The Koreas

North Korea’s ICBMs: What Now?

Pyongyang’s ICBMs do little to change the overall U.S.-DPRK strategic calculus.

North Korea’s ICBMs: What Now?
Credit: Pixabay

Since North Korea tested its first nuclear device in 2006, it has been subjected to seven rounds of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, which have imposed sanctions on its nuclear and missile programs as well as its economy. Despite these punitive measures and the DPRK’s ostracized status, it has to date carried out five nuclear tests and conducted two successful tests of its Hwasong-14 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on July 4 and 28. Technical analysts have judged the missile capable of hitting Los Angeles or Chicago.

Does this new weapon change the U.S.-DPRK strategic dynamic? More importantly, what can the international community, and in particular the United States do to contain the threat from Pyongyang?  

The Geostrategic Status Quo Remains

Even assuming that North Korea’s nuclear and missile technicians have been able to miniaturize nuclear warheads for mounting atop the Hwasong-14, that these warheads can survive the extreme temperatures encountered as the missile re-enters the earth’s atmosphere on its way to the target, and that the missile guidance system is accurate enough for it to hit at least a city-sized target, this does not change fundamental U.S.-DPRK geostrategic realities.

The United States has thousands of nuclear warheads in service and arguably possesses the most sophisticated land-based, airborne, and ocean-going nuclear delivery systems in the world. Coupled with the most advanced conventional air, land, and sea military forces, this means that the DPRK has no hope of prevailing in a war with America and its South Korean ally. That being said, Pyongyang has not realistically faced the threat of a U.S. invasion or even limited military action since the armistice. Notwithstanding the protection provided by the China-North Korea mutual aid treaty signed in 1961, Pyongyang holds Seoul hostage with thousands of artillery pieces and short range ballistic rockets, threatening to inflict mass casualties on the South Korean capital’s 9.9 million population. It is the due consideration for the lives of South Korean civilians that makes pre-emptive military action by the U.S.-ROK alliance against North Korea unthinkable. Essentially, even without the North’s nuclear arms program, there existed a “balance of threat” which has logically “deterred” any hostile moves from Washington or Seoul.      

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The Heightened Threat from the DPRK’s Operational Nuclear Arms

Setting aside any paranoid motivations driving the Kim regime to acquire nuclear munitions at all costs, a dispassionate analysis of the increased danger from Pyongyang’s control over functioning nuclear warheads and missiles reveals three key sources of peril.

Firstly, if the North has reliable long range missiles mated to functional nuclear warheads, it is likely to be more disruptive to regional stability, as it might be far more prone to antagonistic adventurism. If Pyongyang is willing to order the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia with its current nuclear capabilities, how far would it be willing to go if it had a functional nuclear deterrent, which emboldens the Kim regime to see the DPRK as a major regional power?

Secondly, the production of fissile material for atomic warheads has the potential to be environmentally damaging. If North Korea ramps up the production of nuclear warheads, the risk of nuclear accidents and associated spread of radioactive fallout to Asia and beyond increases exponentially.  

Finally, the DPRK as a de facto nuclear state creates a dangerous precedent as it would act as a shining beacon for atomic munitions aspirants. Basically, the message would be, “no matter how poor or ostracized you are, you too can build nuclear bombs.” Now that the international community is confronted with a rogue state bearing the ultimate weapon, what can the United States and its allies realistically do over the medium to long term?

A Suggested Practical Policy Course: Threat Limitation

For all his bellicose threats to unleash destruction upon Seoul and Washington, it’s a safe bet that Kim Jong-un is not suicidal and will not court devastating, regime-ending reprisals. Hence, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons will never be used, being effectively neutralized by American nuclear deterrence. That said, and for reasons given in the above mentioned paragraphs, it would be prudent to stymie the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal as much as possible to minimize its secondary and proliferation based threat. Economics provides a possible answer.

As shown by the pace of DPRK missile and warhead development, Pyongyang is willing to divert all the funds it needs from the official economy to grow the Kim regime’s nuclear teeth. Therefore, the North Korean economy is fair game and should be targeted by secondary sanctions or pressure, designed to deprive the North of trade partners.

Examining statistics, we can see that apart from China and Russia, the DPRK’s other export customers include states like the Philippines, India, Taiwan, and even Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates, which recently bought $100 million worth of military products from North Korea. These nations are receptive to political and economic persuasion from Washington and can be convinced to server economic ties with the DPRK. Even as the eventual revenue loss will only amount to the low hundreds of millions in U.S. dollars, this will still substantially hinder the Kim regime’s revenue flow, given the relatively small size of their economy, and add to whatever pressure Beijing and Moscow are prepared to exert. Fundamentally, Washington’s message could be, “you can do business with Uncle Sam or you can trade with young marshal Kim but not both.”

Additionally, the United States and its allies could place pressure on states that have indirect links with North Korea to further hinder the latter’s acquisition of dual use technology and ability to earn foreign exchange through service provision. For instance, the aforementioned nations could be coaxed into limiting the number of DPRK diplomats accredited to their capitals. Not only will this communicate to the Kim regime that there is an ostracizing cost to its nuclear and missile testing, but such moves will also hinder Pyongyang’s attempts to evade international sanctions or conduct illicit activities to raise revenue. Furthermore, de facto pro-Western countries hosting North Korean business entities like restaurants and trading firms, which earn valuable revenue for Pyongyang, could be convinced to gradually reduce the presence of such companies by not renewing business licenses and implementing a moratorium on new licenses for such firms. Lastly, states which recruit North Korean labor might be cajoled to send these people home, as the DPRK government reaps most of their salaries as revenue and only pays a pittance to these workers. Taken together, these non-trade related isolationist measures, along with the previously mentioned curtailment of trade ties, would lead to the yearly loss of several hundreds of millions of dollars worth of foreign currency earnings, significantly impacting Pyongyang’s finances, thereby making it even more challenging to fund future nuclear and missile aggrandizement.     

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In conclusion, since military action against North Korea has considerable consequences, the next best option is to tighten UNSC sanctions enforcement amongst all states friendly to the U.S.-ROK-Japan coalition, persuade the North’s subsidiary trading partners to sever economic ties, and coax other states to implement indirect diplomatic and economic isolative measures. Although these steps do not enforce nuclear and missile roll-back, they do potentially mean the difference between Kim Jong-un having several dozen nuclear tipped ICBMs to substantiate his threats and limited North Korean bellicosity supported by only several ICBMs and similarly equipped shorter ranged missiles, which could be more easily intercepted.  

Liang Tuang Nah is a Research Fellow of the Military Studies Program at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University