North Korea’s atomic bomb: living with the status quo

by Patrick Truffer. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin.

On the 9th of September 2016, North Korea carried out its 5th atomic bomb test. This was the last and largest detonation of the North Korean test series to date (estimates range between 10-20 kt). However, this is not the only worrisome development: at the same time as the nuclear weapons programme, the delivery systems are also being further developed. North Korea carried out a successful test of its new medium-range missile Hwasong-10 on the 22nd of June 2016, which can reach up to 3,500 km with a nuclear warhead (another test on the 25th of October 2016 failed). This means that the major US military bases in Guam could be within the range of this weapon. It is estimated that North Korea will have an intercontinental rocket in about 10 years (Denny Roy, “Preparing for a North Korean Nuclear Missile“, Survival 58, No. 3, May 2016, p. 134).

The alleged unpredictability of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the availability of nuclear warheads and a nuclear weapon delivery system could pose a direct threat to the United States in the long term. This raises the question of how the United States should deal with this looming threat, and what role does China play?

The path to nuclear power
North Korea is one of the countries which became interested in nuclear weapons at a very early point. From 1956, North Korean scientists were able to start gaining experience in the Soviet Union at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna near Moscow. A total of 120-150 North Koreans had been educated there by the 1980s. In September 1959, the Soviet Union eventually signed an agreement on nuclear cooperation with North Korea, which was most likely carried out in response to a similar agreement made between the United States and South Korea in July of the same year. Starting in 1962, the Soviet Union helped North Korea to build the nuclear facilities in Nyŏngbyŏn and supplied them with a 4 MWe light water reactor for research purposes. In 1985, the Soviet Union promised another nuclear reactor if North Korea signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (for more information see Robert A. Wampler, “North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: The Declassified U.S. Record“, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 87, The National Security Archive, April 25, 2003). Despite North Korea’s agreement to the treaty, the reactor was never delivered. It appears that cooperation with the Soviet Union had come to a standstill due to the political upheavals which took place in the late 1980s. This is also the reason why it is not possible for Russia to exert more influence on the North Korean regime today (Roy, p. 133). However, this has not prevented further development of nuclear weapons under the North Korean regime. In 1986, they already had their own first nuclear reactor (5 MWe) with the aim of using it to produce plutonium. Shortly thereafter, work began on a 50 MWe and a 200 MWe reactor, neither of which, however, were completed. If all three reactors had been functional, it would be possible for North Korea to produce enough plutonium for 50 nuclear bombs each year (Richard Stone, “North Korea’s Nuclear Shell Game“, Science 303, No. 5657, January 23, 2004, p. 453).

The United States believed that in 1994, North Korea had produced enough plutonium using its 5 MWe reactor to build 5-6 nuclear devices. At that time, the US was planning to prevent the creation of enriched plutonium fuel rods with an air strike to the reactor using conventional precision bombs (Bruce Cumings, “Getting North Korea wrong“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71, No. 4, July 2015, p. 68f). However, this turned out differently: Thanks to the diplomatic efforts of former US President Jimmy Carter, the “Agreed Framework” was signed by the United States and North Korea. In this treaty, it was agreed that North Korea would immediately stop using the three plutonium producing reactors based on the Magnox design in exchange for two US-sponsored 1,000 MWe light water reactors, which were unsuitable for the production of weapons-grade nuclear material (Stone, p. 453). As compensation for the resulting break in power production, the US would fund the delivery of an equivalent amount of oil until the two light water reactors were up and running. Moreover, North Korea pledged to remain part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to fulfil its obligations therein. In the long term, normalising relations was planned between the US and North Korea, which would be accompanied by the establishment of diplomatic relations and the removal of sanctions. The terms of the “Agreed Framework” were completed by negative security assurances of the US and the commitment to a North-South Korean security dialogue. However, the implementation of the “Agreed Framework” failed in 2003 due to inadequate funding and the associated delay due to the resistance of the US Congress, as well as conflicts between the US and North Korea over an alleged covert uranium enrichment programme. Finally, North Korea withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons permanently in 2003. In response, the six-party talks began in 2004 between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, the US and Russia, which were eventually discontinued in 2009 following a North Korean missile test, carried out by North Korea as a reaction to US sanctions. At the start of 2016, SIPRI estimated that North Korea had about 10 nuclear warheads, with an unknown operational status. With the atomic bomb test in early September of 2016 at the latest, there seems to be no doubt that North Korea has theoretically entered the club of nuclear weapons possessor states.

