North Korea’s nuclear proliferation has long been a significant worry in world politics and for North Korea’s neighbors. Since 2002, North Korea has renewed its interests in nuclear activities, against the wishes of the United States. Since then, relations between the two countries have slowly deteriorated, now marked in the present by escalating tensions between the leaders of their respective countries, President Trump and Kim Jung-un.
On November 20, 2017 President Trump re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, citing the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, allegedly by North Korean agents, as evidence of international terrorism. North Korea was originally removed from the list by President Bush in 2008 in an attempt to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Additionally, Trump’s stated intention for the move was to intensify pressure on North Korea and its leadership to stop its nuclear weapons development. The announcement came after months of provocative name-calling and threats, which included an insult exchange between Trump and Kim and Trump threatening “fire and fury” to a potential North Korean attack.
The week after North Korea’s return to the list, the country launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile that went higher and longer than previous missile tested, sparking concerns that North Korea could now have the missile technology capable of reaching the continental United States. The following week, the United States and South Korea conducted joint air force drills, a move drawing criticism from North Korea for escalating tensions in the Korean peninsula.
Why North Korea Pursues Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear weapons serve the purpose of deterrence, ensuring the survival of a state or regime from foreign interference by creating unbearable costs for an attacking state. Essentially, a nuclear state will not directly attack another nuclear state because of the risk of the costs of nuclear war, which would highly outweigh any potential benefits. There have been exceptions such as with India and Pakistan, but those conflicts have generally been small in scale and resolved relatively quickly. In the specific case of North Korea, the possession of nuclear weapons serves, in their eyes, as a deterrence against possible US military attacks against the country. Proliferating nuclear weapons is thus a rational strategy for North Korea, as the weapons can maintain the survival of the state, at least in the perspective of the North Korean leadership.[i]
The above reasoning for North Korea’s desire to be a nuclear state may be explained through a real-life example — that of the 2003 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq. In a response to allegations that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program and possessed nuclear weapons, the United States and allies invaded Iraq with the purpose of maintaining their interests in the region, which would necessitate preventing Iraq from being a nuclear state and removing Saddam Hussein from power. It is possible that North Korea may see nuclear weapons as essential to its survival as a state, deterring a possible US invasion due to the high costs of war — and by declaring its possession of nuclear weaponry, unlike the uncertainty in Iraq, the US may be reluctant in military action.
The Costs of Military Action
For the current situation in the Korean peninsula, there is no easy military solution — in fact, there might not be one at all. Suggestions have included a decapitation strike against the North Korean leadership and surgical strikes on the North Korean missile sites and storage facilities
Even in the event that the missile threat is removed, North Korea would still retain large stockpiles of artillery within tunnels deep in the mountains of the country. The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is relatively close to the Korean border. Casualties would be high in the hundreds of thousands, including a significant number of American civilians and troops located in South Korea.[iii] In addition, there would a significant amount of infrastructure damage, which would pose a heavy economic cost to South Korea. In 1994 the South Korean president, Kim Young-sam, advised then President Bill Clinton to not strike against North Korea in a similar situation, fearing a heavy North Korean retaliation from conventional weaponry.[iv] The situation is very much the same in the present: South Korea faces heavy economic costs and civilian casualties should there be a war with North Korea, and is thus very reluctant to escalate the situation to that point.
Probably preventing any type of military solution is the uncertainty that North Korea will not launch its nuclear weaponry. As stated previously, it is thought that North Korea now possess the technology to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere in the United States, in addition to the entire Korean peninsula. Whether they have the technology to fit nuclear warheads unto such missiles is unknown. While the US military can eliminate several short range and medium range missiles, its simulated tests have not been able to eliminate every missile launched. In addition, regarding long range intercontinental ballistic missiles, the tests have been less promising, with only a little bit more than half being shot down.[v] The United States cannot guarantee a full homeland defense against the threat of a potential North Korean nuclear strike.
To deescalate the situation and reduce the possibility of nuclear war, North Korea will need to be convinced that the United States will not strike first. Doing so would have to include less aggressive signaling against North Korea. To be specific, whenever North Korea chooses an action that signals it is against US interests, the US often responds with a signal of its own — such as large military drills or sending more naval units to the Korean peninsula. To signal in a less aggressive manner, air drills may be replaced by the presence of nuclear-armed submarines.
An additional approach could be through China: since practically all attempts at negotiation with North Korea regarding their nuclear weapons program have failed, it is thought that diplomacy through Beijing may provide the solution to North Korea. As China provides support to the North Korean administration, it could have a strong hand in negotiation with North Korea. Of course, such a move would require guarantees from the United States, such as dropping the demand for regime change for North Korea and removing missile defense systems in the Korean peninsula.[vii] A regime change for North Korea into a democratic society is in the perspective of China an ideological threat and the its views the missile defense systems in the regions as weapons that can target China.
It appears that ending North Korean nuclear-proliferation is practically off the table — the strategy of deterrence is that preventing conflict, but to compliment such deterrence, both North Korea and the United States need to reform their policies of aggressive signals in order to provide a sense of calm to the situation.