By Taehwa Hong
The mainstream view of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program holds that it is the regime’s ticket to survival; Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpiles serve as a deterrence against American military intervention. Having seen Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein fall after giving up their nuclear programs, the Kim regime is unlikely to forgo its’ strongest bulwark against “American imperialists.” There is widespread complacency that it is all good and safe though, because deterrence works. As long as the U.S and South Korea maintain overwhelming military superiority, Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles will remain cobwebbed in underground facilities. However, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not just about protecting the regime. They are a shield behind which the regime could engage in aggressive actions. Even with deterrence against a nuclear war, North’s nuclear program has the potential to breed instability on the peninsula.
North Korea’s strategy is likely to exploit nuclear weapons as a deterrence against American and South Korean retaliation to its own aggressions. Granted, it is not unreasonable to believe Kim Jong-un will restrain from headlong aggressions once he possesses a credible second-strike capability against the U.S., given his much-touted Byungjin policy line (developing nuclear weapons and economy simultaneously). Tension doesn’t help promote much-needed foreign investments, especially from China. In fact, the North’s recent move for reconciliation with Seoul comes in this backdrop; with its nuclear program entering a terminal phase, Pyongyang may be hoping to formulate an environment favorable to foreign aid and investment. However, the regime’s legitimacy hinges on protecting the people from “imperialists” in the U.S., Japan and South Korea. The regime needs a perennial state of tension, even a latent one, as a rationale for the Communist Party’s rule. Furthermore, North Korea has traditionally carried out its unique deceptive stick-and-carrot strategy whereby it alternates between saber-rattling and olive branch to elicit economic aid. Previous progressive governments in Seoul provided financial assistance in the hopes of improving relations, most notably in 2000 when the South Korean government transferred cash to North Korea as a sign of goodwill ahead of a summit meeting between President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. North Korea has been demanding economic rewards for inter-Korean stability since then. While this coercive posture could be further buttressed by nuclear weapons, it is unclear that it will be as successful with the current South Korean government which has backed the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
Those who put trust in deterrence assume North Korea is rational. They are right—as the CIA noted, Kim does appear to be rational. It is completely rational for North Korea, however, to occasionally exit the deterrence box and provoke its southern neighbor, for such moves strengthen regime legitimacy and consolidates national unity. Furthermore, domestic political imperatives drive North Korea towards provocations. North Korea’s bombing of the Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 was designed to form a crisis mood in the North to smoothly facilitate Kim Jong-un’s upcoming succession of his father. North Korean generals also have a habit of spearheading aggression against the South to win the Kim family’s favor. Although the final decision must go through the supreme leader himself, North Korean military figures have political incentive to plot an attack against the South during confrontational periods. The sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010 was orchestrated by Kim Yong-chul, the then director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau—the North Korean equivalent of the CIA. He used the incident to steadily climb up the hierarchical ladder to become the head of the United Front Department and the Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party. In these contexts, North Korea views nuclear weapons as a perfect shield to deter South Korean and American countermeasures, especially if the allies understand North’s attacks are not intended for an all-out-war. This is North Korea’s own “bloody-nose strike”: inflicting enough damage on South Korea to humiliate it, but preventing escalation through nuclear deterrence. A nuclear apocalypse may be precluded by mutually assured destruction, but South Korean lives and territorial integrity will continuously be at risk.
In the aftermath of the attack on Yeongpyeong Island, Seoul planned to launch a massive retaliatory air strike on North Korea, only to be restrained by its concerned American allies. North Korea’s progress in developing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach U.S. mainland coupled with Donald Trump’s “America-First” rhetoric has raised questions about American commitment to South Korea. Quiet disagreement between the allies over how to deal with North Korea’s charm offensive exacerbates this concern. Policymakers in Seoul and Washington are discussing the so-called “Libyan Solution,” whereby North Korea is rewarded only after complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program. The Trump administration’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton advocates this path, while the Blue House deems it unrealistic. Further, prior to reaching a preliminary agreement, President Trump even insinuated he could use U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as leverage for a more favorable renegotiation of the KORUS FTA. Should these areas of dissent—which so far have been managed quietly—develop to a policy-level discord, North Korea could interpret it as a sign of weakening U.S.-Korea alliance. If another Yeongpyeong happens, South Korea could fear that the U.S. may try to avoid confrontation rather than stand by its side. After all, much has changed since the American effort to deescalate the Yeongpyeong. In this backdrop, North Korea could find it easier to launch periodic provocations against the South, hiding behind the nuclear asymmetric advantage and relatively unclear American willingness to intervene.
An even more dangerous problem could arise if Seoul decides to retaliate. It will be compelled to do so with or without American support, belying Pyongyang’s own perception of retaliation-free provocations. In the aftermath of a series of provocations, Seoul’s counter-provocation posture shifted to “Proactive Deterrence,” whereby it retaliates disproportionately to deter further provocations and snap enemy morale. The South Korean government would also face the domestic political cost of displaying weakness in a time of crisis. Even if both sides do not favor a full-blown war, a spiral of reciprocal retaliations could render the situation uncontrollable. In such a scenario, Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons will make it more likely to gamble than if it had not acquired them. Kim Jong-un’s sense of strategic advantage through nuclear weapons could lead him to take risky steps he otherwise wouldn’t. Over the last seven decades, excessive escalation has been precluded by mutual constraints in the Korean peninsula. As North Korea’s nuclear capability advances, mutual escalation will become more likely.
While overwhelming U.S.-South Korea military superiority deters North Korea from launching large-scale aggression, Pyongyang is not contained to a level that it can no longer exercise local provocations. As Kenneth Waltz noted in The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, the shaky North Korean regime needs to “demonstrate to its own people that it has influence beyond its own borders”. The Madman Strategy is at work here; North Korea is betting on the assumption that Seoul and Washington are afraid of a war, and that if they know Kim didn’t mean to start one, they would back-down rather than escalate because the regime is more reckless than them. Pyongyang is also aware that the allies have more to lose from a crossfire—economically, politically and socially. It is paradoxically using its status as a starving pariah state to challenge much stronger adversaries.
In essence, the North Korean nuclear threat is not one that can be simply dealt with through deterrence. As Henry Kissinger noted in World Order, Bismarck’s 19th century aphorism applies to North Korea: “We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.” While strengthening military deterrence remains critical, the international community should seek to at least freeze and preferably roll-back North’s nuclear program through pressure and engagement. The most ideal outcome of the upcoming negotiations would be the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear weapons, but such an outcome is highly unlikely to be reached anytime soon. North Korea will demand a reciprocal guarantee of regime security such as a peace treaty and the removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula which neither South Korea nor the U.S. can afford. Furthermore, North Korea witnessed Qaddafi’s demise after he abandoned nuclear weapons. North Korean officials continue to argue that Qaddafi should have kept his nukes. For Pyongyang, Bolton’s insistence on the “Libyan Solution” would simply revive the specter of the “Libyan Mistake”. In that backdrop, a freeze and roll-back are unsatisfying, yet a realistic compromise. The slower the progress in North Korea’s nuclear program is, the weaker the conceptual “shield” will be. In the end, stable peace in the Korean peninsula will come in the form of a peaceful Seoul-led reunification, not a fragile deterrence put in place.
Taehwa Hong is an international relations student at Stanford University. His research focuses on East Asian security and the Middle East. The views are the author’s alone.
Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.