The North Korean Calculus
While it is very difficult to know much about the North Korean regime with a high degree of certainty due to its extreme secrecy and penchant for embellishment and disinformation, quite a bit about its capabilities and desires has been gleaned through observation and intelligence gathering. The Kim dynasty has successfully detonated a nuclear weapon on at least five occasions, with the explosive yield seemingly increasing with each successive test. The latest test in September of 2016 was estimated at anywhere between 10 and 30 kilotons. This range is similar to the power of the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. While there are certainly bigger nuclear weapons out there, the destruction of Hiroshima can attest to the fact that this North Korean weapon was big enough.
Delivery systems are another matter, as is the ability to engineer a nuclear weapon that can fit on the end of a ballistic missile. There is little evidence to suggest that the North Koreans can do either successfully on a consistent basis at this time, but with each test, successful or unsuccessful, it can be assumed that they are learning. The latest reportedly successful missile test in mid-May of this year was accompanied by a declaration that said missile can carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” (Fifield). While this proclamation, considering the source, cannot be taken as gospel, the reliability and range of the missiles will have an impact on the US calculus where both time and threat level are concerned. More on that to come.
More than anything else, it seems that the actions of the North Korean regime are predicated upon a desire to ensure its survival and maintenance of power. Building a legitimate nuclear deterrent seems to be the principal method Kim has chosen to achieve these goals. This strategy has caused the regime to act in a couple of ways. First, its testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which routinely draws considerable attention and derision from other countries in the region and beyond, has been used as a bargaining chip in the past by the North Korean government in order to secure badly needed foreign aid in exchange for entering into negotiations (Stanton). Subsequent negotiations have inevitably proven fruitless, putting the parties back more or less where they started. Second, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will fulfill its potential as a formidable deterrent only if the Kim regime seems willing to use it. To that end, the North has been threatening pre-emptive strikes on the US and South Korea for years (Jackson). The bravado and harsh rhetoric from Pyongyang, whether meant for domestic or international consumption, seems aimed at selling this narrative.
One can see why the Kim regime might fear for its political survival. The regular “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” military exercises between the US and South Koreans could certainly be seen from north of the 38th parallel as a dress rehearsal for offensive action. Furthermore, being named part of an “axis of evil” in 2002 with two longtime American adversaries (Iran and Iraq) could hardly have been taken as a sign that meaningful diplomatic engagement was imminent. A credible nuclear threat, complete with an appearance of the will to use it, is certainly one way to make would be invaders think twice. Given recent American foreign policy in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and Libya, the case can be made that the North’s nuclear program is responsible in large part for the fact that it hasn’t been the target of an American-led military action since the 1950s.
The goal of the US and countries in the region has been to get the Kim regime to open up its political system to democratic reform and its markets to the outside world. The North Korean motivation for such an opening, however, is questionable since democratization would likely spell the end of the regime, eventually. Given a legitimate political alternative and a free and fair election, it would not be difficult to see the North Korean citizens going in a different direction. The apparently Kim-ordered assassination of his half brother Kim Jong Nam, who could have been presented to the North Korean citizens as the rightful heir to the throne, demonstrates that this possibility is not lost on him. While such massive political change would be a long way off, is Kim likely to even start down that road? Could he trust countries like the United States enough to open up and let his guard down having seen what happened in Iraq under the pretext of securing weapons of mass destruction?
It is worth mentioning that Kim Jong Un has said that he wants to pursue what he calls “simultaneous progress,” economic development along with his strong nuclear deterrent. Whether both can be had is questionable, as the former is dependent in large part upon foreign economic engagement, while the latter is largely responsible for the absence of that engagement through economic sanctions. If Kim wants economic development, opening his country will need to happen on some level, but that will require some degree of trust in foreigners that he, following the footsteps of his father, has yet to show.
Where does China fit in?
Some of President Trump’s recent Tweets have given the impression that the Chinese have the power to solve the current conflict with North Korea, but do they? The relationship between China and the North has been complicated, to say the least. It has been mostly friendly since the signing of the aptly named Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship of 1961. That they were both communist regimes in close proximity to staunch American allies meant there were all the makings of a logical Cold War alliance. The Chinese have always sought stability on the Korean Peninsula (Albert and Hornby), along with the buffer that North Korea offers between the Chinese mainland and South Korea and Japan. To that end, the Chinese have enabled North Korean intransigence through the years in ways such as trying to block UN sessions about the North’s human rights record, only agreeing to support UN Resolution 1718 when sanctions were reduced (Albert), and aiding North Korea in violating sanctions after supporting their passage (Stanton). While China certainly does not shoulder all of the blame for the North acting in the ways it has, it seems to have at least played a part in making the regime what it is.
There is reason to believe, however, that Chinese policy in this area may be changing. The Chinese and North Koreans were openly critical of one another recently, something that is certainly out of the ordinary (Nakamura). China has also recently been tougher on the North in the UN, again a departure from the norm (Pollack). Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese suspended North Korean coal imports in February, 2017. This is significant because China is far and away the North’s largest trading partner. Coal made up roughly 34% of North Korean exports in 2015, and China accounted for 98% of that total. North Korea’s exports to China totaled $2.34 billion in the same year, while the next closest country accounted for just $98.7 million (Simoes). To say China is important to the North Korean economy would be a gross understatement. Perhaps its coal import suspension signals a major shift in the way China will deal with its long-time ally. Perhaps President Trump is right to insinuate that the Chinese hold sway over North Korean actions. Time will tell. The Chinese have always been reluctant to push too hard against the North for fear of the assured refugee crisis that would result from a military confrontation on the peninsula (Gramer), but perhaps the continuing nuclear and missile tests and the assassination of Kim Jong Nam have sufficiently put peace on the peninsula in doubt to force China to change course.
In part two of the series, I will discuss the major strategies that have been used in the past by states attempting to defuse this situation. I will also discuss the decision making process of the United States, what its interests are, and what is at stake for the country and its allies. If you’re interested, please read on.
Albert, Eleanor. "The China–North Korea Relationship." Jul 2009. Council on Foreign Relations. 13 May 2017.
Fifield, Anna. “North Korea’s Kim Celebrates Test of ‘Perfect Weapon System’.” Washington Post 14 May. 2017: Print.
Gramer, Robbie. "Trump’s North Korea Standoff Rattles Allies and Adversaries." Foreign Policy 20 Apr. 2017: Web.
Hornby, Luch. "North Korea Economy Bowed but Not Broken by Sanctions." Financial Times 19 Apr. 2017: Print.
Jackson, Van. "Preventing Nuclear War with North Korea." Foreign Affairs. 13 May 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.
Nakamura, David, Simon Denyer, and Anna Fifield. "Trump gets on the phone to Asia as another North Korea flash point looms." Washington Post 25 Apr. 2017: Print.
Pollack, Jonathan D. "China and North Korea: The Long Goodbye?" The Brookings Institution, 28 Mar. 2016. Web.
Simoes, Alexander. The Observatory of Economic Complexity. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016. Web. <>.
Stanton, Joshua, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner. "Getting Tough on North Korea." Foreign Affairs. 13 May 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.