North Korea at the tipping point: why we’ve just seen a gamechanger on the Korean peninsula


There’s a reason analysts with a grim sense of humour call North Korea the Land of Lousy Choices. With diplomatic talks long stalled, and sanctions not having any apparent impact, the US's options seem to be narrowing: accept the reality of a nuclear armed North Korea, or fight a terrible war that would kill hundreds of thousands to stop that happening.

At the beginning of the northern summer, just three months ago, no one thought North Korea had a missile that could reach the United States.

That all changed on July 4 when North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, which could travel as far as Alaska. Weeks later, they tested another Hwasong-14,  with a likely range as far as New York. They even released stamps to commemorate the occasion. 

nk stamp 3
A North Korean commemorative stamp released in July.

The same weapon could also reach Australia. It’s designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

Now Pyongyang has conducted what the Japanese and South Korean governments have confirmed was a sixth nuclear test, claiming it was a hydrogen bomb that can be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. 

If that is true, the risk calculations change completely.

Not crazy

The conventional wisdom insists, as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did in late August, that if Kim Jong-un started a war with the US, it would be the suicidal act of a small country provoking a superpower. 

No defence analysts expect the US to initiate a nuclear conflict with North Korea, although if Pyongyang made a nuclear strike at Korea, Japan, Guam or US bases in the region, that would certainly invite nuclear retaliation from the US.

But Pyongyang has also insisted that its nuclear capacity is only for retaliation or deterrence.

That’s why defence analysts think that Kim Jong-un is not actually insane, despite western opinions to the contrary. They think he is a rational actor, and the North's frequent weapons tests are necessary steps in acquiring a nuclear deterrent against the US, because Kim believes that will give him his best chance of achieving his objectives.

Kim’s number one priority is the survival of his regime.

"Kim Jong-un is not a crazy man," said Professor Sung-han Kim, Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University in Seoul. "He knows that he will be dead if he triggers a war. He is thus obsessed with preserving his own regime by maximizing his leverage - through improving nuclear and ICBM capabilities - over the US in the future negotiations."

The point is that once he has reliable nuclear weapons that could land on San Francisco within half an hour’s flight, Kim can make the US considerably less likely to launch a nuclear attack against him no matter what else he does, as well as give him more bargaining power at the table. 

The three latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missile tests by North Korea.
The three latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missile tests by North Korea.

The security dilemma

In some ways the world has begun to accept Kim's logic: more western experts have been arguing the once-unthinkable: that the west will have to learn to live with nuclear-armed North Korea. This argument is well laid out here in Foreign Policy.

That's because a military intervention designed to stop the North's nukes program would be so catastrophic. The likelihood of success of a "limited" strike targeting the leadership is slim, with a whole range of unpredictable consequences. Even a conventional war on the Korean peninsula would likely see at least hundreds of thousands killed in a conflict that could last months and paralyse South Korea, a country of 50 million and the world's 12th largest economy.

But not everyone agrees.

Asian security expert Dr Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra said “if we live with a nuclear North Korea they can build up their nuclear forces. ... [In ten years] they would have perfected their ICBM and also their submarine-launched ballistic missiles which would give them what’s known as an assured second strike capability, that then makes it much more difficult to place pressure on North Korea in the future.”

A nuclear arms build up in North Korea would lead to a classic security dilemma, where other states respond in kind, producing a spiral toward open conflict even when no side actually wants it.

In other words, if you let North Korea develop its nukes, South Korea and Japan will want them too. Then China would beef up its nuclear arsenal, which would invite a reaction from the US, Russia and India.

“So you have this potential for a much more dangerous nuclear scenario emerging globally as a result of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea,” Dr Davis said. “It may actually be better to try to remove that threat of a nuclear North now rather than letting it build up and having to deal with it when it's much stronger later.”

Dr Davis said the best option left would be re-deploying US tactical nuclear forces in South Korea that were removed at the end of the Cold War, and strengthening missile defence systems, which is already underway

North Korea
Under Kim Jong-un, missile tests have increased dramatically in frequency compared to his predecessors.
SBS World News

Under Kim Jong-un, missile tests have increased dramatically in frequency compared to his predecessors. 

Can sanctions work? What about ‘freeze-freeze’?

Following the latest nuclear test, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull again reiterated his call for China to do more. US President Donald Trump threatened to halt trade with all countries doing business with North Korea - unlikely as this would include China. But some experts argue Beijing does not have as much influence on Pyongyang as is often thought -or it would not have conducted the nuclear test at all. 

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop is putting her faith in the UN sanctions announced by the Security Council on August 5, which are supposed to be implemented by early September. 

The sanctions are the strongest ever - a ban on US$1 billion worth of exports for a country with total exports valued at US$3 billion last year - and it was significant that both Russia and China supported them. They are intended to pressure Kim to return to the negotiating table. But implementation has been problematic in the past, and the US President appeared sceptical of their value after the test on Sunday.

Korea University's Professor Sung-han Kim said public opinion in South Korea is turning against sanctions.

"More and more the South Korean people are frustrated with the effect of economic sanctions due to the lukewarm attitude of China. The voice of supporting South Korea going nuclear or redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons is getting stronger," he told SBS News. 

Some who believe sanctions will fail again are advocating the so-called “freeze-freeze” model proposed by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in June and explained here in detail by Douglas Mo for the the Council on Foreign Relations.

In this model the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises “in exchange for the suspension of North Korean missile development and testing." China would monitor North Korea's compliance and provide security assurances. 

But Dr Davis is sceptical, saying the North would not genuinely stop its nuclear weapons development.

“And in return for doing that the US has to back out of a key alliance relationship … South Korea would lose confidence in the US, Japan would lose confidence in the US ….Both China and Russia gain as a result of that … At the end of the day it’s rewarding North Korea for its bad behaviour. I don’t see it as credible option.”

NK missile stamp
A North Korean stamp commemorating the country's second Hwasong-14 missile test in July 2017.

What about the South?

If you think this sounds grim, spare a thought for South Koreans, who have lived within range of Kim’s nukes - not to mention his conventional, chemical and biological weapons - for years.

Professor Sung-Chull Kim from the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University and co-author of the 2017 book North Korea and Nuclear Weapons told SBS News that while there is strong support in the south for the US alliance, there is some frustration about the failure of a string of US presidents to take the problem seriously and find a way to get back to the negotiating table with Pyongyang.

“Mr Trump is not popular in Korea… but the issue is not personal popularity,” he said.

“There is a kind of cycle of expectation but frustration - a little hope of North Korea's stepping forward for a talk with the US, [then] North Korea's provocative tests, and the US [having] no apparent intention of talking.

“Gradually deterrence will become the only means to deal with North Korea’s nuclear [capacity], a situation that is against our hope and objective.”


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