In early November, North Korean officials showed off a new uranium enrichment facility, consisting of some 2,000 recently constructed centrifuges, to an American nuclear scientist. Although the North Koreans claim the facility is designed to manufacture fuel for a nuclear power plant, enrichment can also be used to make weapons-grade fissile material. Until now, North Korea has used the plutonium produced by its Yongbyon nuclear facility to manufacture fissile material for its nuclear explosive devices, including those it detonated in 2006 and 2009.
Finally, on November 23, the North Koreans launched an artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, a South Korean possession located in the disputed border region, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two South Korean civilians. North Korea accepted responsibility for that attack, but claimed it followed a South Korean military exercise that violated the Northern Limit Line, the maritime sea border in the West (“Yellow” in Chinese) Sea, as well as earlier provocative joint Korea-U.S. military drills. The North Korean artillery attack on a civilian target outraged the South Korean public.
Although the reasons for the North Korean provocations in 2010 are unclear, they probably were at least in part due to the succession process within the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding. The Kim regime might have sought to reassure other members of the North Korean leadership about the fitness of the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un to rule by demonstrating his ability to stand up to foreign pressure over the March and November provocations.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
And yet, as bad as 2010 was, 2011 has been relatively calm. The North Korean leadership has issued several proposals calling for renewed inter-Korean defense talks, citing the need to relax cross-border tensions. Pyongyang has also reaffirmed interest in returning to the Six-Party Talks on
relinquishing its weapons, as well as its nuclear weapons infrastructure.
But while North Korea’s most well-known and obvious threat is its nuclear weapons program, it also possesses the world’s third largest chemical weapons stockpile, and has acquired a large number of ballistic missiles, some of which Pyongyang sells on the open market. Moreover, North Korea has around 80,000 special forces for covert infiltration and other disruptive missions. Reports suggest that North Korea also possesses the potential to produce an additional 4-12 plutonium bombs.
South Korea and the United States, under its policy of “strategic patience,” have demanded that North Korea give some concrete indication that it will make major nuclear concessions. Unlike its two immediate predecessors, the administrations of Presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), the current government under President Lee Myung-bak has joined the United States in insisting that Pyongyang end its nuclear weapons program as part of any inter-Korean peace deal.
But even if the succession process goes smoothly, and the Six-Party Talks resume, a number of obstacles could thwart progress. For instance, a peace agreement is still needed to formally end the Korean War, while North Korean leaders may decide that having nuclear weapons is now essential for its security. Meanwhile, the ability of the United States to credibly deter a North Korean attack is coming into question due to North Korea’s emerging potential to launch nuclear warheads against the United States.
Although expectations regarding the demise of the Kim regime have been both frequent and incorrect, the circumstances may now be conducive for major changes. The regime is experiencing an unprecedented conjunction of crises, of which four interlinked problems are most serious.
First, the early death of the father means that political succession will likely be a contested one. The whole process of dynastic political inheritance in a nominally Marxist-Leninist state is somewhat bizarre.