walks a fine line, hoping to quietly attain a credible nuclear deterrent without inciting world powers to take decisive action.
Deterrence has always been a part of North Korea's survival strategy. Pyongyang's calculated disarray is primarily for the benefit of potential aggressors, advising caution should provocation lead to a disproportionate response. Thriving on contradiction, Pyongyang simultaneously depicts itself as fragile to the point of collapse yet immeasurably strong. This act has served the Kim dynasty well, gaining concessions from major powers that normally would not have been afforded.
North Korea has a good read on the world's inability and unwillingness to respond, not only because of upcoming U.S. elections but also because of the risk of pre-emption: Pyongyang's conventional deterrent raises the cost of intervention far higher than it is at most other places. The window for a military option to stem Pyongyang's nuclear program is closing, but that does not necessarily mean a strike is more likely now than before. Still, the balance is delicate, and should Pyongyang overplay its hand, the repercussions could be catastrophic.
North Korea's biggest fear is to be coerced into a position of subservience, having to prostrate itself before China (its primary benefactor) or another powerful country.
Its carefully curated image of aggressive unpredictability is intended to preserve its authoritarian and regulated society and, as a result, its isolation. The North is unlikely to expose itself to the international community unless it can guarantee two things: the primacy and security of its leaders, and an effective military deterrent. And there are few deterrents as effective as nuclear weapons. Pyongyang's unswerving progress toward developing a nuclear capability reflects the singular obsession with which it chases its goals and why the West takes its threats seriously.
Being branded a rogue state by the United States did little to dampen the flame of juche, the ideology installed by Kim Il Sung and the epitome of Korean self-reliance. Juche effectively calls for North Korea to stand alone economically, militarily and on the world stage. North Korea began to act up again in 2010, in advance of another transition of power within the Kim family, sinking a South Korean naval vessel and launching artillery at a prominent border island. Then in 2013, the country threatened once more to withdraw from the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Under Kim Jong Un's tenure, North Korea has prioritized strategic weaponry over all else. Despite widespread condemnation from the international community, Pyongyang has actually accelerated its nuclear weapons program, for it sees a credible nuclear arsenal as the only guarantor against Western-imposed regime change.
A Generational Congress
All eyes were on North Korea for its 7th Workers' Party Congress at the beginning of May, the first such meeting in more than 35 years. It was also the first time Western journalists were invited en masse to attend, albeit with strict limitations and the ever-present threat of deportation. The congress served many purposes, not least of which was to consolidate and institutionalize Kim Jong Un's rule and move away from the informal lines of command and political fiefdoms that developed under the rule of his father. Shedding his previous title of first secretary, Kim was introduced as party chairman for the first time.
During his address on May 7, Kim was quick to point out the advances made by the country's nuclear weapons and missile programs. He singled out Pyongyang's burgeoning nuclear capability as the protective layer that will enable economic development, a concept known as byungjin. But considering that North Korea's nuclear aspirations have saddled the country with economic sanctions, the statement appears somewhat ironic. That said, the announcement of a five-year economic plan is telling: Kim is accepting the kind of responsibility once shouldered by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and solidifying his primacy at the head of the people's republic.
Pyongyang is optimistic to consider itself a nuclear power. A variety of tests and launches indicate that North Korea is assembling the constituent parts of a re-entry vehicle, but nothing decisively suggests that it has a fully functional nuclear ballistic missile. The country's fourth successful underground nuclear test was conducted Jan. 6, followed a month later by a satellite launch into orbit. This was trailed by ground tests of a rocket nose cone capable of withstanding atmospheric re-entry. Meanwhile, North Korean scientists proceeded with the controlled ignition of a solid rocket engine and, allegedly, the development of a miniaturized nuclear warhead.
On top of these nuclear stepping-stones were a number of ballistic missile tests, including the use of mobile land-based platforms and submarine launches, the latter theoretically within strike range of Guam and Japan. Though these tests included some failures — most notably three successive failures of the Musudan mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile system — they demonstrate clear progress in developing most of the individual segments of a viable nuclear deterrent. And North Korea's intent is to keep progressing until Pyongyang has a survivable weapon it can launch at short notice that will deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States.
In response, efforts by the international community seeking denuclearization of North Korea are falling short. Pyongyang's position is deliberately opaque, primarily because it is beneficial to keep the West uncertain as to North Korea's true capabilities. If the missile program's well-publicized failures can nonetheless create enough doubt in the minds of U.S. policymakers, it might be enough to defer any possible strike. If success is not assured in North Korea's nuclear program, is direct action justifiable? Yet, North Korea is coming late to the nuclear game, and the technologies it is pursuing are already decades old. For many strategists and speculators alike, it is simply a case of when, not if.
The key question then becomes: Can the United States afford to let Pyongyang cross the nuclear Rubicon? If the answer is no, then consideration must be given to the ways in which countries opposing North Korea, primarily the United States and South Korea, will use military force to neuter the nuclear program and impose compliance. The threat alone might be impetus enough for Pyongyang to take the final steps, as Stratfor's expert on North Korea, Rodger Baker, considers:
As Pyongyang approaches a viable nuclear weapon and delivery system, the pressure is rising for the United States and other countries to pre-empt it. Consequently, the final moments of North Korea's transition from a working program to a demonstrated system are the most dangerous, providing a last chance to stop the country from becoming a nuclear weapons state. For North Korea, then, these final steps must happen quickly. Because 2016 is a presidential election year in the United States, Pyongyang may feel it has a window to finalize its nuclear arms program while the United States is preoccupied with domestic politics and unlikely to take military action. Furthermore, having just held parliamentary elections and facing a presidential contest in 2017, South Korea, too, is in the midst of political transition. North Korea is making a gamble, one that bets both on its read of U.S. politics and on its own ability to overcome technological hurdles.
This is the cost calculation faced by policymakers in the United States and South Korea as they consider a political decision that could lead to military action. The United States is the singular military power that has both the intent and the capability to conduct such an operation and would naturally take the lead. Washington has also been branded a target for North Korean aggression, along with Seoul and Tokyo.
In the coming installments, we will examine the options available to the United States and its allies should they decide to act militarily against North Korea. We will also consider, in turn, the nature of any retaliation or counterstrike by Pyongyang. The focus here is on offensive action rather than diplomacy, though it is important to note that Washington does not make decisions lightly or in isolation. Though political will must drive military intent, the opportune time for offensive action is rapidly running out. This, theoretically, makes the final stages of Pyongyang's nuclear program the most risky — it is clear the North is nearing the final steps, and once it has a viable nuclear weapon, it is too late for Washington to intervene. These are the waning moments for any practical intervention.
As North Korea inches ever closer to developing a viable nuclear weapon, the next installment of this series will consider where and what the United States and its allies would need to strike to neutralize Pyongyang's nuclear program.