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Keywords:

  • North Korea;
  • nuclear weapons;
  • South Korea;
  • Cheonan;
  • nuclear-weapon-free zone;
  • nuclear deterrence;
  • proliferation

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

This essay reviews the status of nuclear threat in Korea and analyzes the appropriate policy response to the emergence of the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state. We suggest that as of 2009, the DPRK made the ROK the main target of its nuclear strategy rather than the USA, as was the case from 1991–2009. The sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan in 2010 provides a mini-case-study of the collision of ROK and DPRK historical trajectories, and portends continuing clashes involving nuclear threat that need to be managed to avoid escalation to nuclear next-use. The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 may be the second in what proves to be a series of such risky provocations. We conclude the paper by outlining the advantages of a ROK–Japan-only nuclear-weapon-free zone relative to alternative ROK responses to the threat posed by the DPRK nuclear breakout. In an Epilogue, we reflect on the methodological difficulties posed by the DPRK in interpreting its nuclear statements.

This essay reviews the status of nuclear threat in Korea. Nuclear threat in Korea today emanates primarily from the USA via its commitment to extend nuclear deterrence to the ROK, a practice established directly in 1958 when nuclear weapons were first deployed in Korea, and the DPRK's nascent nuclear weapons program that developed in response to US nuclear threats. During the Cold War, the shadow of Chinese and former Soviet nuclear forces also arguably fell onto the ROK, but today, due to the rift and drift in security alliances between Russia and China, respectively, with the DPRK, the only nuclear threat in play comes from the aforementioned two states.

Nuclear threat in Korea is superimposed on the division of Korea and the conflict between the DPRK on the one side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and the US–ROK combined forces on the other. Thus, the political and military significance of nuclear weapons in Korea derives from the underlying driving forces that sustain this standoff. It is the local conflict that created the risk of nuclear war in Korea historically; and it is the local conflict that generates the risk of nuclear war posed by North Korean nuclear weapons today.

This paper analyses the appropriate policy response to the emergence of the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state. (We reserve the phrase “Nuclear Weapon State” to those states that were nuclear-armed and recognized as such in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; or have been admitted to the governing institutions of that regime and have committed to observe its rules.)

This paper begins with a premise: the ROK has achieved overwhelming superiority in every dimension of national power, especially in conventional military power. We examine this premise in a separate NAPSNet Special Report, and are satisfied that it is a valid and sound proposition with regard to all six elements of national power for the ROK and the DPRK.1

Such asymmetry of power capacities does not always correspond with stability, however, and raises difficult questions in relation to the basis of conventional deterrence, and the relationship of conventional and nuclear deterrence in Korea. In this essay, we suggest that the DPRK's nuclear weapons program is now the only dimension in which it can match the ROK in the never-ending battle between the two Koreas over who will dictate the terms of eventual reunification of the Korean nation. We review the role of nuclear threat in the competing Korean nationalisms, and the implications of this war of national narrative for an appropriate, productive, and potent response to the DPRK's nuclear breakout.

We suggest that as of 2009, the DPRK shifted its primary goal from 1991–2009 from forcing the USA to change its hostile policy towards the DPRK to a multi-directional and flexible strategy that projects nuclear threat in many directions, but has focused on the ROK since 2009. The sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan in 2010 provides a mini-case-study of the collision of ROK and DPRK historical trajectories, and portends continuing clashes involving nuclear threat that need to be managed to avoid escalation to nuclear next-use. The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 may be the second in what proves to be a series of such risky provocations.

We conclude the paper by outlining the advantages of a ROK–Japan-only nuclear-weapon-free zone relative to alternative ROK responses to the threat posed by the DPRK nuclear breakout.

In an Epilogue, we reflect on the methodological difficulties posed by the DPRK in interpreting its nuclear statements.

Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

As noted above, the balance of power game in the Korean Peninsula is already over. At best, DPRK can survive as a small, impoverished and isolated state frozen in the past and armed with nuclear weapons. The DPRK's nuclear breakout contrasts with the general trend in Korean history rather like Kim Jong-il yelling “Cut!” to freeze-frame the last scene before “The End” and the credits appear in one of his movies.

