26 Feb 2018

Photo: flickr.com

On November 29th last year, North Korea successfully tested a Hwasong-15 missile, and once again the media was flooded with features on the DPRK's nuclear weapons programme. Does this mean that North Korea now had the bomb? Who was in their sights? How would this change the balance of power in Asia?

History has taught us that sanctions by other powers have not helped improve the situation with North Korea. Sometimes, the best response is to just stay silent.

Building a better bomb

The November 29th test may have been an important milestone, but, it was far less important than what the media suggested. Memories of the top-secret nuclear programmes of the Cold War have implanted the idea of the nuclear deterrent as a binary phenomenon in the popular imagination. In the early years of nuclear development, weapons programmes were kept strictly secret until the day that the first bomb was demostrated and the news proclaimed it to the world. It gave the public the impression that there existed a clear line between those countries that had the bomb and those that did not. As North Korea has demonstrated, however, the development of a nuclear programme is, in practice, a process made up of thousands of little steps, not one big one.

The first step, building a nuclear bomb, is surprisingly easy. With sufficient dedication, you could probably do it in your garage. Building a better bomb is what takes the effort, and what North Korea has been engaged in since its first successful test (either in 2006 or 2009, depending how one defines successful). Thus far, North Korea's bomb tests have been small by global standards large bombs could not be tested underground as has been the DPRK's habit though it has made some progress in terms of its yields. An even greater challenge lies in delivering the bomb: building a functioning ICBM is a delicate business, requiring engineers to maximise heft while minimising weight.

A way to miniaturise the intended warheads must also be found (a milestone passed by North Korea in summer 2017), and a light-but-powerful fuel mix must be concocted. It is this particular target that North Korea appears to have hit on November 29th. Its immediate neighbours in East Asia have always been easy targets. But, North Korea's combination of miniature warhead technology and the Hwasong-15 delivery system now makes her capable of striking the mainland United States using ICBM-mounted nuclear weapons.

The best time to start a war

The next question is What to do about this? To which, the short answer is that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.

North Korea has been engaged in all of these processes more or less in plain sight since its initial threat to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. The reality of the situation is that no one cared sufficiently to prevent them. This is unsurprising in these circumstances. The only way of doing this would have been through military action of some variety or another, and no other interested party had the stomach for the chaos that was likely to follow in the wake of either a failed or a successful operation.

The various sanctions programmes, while effective in slowing economic development, were, even from the beginning, based more upon signalling disapproval than preventing proliferation. It has been clear for many years that they were failing in the latter goal. Even with perfect implementation, success was unlikely, but China which is more worried about political instability within North Korea than its nuclear ambitions has, since the end of the famine in the 1990s, helped to ensure economic growth and thus regime stability, by ignoring the majority of its UN sanctions obligations and allowing relatively free trade across its borders.

So, while the precise date and time of the November 29th test were not known, the fact that it would happen one day soon was plain to all lucid observers. Various foreign leaders must have been crossing their fingers that it would not happen on their watch, but there was no doubt that it would happen.

All of this makes the situation seem, on the face of it, pretty bleak. However, things are not necessarily as bad as one may suspect, for various reasons.

Silver linings

Firstly, while the DPRK is often portrayed as a nation of terrified automata led by a madman, this is far from being the case. In fact, over the years, the country's foreign policy has generally been impressively logical, with successive leadership teams showing an ability to change horses in midstream whenever one potential source of outside assistance - whether Russia, China, South Korea, or the U.S. - grows tired of their antics.

The DPRK political system survives not because the people are inherently cowed and obedient (the survivors of the famine are generally not) or because of the Kim family's absolute authoritarian control (the government has largely abandoned attempts to steer the economy, for example, creating a strange parody of a libertarian paradise), but because no matter how bad things get, almost everyone involved has just a little more interest in perpetuating the status quo than in attempting to change it. So, while there is very little chance of North Korea suddenly switching course and deciding to become a model democracy, it is similarly unlikely that the leadership will decide to fire off nuclear weapons at random in a fit of dictatorial pique.

Similarly, while U.S. President Donald Trump's tweets on the North Korea issue have been subjected to much ridicule from the press, he has proved himself as high-ranking defector Thae Yong-ho has observed a surprisingly adept DPRK-wrangler. With his offers of talks, jokey subtweets and military manoeuvres, Trump is effectively increasing the number of options on the table, and allowing the North Koreans to decide on the path they wish to take: If you want to talk, we'll talk; if you want to exchange silly insults, we'll exchange silly insults; if you want to fight, we'll fight. This stands in sharp contrast to President Obama, who frustrated allies by preventing the resumption of the Six Party talks while leaving them in doubt regarding his willingness to go to war in their defense should a crisis blow up. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also praised President Trump's Twitter diplomacy when he was in Singapore last November, when he told the Barclays Asia Forum that it was the right approach to take with the North Korean regime.

While it is probable that both Japan and South Korea will respond to North Korea's new deterrent by engaging in a military build-up and possibly even by acquiring nuclear weapons of their own, this outcome may not be as disastrous as it first appears. Much like North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, the normalisation of Japanese and South Korean defence policies is something that was always going to happen sooner or later: the shift away from a unipolar pax Americana towards a more anarchic international order makes the outcome inevitable. Thus, it is probably better for all concerned if it takes place at a relatively peaceful time such as the present, rather than in the heat of some future crisis, during which the chances of defensive manoeuvres being misinterpreted as aggressive is far higher.

The sanctions issue

And what of North Korea, now that it has achieved its nuclear ambition? It may launch itself upon the reconquest of the South, as some foreign pundits have suggested, though the prospect seems unlikely. The disparity in conventional forces and the likelihood of U.S. and Chinese intervention would ensure a North Korean defeat, carrying with it the likely demise of the high-level leadership and the occupation of the country. The most likely outcome is that things will continue much as usual, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

While it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that North Korea will enjoy a Deng Xiaoping moment with a visible turn towards outward-looking liberal reform, this does not mean that such reform is not happening, in its own quiet way. It may be difficult to identify any change in the regime's public declarations, but alternative indicators the number of Disney and Pixar DVDs for sale on the black market, the spread of K-pop inspired fashion among the younger generation, the growing popularity of mobile games and apps within the DPRK intranet show tentative progress towards a more Chinese style of capitalist authoritarianism.

This should in no way be read as intending to minimise the abuses and oppression inflicted upon the North Korean people by their government, but the experience of the past quarter of a century has taught us that sanctions and hostility do nothing to alleviate the government's exactions, and may well make them worse.

In the famine of the 1990s, it became clear that the long-run shortage of carrots placed the country's leadership in a situation in which it felt (rightly or wrongly) that it had to rely almost entirely upon the stick to retain its control over the populace. In other words, as distasteful as the prospect of doing nothing may be, the choice seems now to be between expressing our disapproval and making things worse, or staying silent while they slowly improve.

Jennifer Dodgson is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.