Just recently, after a magnitude 5.3 earthquake was detected in South Korea, North Korean officials in Pyongyang claimed that they had successfully completed their fifth nuclear test, a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead that could be mounted onto a ballistic missile. To put into perspective the amount of damage a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb could cause, Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was 15 kilotons. This is the fifth nuclear test the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has conducted since 2006, all occurring in increasing size, with the last three tests occurring within the last three years. The international community was quick to condemn the test. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) declared the test, “a clear violation of repeated calls on the country to halt such activity,” and stated it would, “begin to work immediately to appropriate measures under Article 41 in a Security Council resolution”. Article 41 of the Charter of the United Nations gives the UNSC authority to call upon Members of the United Nations to impose economic, communication, or diplomatic sanctions on a country. But sanctions have been imposed in the past, and the DPRK has still been able to develop nuclear warheads. So how should the international community respond to the threat of a nuclear North Korea?
As with every international political issue, it is integral to examine the past to adequately understand the present. After the Korean War, North Korea was actually more economically prosperous than its South Korean counterpart until the death of Mao Zedong in 1979. Kim Il-sung, discouraged by China’s renewed ties with the West, severed relations with China and implemented the isolationist Juche policy, limiting production to within the DPRK. The economy felt the effects of the policy in the 1980s when it began to stagnate, tumbling into disarray after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. When Kim Jong-il assumed leadership of the DPRK in 1994, he enacted an economic policy of Songun, meaning “military first”. This prioritized military spending to economic and infrastructure development. Fearing the potential of a militarized, nuclear state, in 1994 North Korea and the United States, represented by former president Jimmy Carter, reached the U.S. –North Korea Agreed Framework, outlining accountability processes for reducing plutonium stockpiles, replacing graphite-moderated reactors with light water reactors, supplying the DPRK with oil, and creating a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. North Korea reduced its stockpiles and the United States delivered six light water reactors to Pyongyang in 2000.
During his presidential candidacy, George W. Bush had opposed the Agreed Framework of 1994. The construction of light water reactors was suspended, and in 2002, President Bush in his State of the Union address referred to North Korea as being part of the “Axis of Evil”. U.S.-North Korean relations quickly deteriorated, and in 2003, North Korea withdrew from both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang then resumed nuclear fuel rod development, announcing it had completed developing, “enough weapons-grade plutonium to develop up to six nuclear bombs within months”. The country officially began testing nuclear capabilities in 2006. In July of that year, it tested seven missiles that had reportedly been capable of striking the United States, but crashed shortly after takeoff. In October, the tests reached their zenith. North Korea officially conducted a nuclear test with capabilities of one-kiloton worth of explosive power. This test immediately placed North Korea under U.N. economic and commercial sanctions, though aid continued in 2007 after Pyongyang requested flood relief
funds from South Korea. A second test was conducted in 2009, again receiving condemnation from the UNSC. North Korea’s sanctions were renewed in 2013 after it conducted a third nuclear test. In September of that same year, China, the DPRK’s only ally, banned all exports of items that could be utilized in nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon development. Three months later, Chang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, is executed for an attempted overthrow of his nephew’s government. Subsequently, Kim Jung-un works to consolidate power by announcing the testing of a hydrogen bomb in January 2016 and holding the first Workers Party congress in 36 years. In August, a North Korean Submarine fired a KN-11 ballistic missile three hundred miles into the Sea of Japan. And now, North Korea has tested its fifth nuclear missile.
So what is preventing the United States from settling the issue diplomatically, or using force to rid North Korea of its uranium stockpiles? First and foremost, being a nuclear state is the only presence North Korea has in the international community, and is essentially the only force keeping Kim Jong-un in power. In normal circumstances, a rational actor would see the use of a nuclear weapon as a last resort. But Kim Jung-un is not a rational actor, and a nuclear strike on South Korea is not outside the realm of possibility, were his regime to collapse.
