North Korea’s nuclear weapons: The bigger picture

NATO heads of states discussed the multitude of threats at their summit in Wales earlier this month. The debate was predictably dominated by the Russian – Ukrainian crisis, though delegates also discussed how best to strengthen Afghan National Security Forces. Buried within the summit declaration was the condemnation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for carrying out nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests. It demanded the isolated and poverty-stricken state respect the relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and the 2005 Joint Statement from the Six-Party Talks between China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the United States.

But it is difficult not to conclude that this demand is rather empty. Since the joint statement, DPRK has tested four nuclear devices (2006, 2009, 2012, and 2013) and shows a constant determination to be a nuclear-armed state. Negotiations have failed to achieve transparency of block the country’s progress towards a nuclear-armed state, and the Six-Party Talks were discontinued in 2009.

The posture adopted by nuclear-armed states is usually determined by defensive deterrence, but North Korean leaders have been outspoken in threatening pre-emptive nuclear attack in punishment. North Korea is currently unable to reach the continental United States with a nuclear armed missile, but the possibility is enough for the US to position interceptors in Alaska to shoot down any North Korean missiles.

Closer to North Korea, this is a region with neighbors wrought with an unstable and violent history. North Korea’s significant arsenal of shorter-range conventional missiles able to reach a number of major cities in South Korea, Japan and China already provides a major deterrent. Having nuclear weapons in the mix is a dangerous concoction. The threat will only increase if DPRK develops the capability to miniaturize their warheads and to build new and more powerful bombs.

Inside the DPRK

Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea, is widely seen as pursuing totalitarian policies, which deny political freedom and civil liberties. Trade and agricultural policies have caused widespread shortages of food and led to famine in the country. The potential for instability and or factional fighting, and the broader consequences arising from mass migration and starvation, have tended to deter neighboring states from taking a stronger line with the country.

From the outside looking in, the DPRK’s governance seems irrational and illogical. But for an isolated country with no sincere allies and a feeling of being removed from the world’s stage, pursing nuclear weapons at all costs is one means they use to seek survival, as well as strengthening their relationship with Russia. The two countries, undergoing testing times, are bolstering economic and political ties. North Korea has promised to ease visa procedures, facilitating easier access for Russian companies to start business in the country. On the other hand, Moscow intends to increase annual trade with North Korea to billion by 2020.

Nevertheless, there remain hints that there may be means to influence North Korea through cultural diplomacy. Take Kim Jong-Un’s obsession with basketball and befriending of NBA star Dennis Rodman, for example. In an increasingly globalized, interdependent world, where the proliferation of mass communication ensures greater access to one another than ever before, cultural diplomacy (and soft power) is critical to enhancing peace and stability.

North Korea’s nuclear future

The dangers arising from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are multi-dimensional. Beyond the direct threat of use by an unpredictable regime in crisis, nuclear weapons could be used as pawns in a power struggle, or smuggled abroad and sold to the highest bidder. North Korea allegedly helped Syria build a nuclear reactor that could have produced materials for nuclear weapons. Although that reactor, Al Kibar, was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in September 2007, this situation revealed that Pyongyang’s inventory base of nuclear technology had been growing. Just last week, the United Nations issued a statement informing the international community that it had evidence that North Korea is operating a nuclear reactor. After years of relying on foreign-sourced technology to develop its nuclear weapons, North Korea appears to have become more self-sufficient. The state’s current nuclear arsenal is very small and has limited utility.

The size of the arsenal is limited by the plutonium inventory, which is estimated to be sufficient for roughly six to eight bombs. Pyongyang has been developing their capacity to produce highly enriched uranium, despite strict trade controls and sanctions imposed on the country by the United Nations targeted on the industry. Recently, North Korea claimed that it had successfully miniaturized a nuclear device for a test with its missiles, though most analysts doubt its capability to do this and that even if it were possible, it would be highly unreliable.
Efforts were made by the United States in 2012 to resume the Six Party Talks that had been frozen since 2009. The US offered to provide substantial food aid in return for the North agreeing to a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile testing and a return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to Yongbyon, North Korea’s plutonium reactor and major nuclear facility. Their attempt failed. This year, China’s efforts to resume the talks, have also met with obstruction. The North Koreans appear determined to make great sacrifices to develop their nuclear capabilities.

As the first and only state to ever withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, it is likely that we will hear more about North Korea at the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) next spring, especially as there still is disagreement within the NPT members over the legal position of North Korea’s withdrawal. As much as we tend to neglect or disregard North Korea, especially in the light of other international security threats we should stay tuned to see what is next because unregulated nuclear material and weapons are a threat to all of us.


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