Is the DPRK's nuclear march unstoppable?

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The specter of nuclear conflict is not new for the Korean peninsula. As an occupied territory under the Japanese Empire, the Koreans could also be deemed to be victims of the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945. As two sovereign nations divided by the 38th Parallel, hostilities engulfed the peninsula again in 1950s, with a nuclear conflict looming large as the Americans mulled using nuclear weapons to keep the Chinese at bay. Cut to now, as the saber rattling intensifies between the Kim Jong-Un regime and Trump Administration, it may not be a sense of déjà vu that occupies the minds of Koreans or the international community worried about the situation in the peninsula, but the realization that no mechanism or normative structure in the international system is today potent enough to contain Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship, let alone calm the frayed tempers in the region.

A glance at the timeline of Kim’s nuclear and missile exhibitionism this year is testament to this fact. No country has simultaneously conducted as many tests of its fledging missile inventory (from medium range to intercontinental range ballistic missiles) and its ever-expanding nuclear arsenal (from miniaturizing nuclear warheads to testing a thermonuclear weapon) in such a short window of time – often, as short as a fortnight – and yet remained unperturbed by global censure or punitive actions (even if restricted to sanctions). That Kim threatened to fire missiles over another sovereign nation, even if above their sovereign airspace, twice in a gap of a month embodies the gravity of his defiance and resembles an extreme level of machismo that even conventional despots rarely display.

A convoluted deterrence landscape

The ongoing nuclear stand-off, oscillating between periods of frequent flare-ups and longer lulls, could still be described as the gravest since the Cuban Missile Crisis, with potentially global ramifications. Yet, despite the exchange of severe threats and a concerted build-up of military capabilities, both sides are reluctant to fire the first bullet, conscious of the fragility of the situation and its rapid escalation potential. Despite this delicate restraint, Kim’s nuclear ascendancy confirms the onset of a nightmarish scenario feared since the advent of the nuclear revolution: a nuclear-armed autocrat who refuses to heed international opinion or budge to sanctions, and seeks to operate on highly-escalatory fringes of brinkmanship. More importantly, however, could be how this situation affects the evolution of deterrence, both in concept and practice, as it continues to test the traditionally-held view that a nuclear-armed despot can only accrue limited political benefits from a rapidly-expanding arsenal and aggressive posturing.

Though the current testing spree is part of a continuum of sustained efforts over the preceding years, the milestones that Kim achieved this year amounts not only to a decisive offensive force but also limits the range of response options to deal with the regime's adventurism. Between the two nuclear tests in September 2016 and September 2017 respectively, Kim had substantially progressed from a prolonged state of ‘existential’ deterrence (nominal inventory) to a capability of ‘retaliatory’ deterrence (inflict unacceptable damage) vis-à-vis its rivals. This implies the transformation of the Korean Peninsula into a full-fledged nuclear theatre wherein: (a) an equation of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) has been naturally formed between North Korea and its nuclear-armed rivals, but is endangered by instability and the escalation potential that could grow from maverick leaderships on both sides; and (b) the DPRK has developed the ability to conduct both a nuclear first-strike against rivals in East Asia or US territory (as a response to a conventional attack) and a retaliatory second-strike through the development of more survivable forces, though the extent of the surveillance on these assets and therefore their vulnerability to preemptive attack is a subject of speculation. Kim’s nuclear adventurism, invariably, challenges the proposition that a MAD equation may necessarily provide for crisis stability, instead suggesting that it could be exploited by an actor who feigns irrationality by using the ‘certainty of destruction’ to pursue political goals: in this case, to ward-off a military attack and secure the regime. The Kim syndrome thus validates what the deterrence pessimists maintain: that nuclear deterrence will not necessarily bring stability, despite perceptions of parity, if at least one party has opportunities to push the envelope to its advantage.

No tangible military options: The advances in North Korea’s deterrent implies that credible military responses are fewer or as good as non-existent. Having raised the ante with a torrent of threats of military action, then openly contradicted his Secretary of State’s repeated calls for diplomacy, Trump has implicitly exposed Washington’s impuissance and reluctance to gallop towards military options, fearing certain retaliation and a nuclear conflagration. Nothing illustrates this better than the shifting goalposts in US reactions. In May, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster asserted that ‘it’s unacceptable for North Korea to obtain the means of hitting the US with a nuclear weapon.’ By instantly crossing that redline, and many other perceived thresholds (the thermonuclear test and firing two ballistic missiles over Japan), Kim called the United States' bluff and stretched the escalation window further, by threatening to hit Guam and conduct the next nuclear test over the Pacific.

