The Buzz

The North Korea Nightmare Continues (And Only China Can Stop It)

As an aspirant nuclear state, North Korea is atypical in nearly every way. It is smaller, poorer, less technologically developed, more isolated, more highly militarized and more authoritarian.

North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on Friday September 9, ten years after it first demonstrated such a capacity. Its pace of development — an average of one test every two years — is quite slow compared to the experience of other aspiring nuclear states. This slow development rate is due in part to the limited stocks of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium available to Pyongyang. More generally, it indicates that acquiring a nuclear weapons capability has stressed North Korea’s economic, organisational, scientific and engineering capacities even more than was the case in other states that have travelled this road.

At an estimated 10 kilotons, this fifth test was the largest in terms of yield, but also quite typical of a basic fission device — the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 had an estimated yield of 12–15 kilotons.

Pyongyang has claimed major technological advances with each test. The fourth test, for example, was presented as confirmation that the DPRK had mastered the challenge of making a hydrogen bomb. This claim was downplayed as technically improbable and not supported by the modest yield of the test. The announcement accompanying the fifth test carefully specified that the device tested was a recently designed ‘nuclear warhead’. That term is intended to suggest that the device had the dimensions and weight needed to be delivered over long distances by a ballistic missile.

The DPRK’s efforts to develop the skills embodied in long-range ballistic missiles have intensified conspicuously in recent years. And, as with nuclear explosive devices, there can be no doubt that they have made important gains. In other words, although it has been an uneven and drawn-out process, North Korea is inching toward nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missiles.

This capability may, for some indeterminate time, be ragged and unreliable. And, together with concerns about the integrity of North Korea’s command and control arrangements, this could exacerbate political anxieties on all sides, making future crises even more dangerous and difficult to defuse.

It is tempting to see a great deal of theatrics in North Korea’s behaviour. Still, the fact is that Pyongyang has maintained its enmity of South Korea, Japan, and in particular, the United States with an intensity that almost defies comprehension.

Part of the tragedy of the Korean peninsula is that the foundation stone of this almost manic enmity is a fallacy. The use of military force in order to attempt to unify the peninsula as a socialist state was a considered decision taken by Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin in 1949. Mao Zedong ultimately made it three from the beginning of 1950. Despite the passage of 70 years, Moscow and Beijing still prefer not to contest the narrative emerging from Pyongyang that it all began with American aggression.

The enmities spawned by the Korean War were intensified and complicated because they fed into the still fresh memories of Japan’s invasions and occupations earlier in the century and, more vaguely, of regional animosities embedded over millennia. This logjam has defied decades of political initiatives, threats, confrontations and major shifts in the military and political balance of power within and around the Korean peninsula.

One might argue that this record suggests a stable status quo, supporting a North Korean strategy of patiently outlasting those with competing aspirations for the region. But the wiser course would focus on shaking this logjam loose.

The Korean peninsula has veered toward crisis and war on many occasions with a wide variety of actions providing the spark. It may be difficult to anticipate how the nuclear weapon factor will affect perceptions, anxieties and other parameters that determine how states behave in a crisis. But it would be folly to presume that nuclear weapons will consolidate stability. This could be especially true of a marginal and immature nuclear capability under less than robust command and control arrangements.

Shaking the logjam will require multiple shocks. Challenging Pyongyang’s narrative along the lines suggested above will be necessary. China must be persuaded to more directly and transparently put nuclear non-proliferation at least on par with its other strategic aspirations for the Korean peninsula. States should draw on the provisional agreement that emerged from the Six-Party Talks in September 2005 to give more prominence to the package that could lead away from the present stalemate.

China holds the key to transformative change in the Korean equation. But shaking the Korean logjam is tantamount to reaching a broad and enduring understanding with the United States on how the Asian order is going to work over the foreseeable future. How close Beijing and Washington might be to such an understanding is another question.

This first appeared in East Asia Forum here.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.