The Korean Peninsula: Is There a Nuclear War Coming?

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Georgy Toloraya Doctor of Economics, Professor of Oriental Studies, Director of the Korean Studies Program of the RAS Institute of Economics

In early January 2016, front pages around the world carried numerous stories on Pyongyang’s hydrogen bomb test. The flurry of comments that followed the DPRK’s announcement of conducting “a hydrogen bomb test” highlighted several major issues, namely the unpredictable nature of Kim Jong-un’s regime; the unanimous condemnation of Pyongyang for the provocative act and subsequent calls for punishment; doubts as to whether the tested device was really a thermonuclear one; and, finally, a fear of conflict escalation and worry that the North Korean regime threatened security and could unleash a war.

The North Koreans’ motives

It’s hard to argue with the fact that this fourth test in a row has had a serious destabilizing effect. However, the North Koreans have followed a model of international behavior that they have established for already some time: they act only towards their own interests, pay no attention to others and use any means at hand. The DPRK has no tools available other than the threat of a nuclear missile and it would be naive to blissfully rely on Pyongyang’s reluctance to use it. Moreover, North Korea has repeatedly stressed that if the United States “does not abandon its hostile policy,” it will not eliminate nuclear weapons “even if the sky falls to the ground.” [1]

It’s difficult to understand why the regime intensified diplomatic efforts to restore its relations with China, South Korea and countries in Southeast Asia in late 2015.

These actions were perfectly predictable. The North Koreans have long signaled that the country was developing nuclear fusion technologies and many experts have confirmed this. Moreover, in 2015, they made little secret of the fact that a nuclear test was not far off. The last warning came from the country’s leader Kim Jong-un on December 10, 2015, but experts failed to give it serious thought. At the same time, Pyongyang hinted that it could refrain from testing, provided that its opponents took relevant steps. However, its opponents did not yield to blackmail and did not begin negotiations with North Korea: it’s hard to believe that they did not know the likely consequences. In other words, any unpredictability in terms of this issue is out of the question.

North Korea has made another step in the development of nuclear weapons, but high-sounding declarations and meetings are largely full of North Korean scientists’ and military’s self-praise, aimed at both the international community and their own leadership.

It is true that there has been a certain inconsistency: it’s difficult to understand why the regime intensified diplomatic efforts to restore its relations with China, South Korea and countries in Southeast Asia in late 2015. There is little doubt that the test has severely undermined the results of these efforts, making them either an operational cover or indicating that the North Korea’s foreign policy machinery was kept in the dark about it.

Could this be a bluff? The political aftertaste

What exactly exploded at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site in the northeast of the country? Judging by the text of the official North Korean statement, it was an experimental hydrogen bomb. According to nuclear experts, it probably was a boosted fission – a charge on the basis of tritium, which allows using weapons-usable nuclear materials such as plutonium or uranium more efficiently, that is, provide more power with less quantity. Experts note that at the same time it allows for addressing issues of weight and dimension characteristics, since such weapons are easier to install aboard missiles.

Later, North Korea issued an ambiguous statement that such a device could already be used as a warhead, but the analysis of the text reveals that they meant they were “gaining an opportunity” to do this. This can be viewed as a statement of successful development progress.

North Korea’s nuclear-missile plans could be called aggressive only under a certain assumption.

It is clear that North Korea has made another step in the development of nuclear weapons, but high-sounding declarations and meetings are largely full of North Korean scientists’ and military’s self-praise, aimed at both the international community and their own leadership. Kim Jong-un has to mark the upcoming in May 2016 Party Congress (the first since 1980) with something worthy, since the Congress is clearly intended to open a new era in the development of the country, and to remind the world and the country’s opponents, especially the US, of the partially forgotten “North Korean threat” which has been overshadowed by developments in the Middle East and dramatic upturns in the presidential race. As things stand, the fact that the bomb is not yet really a thermonuclear one can be well disregarded.

As a result of the test the military threat has really increased.