The status of the North Korean missile programme
The North Korean missile programme was originally based on the design of the Soviet Scud-B short-range missile, which was acquired from Egypt in the 1980s (Andrea Berger, “Disrupting North Korea’s Military Markets“, Survival 58, No. 3, May 03, 2016, p. 104). The Hwasong-5 is thus a copy of the Scud-B missile, and it displays the same performance data with a range of 300 km and a loading capacity of 1,000 kg. The Hwasong-6, however, is a copy of the Scud-C, which can reach 500 km with a loading capacity of 730 kg. A new technology was first used to develop the Nodong and later, the Hwasong-10. Soviet engineers from the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau, who had been employed in the service of North Korea due to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet defence industry, were heavily involved in the development of these rockets. The Nodong is able to reach approximately 900 km with a loading capacity of 1,000 kg. The Hwasong-10 is based on the R-27 Zyb, a Soviet submarine-based medium-range missile (Mark Fitzpatrick, “North Korean security challenges: a net assessment“, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011, p. 130ff). North Korea developed the three-stage Taepodong-2 as a potential intercontinental rocket, which it is assumed can reach approximately 4,000-8,000 km with a loading capacity of 1,000-1,500 kg, and partly relies on Scud technology (Joseph S. Bermudez, “A history of ballistic missile development in the DPRK“, Occasional Paper 2, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 1999, 26). The KN-08, which could be seen in various versions as models for the military parades in 2013 and 2015, is based on Scud technology for the first stage, but on R-27 technology for the second stage. The loading capacity is estimated to be 400 kg, with a target range of approximately 9,000 km. The first test flights probably failed in October 2016, and an operational deployment is only expected in about 10 years (John Schilling, Jeffrey Lewis, and David Schmerler, “A New ICBM for North Korea?“, 38 North, December 22, 2015, p. 2).

Dictator – weapons – girls: by the Guardian staff Dan Chung and Tania Branigan. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il allowed international media to watch his largest ever military parade in October 2010 – part of the campaign to establish his youngest son Kim Jong-un — then still as the leader-in-waiting.

Negotiation strategy 1: Denuclearisation
Some hurdles are expected in any negotiations between the US and North Korea. Negotiations will only come into question on the side of the US if based on the joint statement made at the fourth round of six-party talks in Beijing on the 19th of September 2005, North Korea initiates the first steps towards denuclearisation and joins the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons once again. From the perspective of the US, extortionate behaviour and failure to comply with agreements must not be rewarded by US concessions. Not only would this give the wrong signal internationally and towards South Korea and Japan, but would also be pretty much unacceptable domestically.

From a North Korean point of view, denuclearisation no longer really comes into question following the successful nuclear test on the 9th of September 2016. Based on the high level of distrust towards the US, nuclear weapons play an important role as a security guarantee. Under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the nuclear weapons programme was used as a bargaining chip for the normalisation of relations with the US. However, this no longer seems to be the case and a normalisation of relations under Kim Jong-un is unrealistic in the long-term (Roy, p. 131). Moreover, it is questionable whether the current regime is at all interested in relaxing relations. Not only can the US be used for propaganda purposes as a scapegoat for current grievances, but the regime is also able to legitimise its protective function against alleged US aggression (cf.: B.R. Myers, “Taking North Korea at its word“, NK News, 13th of February 2016). It is therefore highly unlikely that North Korea would agree to denuclearisation – even sanctions nor far-reaching concessions would change anything by the fact.

Negotiation strategy 2: Setting a maximum number of rockets and freezing the rocket programme
Assuming that the nuclear genie cannot be forced back into the bottle, the aim must be a realistic objective adapted to the current situation. In order to satisfy their own security needs, North Korea could be permitted a certain maximum number of nuclear warheads which would not pose a threat to the US due to the missile defence shield (Roy, p. 137f). Associated with this would be a “three noes policy”: no development of nuclear weapons (no nuclear tests either), no transfer of nuclear weapons to other states and no use of nuclear weapons. A similar negotiation strategy would be chosen as that which has already been successfully implemented in the case of Iran (Dingli Shen, “North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and the Search for a New Path Forward: A Chinese Response“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, No. 5, September 02, 2016, p. 345). North Korea would be more likely to accept this negotiation strategy as opposed to denuclearisation. Since the beginning of 2015, the North Korean regime has offered several times to suspend nuclear testing if, in return, the US would dispense with the big military exercises which take place annually with South Korea.