While Kim promises instant response even for a minimalist military action – be it a conventional missile/air strike, targeted strikes on his mansions or a counterforce attack on missile bases – the fact that even a low-grade military action could activate the barrage of artillery guns stationed near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), well within range of Seoul, illustrates the absence of maneuverability for the US-led coalition. Even the deployment of theatre defence systems, including Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) and Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), hardly seem reassuring for the South Koreans and Japanese, not least because the credibility of interception technologies are still suspect. Intent remains the defining factor, with Kim gaining the psychological edge by projecting a persuasive will to go to war while his rivals seek de-escalation.   

Indoctrinated but lacking doctrine

Kim also holds the upper-hand through the unpredictability of his postures and decisions. Unlike the stodgy ‘Juche’ indoctrination that propels a stoic population to rally around the nuclear programme as a national mission, the Kim regime hasn’t emphasized its nuclear doctrine, partly to thrive on gains of ambiguity vis-à-vis its rivals, and partly because the posture has never remained static. There are numerous rationales attributed to DPRK’s nuclear programme, the ‘guarantee against regime change’ being the most prominent. The striking feature, however, is how Kim projects nuclear weapons as aiding the country’s economic goals by claiming that deterring external threats will support national development and free internal resources. Many statements since 2012, when nuclear status was enshrined in the country’s constitution, have talked about the nuclear force serving these purposes along with the ‘bolstering self-defence (against) nuclear threat and aggression by the US,’ and about ‘winning a decisive victory to build a thriving nation.’ While the deterrence policy was codified by the Supreme People’s Assembly's Law on Consolidating Position of Nuclear Weapons State in 2013, (which entails creation of a nuclear retaliatory power both in quality and quantity), Kim gestured during the Workers’ Party Congress in May 2016 that the DPRK will not use nuclear weapons first unless its sovereignty is invaded, which some observers read as a no first use posture.

Notwithstanding such signalling, the massive strides attained in nuclear delivery capability over the last year only reinforce the calibrated progress towards ‘full-spectrum’ deterrence, not in the traditional sense (i.e. a nuclear triad and conventional forces), but as one that places nuclear weapons as the pivot force to deal with the full spectrum of threats, described in North Korean documents as ‘rounding off the combat posture.’ In other words, the DPRK’s posture is about using nuclear weapons, even if in limited terms, as a response to whatever Kim perceives as an ‘attack on North Korean territory or assets,’ thus leaving the thresholds of military action open-ended. Yet, Kim seems conscious of the fact that his resort to nuclear weapons will invite similar or an overwhelming response, which underlies his own refusal to go beyond bluster.  

The subaltern speaks

While the possibility of unacceptable destruction might delay military-level hostilities or a fully-fledged war, the question of the Kim regime’s ultimate goal remains. Is it merely attempting to save itself from potential elimination, or is it (also) challenging the way the nuclear order functions through the norms set by the hegemons? The overriding consensus is that along with securing his regime, Kim is seeking a deal that recognizes his nuclear status, though he has yet to pronounce such demands. Having framed his nuclear programme as the fulfilment of Juche’s key principles – the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance, rejecting one’s dependence on others, using one’s own brains, and believing in one’s own strength – Kim now attempts to project cultural meaning onto his nuclear weapons as an anti-imperialist resistance, as evident from his verbal response to President Trump’s UN speech, which highlights the sovereign ‘dignity and honor of my state and people.’ Inherent in Kim’s text might be a subaltern voice –  in the same year that a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty came into being – against the manner in which the non-proliferation system operated all these decades by sanctifying the continuing existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of a few. While the liberal security community may not accept nuclear weapons in the hands of a despot, they will have to grudgingly accept the fact that Kim’s actions innately challenges the status quo in the nuclear order.

Image Credit: Flickr/ (stephan)
About the author(s)...
  • Vinod Kumar is a Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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