North-Korean Nuclear Question: A Critical Analysis

Sayantan Bandyopadhyay
December 22, 2019


DPRK conducted a satellite test from its launch facility at the Sohae Satellite Launch site on December 15, 2019, which aims to help North Korea in perfecting its ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) launching capabilities to strategically hit the US mainland. North Korea has threatened in its latest press release on December 12, 2019 of embarking on a new path if the US misses the year-end deadline extended by it. There is very high speculation that DPRK may carry out more missile launches to coerce the West to make compromises. North Korea is not even willing to sit for negotiations without a clear indication from the US about its intent to make concessions.

North Korea is now a Nuclear Weapons State and has formally announced its Byungjin policy, which aims for the simultaneous pursuit of Nuclear Weapons and economic development. The North is estimated to have around 20 to 30 Nuclear Warheads as per a study of Stockholm Research Institute and is testing new missiles every month, gravely endangering the security of the world. DPRK has conducted six nuclear tests, and after September 2017 tests, it claimed to possess a thermonuclear device. In June 2017, it tested its first ICBM, which makes it capable of striking Japan, South Korea, US bases in Guam, and even the US mainland. DPRK has proclaimed itself as a Nuclear weapon state as per its revised 2012 constitution. However, its quest for recognition as a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) is not forthcoming due to the use of methods of deny-delay and deviate to achieve this status. North Korea is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is the only country to have unilaterally withdrawn from NPT in 2003 after Uranium enrichment plans were discovered in 2002. DPRK also possesses large number of chemical and biological weapons. 

North Korea wants to use its nuclear capability as a bargaining chip for gaining economic and political concessions, but now it seems they wanted to use Nuclear weapons for deterrence. Western intelligence believes North Korea can have even more sinister designs like forcefully unifying the Korean peninsula by using the nukes, or use nukes to attack against its old enemies like Japan or use it against its arch enemies like the US to teach them a lesson. This fear of North Korea challenging the US and its allies puts them in a difficult position and makes it crucial for them to contain and restrain DPRK. 

Sanctions on North Korea

North Korea has been facing pressure by the West, led by the US. The US has four strategic interests in the Korean peninsula which it will have to protect 1)The Security of the mainland, its overseas military bases and its East Asian Allies, 2) Containment against potential intimidating competitors on the peninsula, DPRK in the short term and PRC(the People’s Republic of China, an emerging Superpower)in the long term 3) Maintaining Regional, political, economic, social and security systems and the international order dominated by the US. 4)Promoting American values as the best values and changing DPRK’s regime. This clash of interests between the US and DPRK is what makes them so hostile and inimical towards each other.

DPRK has been under Economic sanctions for a long period of time for its open defiance of international norms through its nuclear, missile tests and many other illicit activities. There are multiple sanctions imposed on it by multilateral bodies like UNSC, European Union (EU) and even on a bilateral basis by countries like US, Australia, Taiwan, China, Russian Federation, and others blocking a variety of weapon-related transactions, luxury items, banking, financial and general travel and trade. The basic crux of Economic sanctions is quite simple – the high cost of sanctions will be counterproductive, and the regime will be coerced to change policy as the high costs of sanctions will make lives difficult for the populace and will lead to domestic turmoil. This worked for Iran, South Africa, and even in Libya, but in the case of North Korea- economic sanctions could not pressurize the regime for a policy change. Moreover, new data suggests, North Korean economy has in fact developed over the past few months despite international economic sanctions. If we wish to understand why economic sanctions are being circumvented, we need to understand the nature of the regime. At first, it is difficult to convince all the stakeholders to enforce sanctions due to the divergence of interests. China has 1,420 kilometers of border with DPRK and is unfenced at many places, so China has a huge interest in regime security and wishes to prevent mass refugee infiltration across its borders. Hence, China continued to support DPRK to a significant extent. Then economic sanctions’ goals will be achieved only in case of effective implementation, but DPRK seemed to have perfected the art of evasion of economic sanctions through middle-men and by changing the names of various firms.