Internal collapse could certainly be a possibility. North Korea has an unfortunate history of experiencing flooding, followed by famine, which decimates the population. In 1996, Pyongyang requested aid after a flood caused three million North Koreans to die of starvation. Just this week, North Korea again experienced flooding from the heaviest rains since 1945, and as of now, 140,000 are in “urgent need of assistance”. Though the state is able to survive without much outside assistance, it is still not immune to disaster. This is mostly because Pyongyang spends a whopping 23.8 percent of its GDP on its military, according to the State Department. And while the actual amount, which is $4 billion out of an average GDP of $17 billion per year, is not as large as other countries, it still leaves little to spend on its economy or infrastructure development. North Korea also has the world’s largest army relative to its population, boasting a military with 1.2 million active soldiers.
But this advantage comes with an obvious downside. Besides not being able to adequately feed its own people, North Korea has virtually no participation in the global economy, barring weapons sales, which account for 10.2 percent of its total exports. China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner. Around $6 billion in annual trade comes from China, on the condition that Pyongyang not spend the money on military activities. China holds the ability to halt North Korea’s nuclear program, but this seems unlikely to happen in the near future.
China views North Korea as a “necessary evil,” according to Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. The two states have shared close historic ties, but those ties have deteriorated to a begrudging friendship. China has condemned each nuclear test North Korea has conducted, and approved the UNSC’s 2006 sanctions. Beijing was outraged at North
Korea’s hydrogen bomb test, and has condemned the most recent nuclear test. Yet two key reasons underlie China’s tolerance of North Korean nuclear-ambitions. First, China fears the economic impact a failed North Korean state could bring upon the country. Millions of refugees would flee into China. President Xi Jinping already has enough of a challenge with a stagnating economy; millions of impoverished and unskilled North Koreans would be a great burden to China. But perhaps most importantly, North Korea acts as a buffer zone between China and South Korea, along with the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there. Beijing has strongly opposed South Korean Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems, seeing them as a threat to their national security. A militarized North Korea prevents any direct South Korean and United States military access into China. Right now, China would rather have an erratic, nuclear neighbor than share a border with South Korea.
So, how should the United States and its Asian allies respond to this fifth nuclear test? The window of opportunity for stopping the DPRK’s nuclear program advances is narrowing rapidly. The United States and China need to first ask themselves: can East Asia afford a North Korea capable of mounting a small nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile capable of being launched from a submarine with the aim of striking a neighboring country, or even the United States? Pyongyang has already tested a ballistic missile aimed at Japan this past August, and is not too far off from mounting a nuclear warhead on such a missile. Sanctions will not be an effective deterrent for North Korea as long as China continues to trade with the country. Though diplomatic negotiations with China to join in the complete international embargo of North Korea would be ideal, it is unlikely that China would be willing to accept the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime and the possibility of Korean reunification. Additionally, if China were to cut off trade, especially its oil supply to North Korea, it could run the risk of Pyongyang considering China as an additional enemy rather than a sole ally. Though U.S. and South Korean military action could be a possibility, it would require very precise and minimalist strikes on DPRK missile silos, nuclear warhead and device stockpiles, and nuclear delivery vehicles. The chance for these strikes resulting in de-escalation would be slim, with the potential backlash being massive. Even if North Korean nuclear capabilities were to be nullified, Seoul, South Korea’s capital is still in range of North Korean artillery guns. Additionally, the North Korean army still has a two-to-one size advantage, not to mention that China could potentially interpret the attack as a threat to its security and become involved. The death toll from an all out conflict would be catastrophic. As long as China is unwilling to cut North Korea’s lifeline, the state will continue to survive and produce increasingly threatening nuclear capabilities. This proliferation issue will not be solved before Obama’s term as president is over, and the newly-elected president may have to deal with a very dangerous, fully capable nuclear North Korea. As of now, Kim Jong-un has learned that in order for his regime to survive, it is better to stop worrying about North Korea’s economy, populace, infrastructure, and diplomatic relationships, and to embrace and love the bomb instead.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.