North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions
North Korea has long been known as a highly secretive and authoritarian state, and its foreign policy ambitions have often been a source of heated international discourse. In recent years, North Korea has become increasingly belligerent, making great strides towards developing a nuclear weapons programme. This has raised alarm bells all over the world, amidst concerns that the country may, one day, be in direct possession of nuclear arms capable of causing massive destruction in the region and beyond.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been particularly vocal in his ambitions of establishing North Korea as a nuclear power. In his New Year address in 2018, Kim stated that his country had “completed the state nuclear force”, indicating that North Korea had the capacity to create powerful weapons of mass destruction. This sparked fears that if North Korea were to use a nuclear weapon, the consequences would be catastrophic.
Experts suggest that North Korea’s nuclear programme has transformed not only the regional landscape, but also the international balance of power. Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes that North Korea’s increased military capabilities already have the potential to devastate American cities. He puts North Korea’s current stockpile of nuclear missiles at the equivalent of “2,000 nuclear warheads – enough to vaporise the most populous metropolitan areas in the United States.”
There have been numerous international efforts aimed at containing the North Korean nuclear programme. In 2018, US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a landmark summit in an attempt to broker a deal which would see North Korea agree to denuclearisation. However, the summit ended without an agreement being reached, dampening hopes of a peaceful resolution. The United Nations has imposed a series of tough economic sanctions against North Korea in the hope of forcing them to abandon their weapons programmes, along with other national measures put in place by other countries including Japan and South Korea.
However, these efforts have not been entirely successful. According to John Glaser, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, “Until North Korea itself sees that its security needs are better served by abandoning nuclear weapons and engaging more constructively with the outside world, no amount of coercive measures, least of all war, will bring it to denuclearization.”
The main issue lies in the fact that in North Korea’s view, the nuclear weapons are core to preserving its sovereignty and ensuring its protection from the outside world. For the Kim regime, having an expanded nuclear arsenal would serve as a deterrent to potential threats and provide them with a shield against international pressure. Therefore, it is clear that if North Korea were to develop a nuclear arsenal, it would not only be detrimental for the region, but might also create direct threats to US security.
The Debate around a Potential Strike
Faced with this dire situation, the US has had to include the possibility of military action against North Korea. It has been suggested that launching a pre-emptive strike against North Korea could be the only way to deny the country the ability to use their nuclear capacity against the US or their allies.
Matthew Kroenig has argued that such an attack is the “only viable way to eliminate the North Korean threat short of regime change” and would “buy the United States time to negotiate a nuclear settlement” in the future. President Trump himself has commented that the US military was “locked and loaded” if North Korea were to act provocatively.
Nevertheless, there is a strong consensus across the board that any potential military action must be considered a last resort. Many analysts have argued that a military strike could have devastating repercussions, not only for the region but also potentially for the US itself.
Jacob Cunnif, a professor of international security studies at Williams College, has argued that “a US military strike on North Korea would be tactical suicide,” predicting that the US could incur “over a million casualties and trillions in damages”.
The worry is also that any US military action against North Korea would enrage China, with whom the US is currently in trade negotiations as well as having wider political ramifications for the US and its allies. Furthermore, any US attack on North Korea would most likely be met with a swift nuclear retaliatory strike, with devastating consequences for the region and beyond.
Missile Defence Systems
In light of this, many US security officials have called for a more measured approach to the North Korean situation. The most prominent suggestion has been the expansion of the US missile defence system, so that it can more effectively detect and deter North Korean threats.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis has argued that a more effective missile defence system would be needed if the US were to avert a nuclear disaster. Under the Trump Administration, an additional 35 ground-based interceptors were added to the US arsenal, bringing the total number to 44.
These interceptors had been tested in a simulated conflict with North Korea, with some degree of success. However, it must be noted that the system’s effectiveness would depend upon its accuracy and speed of response, and it would take time to establish a truly effective defence mechanism.
The Perils of a Nuclear Arms Race
It is also important to consider the implications of the North Korean situation. Many analysts have pointed out that if North Korea were to develop and launch a nuclear weapon, this could have the desired effect of sparking a wider arms race in the region.
South Korea, which is already under the spectre of North Korean weaponry, could be pushed to similarly pursue nuclear capabilities in order to better protect itself. Additionally, key US allies like Japan and Taiwan could also be compelled to acquire nuclear arms, furthering instability in the region.
It is likely that this could lead to a cascade of events, with other countries in the region taking a similar stance and gradually weakening the US’s diplomatic and security presence in the area.
Impact of US Policy on North Korea
The US has acknowledged that its policies will likely have a knock-on effect on the North Korean situation. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that US strategies should be geared towards “an effective and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, and that a certain degree of patience is required in order to reach a successful conclusion.
Pompeo believes that the best way to achieve this is through diplomatic and economic means, rather than through military intervention. He advocates the adoption of a proactive stance, based on dialogue and engagement.
The US has already taken steps in this direction, through initiatives such as the recent talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The outcome of these talks remained inconclusive, indicating that there is still a long way to go before any meaningful agreements can be reached.
Conclusion: The US’ Best Course of Action
The US must act with caution when dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. With a nuclear armed North Korea posing a real threat to the US’ security, the US must do everything in its power to ensure this does not become a reality.
The US must look to a multitude of strategies to treat the North Korean situation. Diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions and a more effective missile defence system must all be considered. It is likely that these methods taken together with strong international support and engagement may be the only viable way to eventually bring an end to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
The Spectre of Regime Change
The current North Korean regime has been in power for several decades, wielding vast control over its citizens and the nation’s resources. For this reason, expert opinion remains divided when it comes to the potential success of diplomatic overtures.
Many have argued that the Kim regime will never willingly abandon its nuclear capabilities, and that the only way to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme is through regime change. This presents a major challenge, as the current regime has a tight grip on the country’s politics, with little sign of any real internal or external dissent.
Benjamin Ranger of the Brookings Institution contends that any regime change in North Korea would require both economic sanctions and military action, as well as the collaboration of China and South Korea. Although regime change is being put forward as a potential solution to the North Korean problem, many argue that it is too risky, and could quickly spiral out of control.
The Enigma of the North Korean Personality Cult
The leadership of the North Korean regime is rooted in the powerful personality cult involving the ruling Kim family. This has resulted in a “totalitarian dictatorship”, according to Bruce Bechtol, professor of international relations at Angelo State University, with the ruling family enjoying unparalleled influence and power.
The absolute veneration of the Kim family may prove to be an immense obstacle in curbing North Korea’s ambitions of acquiring nuclear arms. As Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued, “The Kim regime has invested heavily in maintaining power by tightly controlling all information that comes in and spirals out of the country” and “brutally persecuting anyone who dares to question the regime.”
The problem is that this pervasive and dictatorial personality cult has become interwoven into the culture and fabric of the nation. Therefore, any meaningful change, particularly with regards to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, is likely to be immensely difficult.
The Need for International Pressure
Given the complexity of the North Korean issue, it is clear that a comprehensive and intelligently crafted international approach is needed in order to effectively address the North Korean nuclear crisis. This must involve the combined efforts of both political and economic pressure in order to limit North Korea’s access to resources and materials.
At the same time, nations must also continue to engage in dialogue with North Korea in order to bring about a peaceful resolution to this long-running dispute. It is only through a unified international response, involving all major parties in the region, that the North Korean nuclear crisis can be brought to an end, and the US and its allies can be protected from the threat of attack.