China and Russia have been seldom accused by the US of blunting the teeth of the sanctions through ineffective implementation, but in UNSC Resolutions 2375 and 2397, both the nations have participated fully for enforcing sanctions. They have imposed stringent restrictions on import and export of crude oil and petroleum products, which are considered as DPRK’s lifeline. DPRK has discovered a new way to deal with shortfall by C1 chemistry (production of synthetic fuels through coal gasification).It also enables the production of various chemicals like fertilizers, raisin, and olefin. They have also increased food production with the ability to produce 5 million tons of cereals and 2 million tons of rice. There are no famine-like conditions in DPRK as popularly portrayed by Western Media, and the government has found ways to be completely self-reliant and resilient in the face of sanctions. The Bank of Korea showcased how DPRK has a growth rate of 3.6% in 2016 with boom in energy and mining sectors. This percentage was a 17 year high and was definitely considered impressive for a country growing against so many global sanctions.

It may be undeniable that nuclear weapons definitely bring additional confidence to the table when one is dealing with military options.  So if DPRK’s core interests are threatened then it will definitely move to protect them not because it possess Nuclear weapons but because it is capable to do so with greater self-confidenceSecondly, Nuclear weapons do bring a level of stability from an all-out war, but by increasing stability at the top, it can be argued this stability leads to instability at the bottom with border clashes, covert operations, and naval operations coming to the center stage. Thirdly, North Korean leaders may only use Nuclear weapons when they feel death with glory is better than defeat and is only feasible when the regime feels existentially threatened. In any future military clash, antagonistic powers will have to keep in mind any fear of an attempt to change regimes can bring forward a nuclear response. Fourthly, the behavior of a large nuclear arsenal possessing nation is difficult to predict as Large arsenals provide more options, more time for rational calculations, and decision-making. However, a large arsenal, especially in the case of countries like the DPRK and US, who totally hate and distrust each other, can have deleterious effects when the US’s misperceptions are combined with inefficient command and control systems of North Korea.

12 Point Roadmap for Denuclearization

The following is a 12 point comprehensive roadmap to bring about a unified denuclearized Korea. This roadmap is based on the assumption that Kim Jong-Un has no intention to discard DPRK’s nuclear program, as it helps to safeguard his regime and consolidate his position domestically and any rapid regime change can have adversarial effects on the core interests of the major powers of the region along with deaths due to domestic turmoil. 

First, the US needs to extend its nuclear deterrence and make it more robust and effective to deny DPRK the advantage of nuclear blackmail. Secondly, the essential idea of imposing sanctions needs to be targeted with smart changes to make the lives of North Korean elites more difficult. However, it is easier said than done as DPRK continues to become self-reliant in food, fuel, steel, and cereal production, and hence an effective international coalition with concrete information can formulate these sanctions. Thirdly, using a carrot and stick model where good behavior will be rewarded, and dialogues will be conditional and targeted. Fourthly, the coalition of major powers needs to build a working bottom-line where they will decide the clear cut objectives, prioritize denuclearization with a permanent peace regime, ultimately leading to unification. Fifthly, this 4th step needs to be executed step by step with concessions from US allies to evoke good behavior, security commitments, and then alternative energy supplies and verification routes if they start responding to the steps. Sixthly, Confidence building measures needs to be made from both the sides to ease tensions and create an atmosphere for understanding each otherSeventhly, DPRK has an effective cyber hackers team which needs to be countered with a more robust international coalition of best hackers around the world to provide more options on the table of major powers to react with internet warriors to cripple their essential systems and cut DPRK’s elites (including hackers) from essential services. Eighthly, the US needs to have more North Korean centers and more research to understand North Korean polity and society better. Ninthly, major powers need to create more practical mechanisms to address DPRK’s core concerns. Tenthly, Denuclearization and Security guarantees need to be negotiated simultaneously in a dual-track method. Eleventh, a neutral third party can be used as an observer or partner like Singapore, and Vietnam was used for the two US-DPRK summits in 2018-19.

DPRK can have genuine security aspirations just like any other country to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is totally justified. So any negotiations needs to come with a security guarantee and provide them a fair deal but if they insist on remaining a Nuclear power they have to prove themselves as a responsible Nuclear Weapons power with a unilateral moratorium on nuclear test, No First Use Policy, efficient command and control mechanisms only maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent and agreeing to promise by an agreement never to share their nuclear technologies with any state or non-state actors against international laws.

*** The author is a 2nd-year post-graduate student pursuing Political Science with specialization in International Relations at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. His areas of interest are primarily India’s foreign policy, India’s defense Policy, Asia-Pacific, International Organizations, and the nuances of India’s domestic political and societal discourse with special emphasis on Castes and Reservations ***