Nuclear North Korea: just how worried should we be?

By Dr Andrew Futter, Lecturer in International Politics, University of Leicester.

In the past week the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPKR) has warned that the safety of British citizens in the Republic of Korea (ROK) cannot be guaranteed, and that two nations on the peninsular should consider themselves in a ‘state of war’.  This announcement follows several months of increased diplomatic and military manoeuvring by the North – beginning with a rocket launch in December last year (widely seen as a clandestine long-range missile test as the technology is broadly similar) and culminating many suspect in a fourth nuclear weapons tests sometime in the next few months.  While this is not the first time that North Korean actions have caused grave concern on the peninsular, the uncertainty of a new leadership keen to ensure its position domestically, combined with significant increases in the DPRK’s nuclear and conventional weapons capability, has heightened tensions within the region, and throughout the wider world.

While inter-Korean relations have never been normalised since the Korean War ceasefire of 1953, it is only recently, in 2006, that the North has acquired the ultimate weapon.  Since then it has conducted two further tests, in 2009 and February 2013, and moved ahead with a range of missiles and other systems capable of delivering these systems.  It is widely believed that the North currently possesses around 10 rudimentary nuclear devices, similar in destructive capacity to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and could hit targets with its immediate region, but not currently in the United States.  If Pyongyang restarts its Uranium enrichment and Plutonium separation facilities – as it has recently threatened to do – then many more bombs could be produced in the near future.  It is also at least conceivable that they might develop a missile capable of hitting the United States in the not-to-distant future – and it is this that makes the recent rocket test of such a concern.

While nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime that few can say to understand, and even less perhaps to trust, is a significant concern in itself, the real danger of the current impasse is probably miscalculation: miscalculation which could lead to nuclear use.  It seems unlikely – although certainly not impossible – that Pyongyang would deliberately target cities in the South, in Japan, or US military bases in the region with nuclear weapons, despite the recent spate of provocative rhetoric, but it is certainly possible that it could conduct smaller scale conventional attacks. The risk of escalation from a smaller incident – such as the sinking of the South Korean Chenoen warship in 2010 – or from a limited conventional exchange along the 38th parallel, are both possible future catalysts.  In this way, it is misjudgement and the threat of unintended consequences in a crisis situation that is the most pressing issue.

All players in the Northeast Asia region are concerned about recent developments, but especially South Korea, Japan given there geographical proximity, and the United States given its wider role in the region.  But a reckless North Korea is also – albeit in a slightly different way – a problem for China.  Seoul and Tokyo are concerned about direct military action by the North (which could include nuclear), while China is keen to retain a status quo and avoid conflict in the region.  The United States, the traditional offshore security balancer, and guarantor of South Korean and Japanese security, neither wants a destabilising war as it rebalances towards Asia and the Pacific, nor can it be seen to countenance blatant aggression and threats to peace and stability in the region.

As a result, support for nuclear weapons in both Seoul and Tokyo is growing (either through the deployment of US non-strategic nuclear weapons, or through initiation of their own indigenous nuclear weapons programmes), as a means to address this growing threat to their respective national security.  While two new nuclear weapons  states in the region is probably unlikely in the near term given the huge political and diplomatic costs such moves would necessitate, without controlling the threat from the North this remains a possibility.  Any move in this direction would seriously undermine global nuclear nonproliferation regime.  More hawkish voices have floated the idea of conducting a preemptive strike if the North is found to be preparing a missile launch or further nuclear test.  But while a US led alliance could probably remove the regime in the North, the potential cost of such a move makes this unlikely at the moment.

Clearly, all current options have significant implications for wider strategic stability and security, but a return to diplomacy without some type of ‘punishment’ for recent actions, may well be seen as rewarding bad behaviour, and hardly as a deterrent.  That said, it is most likely diplomatic talks (perhaps even in secret), leading to help for its basket-case economy, that underpin recent actions by the North, so a return to diplomacy may be the only credible option short of using force.  With the Iranian nuclear challenge at the forefront of world attention for the last few years, it is a timely reminder of arguably the far bigger challenge on the other side of the world.  Indeed, the current focus on Middle East may even be a driving factor behind recent DPRK actions.

It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang is going to give up its nuclear weapons capability any time soon, but it is equally unlikely that Kim Jong-un is planning to initiate a nuclear war.  The most likely outcome of the current crisis might be a return to diplomatic talks baed on the much maligned six party talks of the previous two decades, and a policy from all which seeks calm.  That said, how sustainable this current situation is remains to be seen, and it may be that a choice has to made between denuclearisation of the peninsular and some type of stability regionally.  Either way, British citizens in the South are probably safe for now.


Dr Andrew Futter is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester. He specialises in nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues. Dr Futter is the the co-convenor of the BISA Global Nuclear Order working group, and an Honorary Research Fellow in Nuclear Strategy at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. His most recent publication, Ballistic Missile Defence and US National Security Policy is available via Routledge.

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