The puzzle of an impoverished nation seeking nuclear capabilities
Perhaps, the most compelling rationale points to the Kim Jong Un regime’s insecurities. A credible nuclear capability would be seen as the only deterrence against perceived external threats. In inter-Korean terms, it is only the only way for DPRK to make up for the increasing asymmetry in economic and conventional military capabilities.
Most importantly, it is a security guarantee against perceived American regime change policies. Trump’s UN speech, vowing to “totally destroy North Korea” will serve only to heighten such fears and advancing DPRK’s schedule for developing warheads and delivery systems. These constitute the ultimate Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy against America.
While the nuclear weapons programme was viewed previously as a bargaining chip, Kim Jong Un appears to have decided to pursue nuclear-strike capability as an end in itself. Politically, nuclear power status will give the regime symbolic power to counter-act the ROK’s ideological and soft power influence and blunt domestic opposition. The nuclear and missile programmes would boost national identity. Another political benefit that is largely ignored is the strategic autonomy and parity that DPRK will gain vis-à-vis China and Russia.
The crisis stoked by DPRK’s nuclear and missile programme is pregnant with strategic risks for all involved. First, a military clash becomes more likely as DPRK gets closer to gaining the capability to strike the American mainland. This will draw in ROK and Japan, as DPRK is sure to attack the American military bases there as well as their own strategic assets. Given the strategic asymmetry, DPRK and the Kim regime will likely disappear, but not before wreaking substantial damage to life and property in both Korean states.
Second, DPRK could use the cover of nuclear deterrence to coerce ROK, drawing in America. Given the place of Japan in Korean nationalism and propaganda, it too will come under attack and be forced to respond.
Third, China is the wild-card in the above scenarios. It will face the dilemma of supporting DPRK and jeopardizing its economic development and rise or deserting its ally with some unsavoury strategic consequences. If China enters the war on DPRK’s side, we will have a replay of the Korean War (1950-53) on our hands. This will transform the very complexion of the US-China power-transition with global ramifications.
War is not in the immediate horizon as contemplating the consequences is sobering. Yet, in the thick of nuclear and missile tests, frequent military exercises, and fiery rhetoric, all of which is taking place in the context of low trust and little communication, misperception and accidents could cause a war that no one really wants.
End in sight?
Both bilateral and multilateral approaches have failed to contain the crisis since 1993.
US-DPRK bilateral talks and an agreement (1993-95) collapsed under the weight of multilateral pressures. Multilateral Six-Party Talks (2005-2009), hosted by China, did not fare any better. The carrot of economic and energy aid failed to produce results as desperately as the stick of economic sanctions and condemnation. US-ROK military exercises have been ineffective, merely playing into DPRK, Chinese and Russian hands. So, what is left to try?
First, China and Russia could impose real economic pain on DPRK, fortifying the UN sanctions rather than undermining them. The US could take a dramatic leap of faith and hold direct talks with North Korea with assurances of diplomatic relations. This could be complemented by multilateral talks, where Japan and South Korea could be more helpful by prioritising DPRK denuclearization over other emotive bilateral issues. Finally, the military option in the form of surgical strikes to take out DPRK’s leadership or nuclear facilities exists, but these are fraught with risks and should be reserved for the very last resort. All of these steps are unpalatable to one or more parties, which means that we might be sleep-walking into war with our eyes wide open.