North Korean nuclear crisis

This is the first of a two-part series on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear provocations. (See second part)

There are almost 18,000 nuclear warheads distributed among nine nuclear-armed states in the world today. Over 90 percent of these are in Russian and U.S. arsenals. But concerns about the growth in nuclear weapons stockpiles are focused on China, India, North Korea and Pakistan.

North Korea is estimated to have four to 10 nuclear warheads — the smallest arsenal of all — and remains the subject of intense diplomatic efforts aimed at reversing its nuclear status. Its nuclear and missile programs are a source of instability and tension in a region vital to global security and economic prosperity.

Having withdrawn from the NPT in 2003, Pyongyang has repeatedly made commitments to abandon the weapons path in return for security assurances and economic assistance, shelved its nuclear ambitions temporarily, and then broken its promises serially.

Its 2006 and 2009, nuclear tests drew international condemnations and U.N.-mandated sanctions, prompting it to walk out of the six-party talks. Security Council Resolution 1874 (June 12, 2009) prohibited further tests or launches using ballistic missile technology, and toughened the sanctions. After initial failure in April 2012, a long-range rocket was successfully launched on Dec. 12. Japanese experts were impressed by the precision of the rocket technology and by the fact that the test was planned for and executed during adverse winter conditions.

Many condemned the launch as a disguised ballistic missile test forbidden by U.N. resolutions. This was followed by a third nuclear test Feb. 12.

Nuclear weapons can be made from highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. HEU technology can be more easily disguised and concealed and is the route that Iran may be taking to build up its bomb-making capability. Plutonium bombs are easier to miniaturize for mounting warheads on missiles. North Korea’s first two tests were plutonium-fueled; we do not know whether uranium or plutonium was used in this year’s test.

In a swiftly escalating cycle of harsh international reactions to the test and toughening rhetoric of war from Pyongyang, North Korea invalidated the 1953 armistice agreement, cut hot lines to Seoul and Washington, threatened to raze Seoul and strike U.S. targets, and closed the jointly operated industrial zone in Kaesong to nearly 500 South Korean workers.

The regime enacted a new law enshrining its nuclear weapons status — which deepens the stake in keeping the bomb, creates a bureaucratic constituency for it and raises the political costs of changing policy. Pyongyang also announced that it would restart and readjust its uranium enrichment plant and plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon that had been mothballed in October 2007 under the six-party talks that then faltered and stalled. The stated justification was both power generation and bolstering the quality and quantity of its nuclear armed force. About 8,000 fuel rods are required to run the reactor; reprocessing spent fuel rods after the reactor has been operating for a year could yield 6 to 7 kg of plutonium. One nuclear bomb requires about 5 kg of plutonium.

North Korea has a long history of serial threats and provocations, including the sinking of the corvette Cheonan that killed 46 crew and the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died in late 2011, was skilled at calibrating tensions and cooling it in return for oil, aid or respect. But the son who succeeded him, Kim Jong Un, is a young and inexperienced leader. He might be trying to reprise his father’s and grandfather’s tactics of ratcheting up tensions, winning additional concessions, distracting attention from domestic problems, and then winding down tensions again.

The timing of the last crisis may have been related to annual joint military exercises by Seoul and Washington that this year included practice runs by U.S. B-52 bombers and nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 stealth fighters — exercises that mimic nuclear strikes against the North and worry Beijing as well by giving concrete expression to the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Most Western media reports amplified the North’s bellicose rhetoric without highlighting the joint military exercises that provoked them, thereby feeding public perceptions of a crazed young leader and regime.

We cannot be confident of Kim’s motives. He might have wanted to ward off a genuinely feared threat; to bolster domestic leadership credibility by projecting himself as tough; to ensure that he has the continuing support of the military; to strengthen domestic cohesion; to try and position himself to extract economic concessions; etc. It is part of established theories of strategic deception to make your enemy believe that you will act irrationally and vindictively when your vital interests are attacked.

Its nuclear weapons are claimed by North Korea to be a hedge against U.S. attack: Would Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi have suffered their horrible fates if they had acquired and held on to nuclear weapons?

It also sees a nuclear weapons capability as a means of maximizing positive outcomes from negotiations with its adversaries; the test and the crisis could be a means of prepositioning Pyongyang to extract more benefits from future talks. “Provoke then negotiate” has long been North Korea’s strategy.

Outside confidence that Kim Jong Un can play the same game as his predecessors with matching skill is not high. He could miscalculate Seoul, Tokyo and/or Washington’s response to his provocations. He could misjudge his own escalatory and negotiating skills or power. Another cause of worry was the leadership transitions in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo along with the relatively new North Korean leader himself.

North Korea already has between 25 to 40 kg of plutonium, enough to make up to eight more bombs, but it does not have much by way of a nuclear arsenal and even less of a delivery capability for hitting targets far (United States, Australia, Britain) or near (Japan).

North Korea is not believed to have mastered the technology to miniaturize warheads and make them robust enough to withstand the rigors of a ballistic missile flight trajectory, such as high-gravity forces, vibrations and temperature extremes. They pose no imminent threat therefore to the U.S. mainland. Nor do they have the targeting accuracy to pose a threat even to Japan.

A good clue to the episode being more theater than crisis was the calm with which the citizens of Seoul went about their quotidian lives while the world watched tensely to see what would happen next. With successive generations having grown up and lived under the existential threat from the North, many have become blase about the risks.

The risk of a war that neither side wanted lay more in the possibility of miscommunication, misperception and miscalculation that could have seen the cycle of provocation and escalation spin out of control.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University, and is coeditor of the The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.

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