Furthermore, the missile programme could also be frozen as part of the negotiation terms, which means that North Korea would not be able reach the US mainland with the approved nuclear warheads. Of course, South Korea and Japan could not be left to their own fate and would need missile shield, guaranteed by the US. The devil is in the detail: The maximum number of nuclear warheads may have to be sufficient from a North Korean point of view to be able to overcome missile shields in the event of invasion – otherwise this security guarantee would have no practical use in North Korea. However, such a maximum number would hardly be acceptable to the US and its allies. Moreover, the US would logically have to renounce denuclearisation as a precondition for the opening of negotiations, which would be difficult to explain domestically. Opponents of this strategy would justifiably make the criticism that, with the de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power, not only would North Korea come out of the agreement as a winner and an extortionate regime would be rewarded, but also that the nuclear non-proliferation regime would basically be null and void. In the Middle East in particular, other countries could be motivated towards a similarly audacious undertaking.

Sanctions and regime collapse
If a direct negotiation strategy between the US and North Korea does not appear promising, perhaps an indirect way would be to negotiate through an intermediary country which is respected by the United States, and which could have enough influence on North Korea. Only China comes into question here. The voting in the UN Security Council shows that China has no interest in the nuclear armament of North Korea. For example, China voted in favour of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2270 on the 2nd of March 2016, which was adopted in response to the 4th North Korean nuclear test and includes extensive economic sanctions. Whether China would fully abide by the UN sanctions is questionable, however, as China has more to worry about than just a nuclear North Korea: A complete collapse of the North Korean regime (Jane Perlez, “Few Expect China to Punish North Korea for Latest Nuclear Test“, The New York Times, September 11, 2016). Such a collapse could mean an outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula, massive refugee flows into the Chinese border regions and the import of political unrest. Moreover, in the event of Korea being reunified under the leadership of South Korea, China would lose an anti-American buffer state and would simultaneously be confronted with a confident US ally. Access to North Korean mineral resources would also become a thing of the past (Roy, p. 143). Due to the “Pivot to East Asia“, perceived by China as a US containment strategy, China’s confidence in the US is not so strong that it would be prepared to take the risk of such possible scenarios becoming reality. More stringent sanctions – even unilaterally by the United States and its allies – are indeed possible, but without rigorous enforcement on the part of China, these would not achieve the desired effect.

The hope of the US that the North Korean regime will collapse in the meantime and thus resolve the problem itself lis unrealistic. Not only is the population accustomed to the meagre living conditions, it has been internationally isolated and indoctrinated with a state ideology for over at least three generations, which the Kim dynasty places above all else, while blaming the United States for the poor living conditions. An uprising on the part of the population is therefore unlikely. Furthermore, Kim Jong-un has consolidated and strengthened his position since taking power in December 2011, and has secured backing by the armed forces. A regime change would, in any case, not automatically mean that the problem of nuclear weapons and launchers would be solved, and that the relationship with the US would be improved (Cumings, p. 70f); Roy, p. 133ff). On the contrary, the situation could deteriorate uncontrollably through proliferation in other states or even to terrorist organisations. Therefore, the collapse of the North Korean regime would be a high, incalculable risk not only for China, but also for the United States, and is therefore not in their interest.

A photo of the North Korean news agency KCNA shows the test launch of a rocket which was fired from a submarine in April 2016.

A photo of the North Korean news agency KCNA shows the test launch of a rocket which was fired from a submarine in April 2016.

What remains: Living with the status quo
Neither negotiations, sanctions nor the false hope of a regime collapse will bring about much change at all to the status quo in the long-term. A military option should not be considered; the risk of a second Korean War would be too high, in which an uncontrolled escalation and even the use of nuclear weapons could not be ruled out. Such a scenario would have devastating consequences for the entire Northeast Asian region, possibly even for the entire world (Chung-in Moon, “North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and the Search for a New Path Forward: A South Korean Response“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, No. 5, September 02, 2016, p. 344).

The US and its allies will therefore have no choice but to resign themselves to the future status quo – i.e. a nuclear North Korea with intercontinental launchers. This also means that the further expansion of the missile shield must be continued on US territory and expanded over that of US allies, and that the US must have a credible and massive retaliatory capability. With this level of security, it would be possible to live with the status quo, especially if it is assumed that the North Korean regime would behave rationally. Kim Jong-un will be well aware that the first use of nuclear weapons would mean the end of his reign – whether by invasion or even by a retaliatory nuclear strike.

This entry was posted in English, North Korea, Patrick Truffer, Proliferation, Security Policy.

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