Does North Korea threaten the world? It’s hard to argue that Pyongyang’s actions have provoked a crisis, but its practical implications now depend primarily on the country’s opponents. As a result of the test the military threat has really increased. The US sent a nuclear strategic bomber to the Korean Peninsula; South Korea resumed propaganda broadcasts to the North, which in August 2015 caused a serious crisis with a shootout (it was settled by intense diplomatic negotiations at the highest level, but now these efforts have completely lost their point as well). Of course, the nuclear-missile ambitions of North Korea should not be taken lightly, but the key thing is moderation. Severe sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and tough unilateral actions by Western countries can actually provoke an inadequate response of the DPRK. Suffering for the “just cause” of punishing the “unpredictable dictator” appears to be cold comfort for the victims of the potential conflict. At that, North Korea’s stance so far has been rather reserved.

Is denuclearization possible? Recipes for feasible solutions

In all fairness, North Korea’s nuclear-missile plans could be called aggressive only under a certain assumption. There are theories that having been provided protection by means of a nuclear umbrella, North Korea may try to occupy South Korea, which can hardly be considered realistic, no matter what dreams the North Koreans may cherish to this effect. Should an all-out war involving the United States begin, North Korea will surely be erased from the map, its nuclear and conventional weapons notwithstanding. American firepower will undoubtedly overwhelm the military potential of the DPRK and after this defeat of the advancing forces, the South Korean army will be capable of a counter-attack and capture Pyongyang. However, this would take the lives of an enormous number of South Koreans and Americans (not to mention a large part of the North Korean population, which, however, is unlikely to deter the Americans), but in this case there will be no alternative. But such a development is more a nightmare and horror story used to substantiate increased military spending than a real threat.

DPRK’s nuclear weapons are a deterrent. After Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, one can hardly expect the leaders of the Pyongyang regime to sit on their hands and wait to be “democratized.” The North Koreans make this very clear, saying that “when a pack of wolves attacks you, only a fool lowers his gun.”

After Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, one can hardly expect the leaders of the Pyongyang regime to sit on their hands and wait to be “democratized.”

It should be noted that in contrast to other members of the Axis of Evil, regime change in North Korea will result in the disappearance of that country, since it will be absorbed by South Korea. Accordingly, the North Korean elite cannot hope to have a place in a united Korea, and has every reason to expect the worst.

Regime change in North Korea will result in the disappearance of that country, since it will be absorbed by South Korea.

However, fears that the Americans and South Koreans will unilaterally try to use military strength for regime change in North Korea are exaggerated out of proportion, as the price for this appears to be unacceptably high. Moreover, China would become involved in a direct confrontation with the United States too, which is undesirable for everyone, especially the United States which is not ready for a major war in the Pacific.

Keeping a hotbed of controlled tension near the Chinese border, and the nuclear test has once again only added fuel to the fire, is, on the contrary, plays into the hands of the United States. It allows the US to maintain a large group of troops there, to modernize weapons, to keep allies on a short leash as well as put pressure upon China.

Therefore, the US response to any North Korean action, no matter how provocative, will be sanctions and pressure rather than a search for a solution. After all, these sanctions have proven to be ineffective: the first nuclear test in North Korea took place in 2006, and no sanctions have managed to prevent the DPRK from enhancing its nuclear-missile potential.

Keeping a hotbed of controlled tension near the Chinese border, and the nuclear test has once again only added fuel to the fire, is, on the contrary, plays into the hands of the United States.

There is only one way to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula, namely negotiations. North Korea has to be a part of them, and its increased military potential causes an unwillingness of other countries to involve it in negotiations looks strange, to say the least. Nevertheless, the Obama administration and Seoul do not favor this option (it looks like they still are relying on the spontaneous collapse of the North Korean regime which needs only a push). As things stand, Russia and China can only patiently persuade using political and diplomatic methods to resume the Six Party Talks involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. Ideally, these negotiations should culminate in the creation of a new security system in Northeast Asia, which provides the only platform for resolving the nuclear issue. In the meantime, while such negotiations are underway, their practical consequence could be the freezing of the DPRK’s nuclear-missile program, which is extremely important. Now the negotiating process itself is no less important than its result. Since the toughening of sanctions against the DPRK and the latter’s isolation are unlikely to contribute to the negotiation process, the UN Security Council should think twice when choosing an adequate response. First, do no harm.

  1. Government of the DPRK Statement of January 06, 2016.

Source: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=7112#top-content

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