The DPRK’s fifth nuclear test on September 9 reveals the extent to which the Kim regime is determined to acquire an operational nuclear arsenal. When combined with recent missile test successes like the launch of a Musudan Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) on June 22 and the demonstration of a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) capability with the firing of a Bukguekseong-1 SLBM on 24 August, the latest North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un has shown the international community that he has abandoned all pretenses towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Unlike his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il before him, who were relatively prepared to countenance the North’s denuclearization with the 1994 Agreed Framework and nuclear concessions from 2007 to 2008, respectively, Kim Jong-un seems bent on forging a new North Korean identity as a nuclear state. Evidence of this can be seen in his new national ideology of Byungjin, which legitimizes nuclear arms by claiming that they can be acquired while building a prosperous economy, despite the international isolation enforced upon his nation due to the global opprobrium against nuclear weapons.
Near-Term Options for the US-ROK Alliance
To deal with Kim’s defiant “nukes and butter” Byungjin strategy, a security- and economics-based strategic signaling approach could be one option. On the security front, the yearly U.S.-ROK military exercises that cause Pyongyang so much anxiety could be modified to send the Kim regime a message that any attempt to destabilize South Korea using missiles, covert land infiltration forces, or provocation using naval assets is doomed to failure. Towards this end, exercises involving air defense artillery designed to intercept missiles, like the MIM-104 Patriot Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system or the U.S.-deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ABM system, could be stressed. Additionally, counter-terrorism exercises involving South Korean police along with U.S. and ROK special forces should be held or expanded to showcase the ability of the U.S.-ROK alliance to effectively manage infiltration operations from the DPRK, like the 1996 Gangneung submarine infiltration incident. Lastly, more joint anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare exercises between the U.S. and ROK navies should be held. This would strengthen defenses against a repeat of the Cheonan incident in March 2010, where a South Korea warship, the ROKS Cheonan was allegedly sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Moreover, it would help to guard against the growing SLBM threat from the North. In effect, the message would be that the stability of the status quo is preferred and any attempt to disrupt it would be doomed to embarrassing failure.
Next, in the event of further North Korean economic deterioration, both Washington and Seoul must resist any moves by Pyongyang to offer insignificant measures towards nuclear disarmament in exchange for significant amounts of economic aid. It must be communicated to the latter that its nuclear arms program no longer has any value as an insincere coercive bargaining tool to haggle for compensatory benefits which substitute for participation in the liberally interdependent international market.
Revisiting the last substantive deal between Washington and Pyongyang, where the latter agreed to halt nuclear testing and uranium enrichment in December 2011 in return for food aid, but later caused the deal to collapse in April 2012 by testing a long range rocket, the Kim regime must be clearly told that no one is keen to reward the North for inconsequential “disarmament” that is easily reversed and abandoned. Consequently, this harsher and stricter approach will reduce the value of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program to that of a national pride generator, since it does little to practically affect the balance of power on the Korean peninsula, has negligible commercial value and faces strong resistance from global counter proliferation norms.
Finally, a subsidiary effect of this toughened and more isolating approach is to force the North Korean economy to be even more dependent on Chinese trade, aid and largesse than it already is. This will increase the burden on Beijing’s strategy of keeping the DPRK as a buffer state against the U.S. strategic presence, thereby eroding the PRC’s patience for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile shenanigans, while strengthening the former’s direct influence over the latter if Beijing ever decides that “enough is enough” and subsequently employs coercive economic pressure to compel the North to denuclearize and behave itself.
A Predicted Long-Term Outcome
When the DPRK acquires a reliable nuclear deterrent of sufficient size, it will likely make clear to the PRC, which has economically propped up North Korea all these years, that the former expects to be treated as an equal and not as a client state. At that point, Beijing loses all indirect moral influence over Pyongyang and faces the prospect of ether applying serious economic pressure on North Korea in order to exert direct influence, with the attendant possibility that the Kim regime will retaliate in unpredictable ways, or continuing to support the North as a buffer state while hoping that nuclear arms possession does not embolden Kim Jong-un to take regionally destabilizing action against U.S. forces or the ROK to serve perceived North Korean national interests. Both cases present a “lose-lose” proposition for Beijing.
Moreover, a functional nuclear arsenal under the control of a state as bellicose as the DPRK would naturally lead South Korea to allow the U.S. to substantially expand deployment of advanced ABM systems like the THAAD system on the former’s soil, while adding impetus for Seoul to authorize the ROK’s armed forced to acquire strategic ABM systems of its own. These ABM defenses come with powerful radar capabilities able to conduct surveillance of Chinese airspace, which Beijing fiercely objects to.
Having established that short term measures against the DPRK can only further enforce its isolation and strengthen the efficacy of Chinese persuasive pressure on Pyongyang, it must be emphasized that a nuclear armed North Korea does not serve Chinese national interests. Accordingly, it would behoove the PRC not to continue “kicking the can down the road,” in the belief that the North Korean nuclear conundrum would resolve itself. A belligerent DPRK brandishing nuclear weapons and the ubiquity of intrusive ABM linked radar stations in the ROK need not be a foregone conclusion, but only if Beijing acts resolutely and expeditiously to pull the appropriate economic levers, and remind Kim Jong-un that his state survives only because of Chinese benevolence, the cost of which is North Korean nuclear non-proliferation.
Liang Tuang Nah, PhD is a Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.