North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and an unpredictable young leader
Seuol: North Korea isn’t your regular totalitarian dictatorship. Yes, it has an appalling human rights record, corruption and poverty are rife, and there is no political or economic freedom to speak of.
Yet a couple of chilling characteristics set it apart: a nuclear weapons programme and an unpredictable young leader. Whether Kim Jong Un’s military is capable of an effective nuclear strike is open to question.
But the Asian country’s aggressive rhetoric and regular missile tests, in defiance of United Nations resolutions, are vexing the international community and pressuring China, North Korea’s only major ally, to rein in its errant neighbour.
US President Donald Trump has threatened to deal with Kim’s regime “very strongly,” saying all options — including military ones — are on the table. Tensions escalated in August as the UN Security Council unanimously approved tougher sanctions against North Korea, a response to its quickening pace of nuclear and missile tests.
The Asian country said it would make the US “pay dearly” for the sanctions, prompting Trump to threaten to unleash “fire and fury.” Kim responded by threatening to fire missiles into waters near Guam, where the US has military bases, and by test-firing a ballistic missile over Japan in what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described as “an unprecedented, grave and serious threat.”
Then, in September, North Korea claimed to have successfully carried out its sixth nuclear test, detonating a hydrogen bomb that can be fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Kim’s military twice test-fired long-range ICBMs in July, stating afterward the entire US was now in range. Some military analysts have upgraded their assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capability, with one study concluding the country has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.
The year began with Trump raising the heat then, after talks in April with Chinese President Xi Jinping, agreeing with Beijing to find diplomatic solutions.
He also warned of a “major, major conflict” should those solutions fail and has repeatedly criticized China for failing to do enough. In February, China suspended critical coal purchases from its neighbour while also pushing for talks to resume.
In 2016, North Korea carried out its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in a decade, pushing the UN to tighten sanctions. Over objections from China, the US has deployed a defence system in South Korea designed to take out North Korean missiles aimed at South Korea. The border between the two Koreas is lined with hundreds of thousands of troops.
North Korea has a track record of escalating and then lowering tensions to win diplomatic and economic benefits. In the 1990s, it removed spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, a possible prelude for use in weapons, before former US President Jimmy Carter brokered a deal freezing its program in exchange for help in building a civilian nuclear-energy program.
After North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, multinational disarmament talks produced another agreement to close nuclear facilities, this time in exchange for food and energy assistance. North Korea has since exited the talks and restarted its nuclear program.
The country has been on a war footing since its creation in 1948, following decades of Japanese occupation. Its founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader, invaded South Korea to start the 1950-53 Korean War. Believed to be in his early 30s, the Western-educated Kim Jong Un has carried out the majority of his country’s nuclear tests while railing about America’s “reckless moves” toward a war.
North Korea, which is thought to have six to 20 nuclear warheads, describes its weapons as a “precious sword of justice” against invaders and points out the demise of Iraqi and Libyan regimes after they gave up on nuclear arms. Some 1.3 million of North Korea’s 25 million people are in the active military, with reservists numbering 7.6 million.
Weapons aren’t the only concern: A 2014 UN inquiry accused the regime of human rights abuses on a scale unparalleled in the contemporary world.
Neither the carrot approach (aid and energy in return for concessions) nor stick (international sanctions and military exercises) has produced more than a temporary halt to North Korea’s nuclear program. China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner and supplier of most of its food and energy, could do more to make sanctions effective, according to critics.
For its part, China fears a collapse of the Pyongyang government might prompt an influx of millions of refugees and—in the event of South Korea absorbing its neighbour—create a well-armed US ally straddling its border.
A pre-emptive military strike might succeed in taking out North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites, but the country has too many facilities spread out over too much terrain to destroy simultaneously. Even if North Korea reacted only with conventional weapons, its response, and South Korea’s counter attack, could produce enormous casualties.
Other options include tightening economic sanctions or awaiting the downfall of the Kim dynasty, whether through Kim Jong Un’s ill health or political infighting.
Kim has executed senior advisers including his uncle and one-time guardian, raising concerns about his temperament and the absence of considered counsel. His half-brother was murdered in Malaysia in February.
Some analysts warn that a collapsing North Korea with nuclear weapons would be more dangerous than a stable North Korea with nuclear arms. “North Korea has a serious image problem in South Korea,” says a 2015 survey on South Korean attitudes toward reunification by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies. Bloomberg
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