It was still possible in our view to reverse the DPRK's nuclear breakout up until at least 2006, and possibly even 2008. During those critical few years, the identity of the top leadership in North Korea was fused with the image of a strong nuclear state in the DPRK's internal propaganda. Since then, the probability of denuclearizing the DPRK has dwindled due to a combination of internal and external circumstances, and now approaches zero. Until 2006, the DPRK could have portrayed a successful negotiated denuclearization as embodying the strength, prowess, and wisdom of Kim Jong-il, facing down the USA, in a lineage with his father, Kim Il-sung. Once the Bush Administration slammed shut that exit door, nuclear armament became all but inevitable.

The DPRK is a highly idiosyncratic state that combines orthodox Korean (patriarchal) political culture, overlaid by the totalitarian means of modern administrative and political control invented by Stalin and refined by Kim Il-sung. The exact “post-totalitarian” nature of Kim Jong-il's state-system driven by the shocks of the 1990s (the severance of external economic support from the former Soviet Union, the sudden death of Kim Il-sung, and the floods–famine and economic collapse) is debated by specialists, but there is no doubt that the polity is based on the exercise of personalized power embedded in kin relations which, when combined with the means of surveillance and control, generates a centripetal and introspective politics that spirals inwardly like a tornado-like vortex in Pyongyang.

The ideological framework that reconstitutes a traditional Korean ethos in the service of the DPRK's leadership and state power is rooted in Korean history. Roughly, the DPRK's narrative begins with the common foundational theme of Korean nationalism, which is Korea as the victim of great powers, especially China, but in recent history, Japan and today, the USA. Thus, the anti-Japanese struggle, liberation from Japanese colonialism, and the division of the Korean nation by the great powers are all constantly invoked in explaining the predicaments that confound the DPRK's rightful place in the sun and reduce its inhabitants to shameful penury.

These external pressures are referred to constantly by the regime to justify leadership by one-person, one-party, and now one-military rule. The constant beat of external threat, the emphasis on juche or self-reliant national independence, the use of internal controls and terror to sustain compliance by the population, the forced march industrial accumulation of the 1960s–1970s followed by the forced march of survival and starvation during famine in the 1990s, the use of dynastic succession to ensure stable rule and generational change in the midst of enormous stress on individuals, households, and organizations: all these themes were incorporated and condensed into the symbolism of an overarching DPRK-style nuclear nationalism that portrays the DPRK as a modern, self-reliant, powerful nuclear state, beholden and accountable to no one but itself, utterly isolated, and (from an external perspective) a supplier of only global public bads (starvation, refugees, famine, drugs, arms exports, risk of war, terrorism, nuclear threat, etc.).

The DPRK simply has no other narrative to match the ROK's overwhelming power on every front. This is the only element that not only matches that of the ROK, but trumps it – because the ROK depends on an external power to extend nuclear deterrence to it (“nuclear umbrella”) by threatening the North. Because the DPRK's nuclear strategy is aimed at achieving political goals rather than driven by deterrence per se, it is calibrated rhetorically in different ways for different audiences. Thus, its declaratory policy (threat rhetoric and formal statements) may contradict its operational doctrine (tests, deployment options, exercises, war plans, delivery systems). However, this is not important to the regime, as there is little linkage between the external and domestic constituencies.

Externally, the DPRK attempted for a brief time to project an image of the DPRK as a responsible, legitimate nuclear weapons state armed with nuclear weapons solely for deterrence against external, especially US, nuclear or non-nuclear attack. This is the essence of its own “Nuclear Posture” statement issued in April 2010 almost concurrently with that of the Obama Nuclear Posture Review, and clearly modeled in many respects on China's nuclear doctrine.

Internally – that is, with regard to intra-DPRK domestic and inter-Korean constituencies – the DPRK portrays its hard-won nuclear weapons status as driven by US nuclear threat and victimization by great powers, and as sufficient to force the great powers and the ROK to adjust their stance towards it due to its nuclear strength. That is, in spite of its weakness on other fronts, it can still compel them to change their policies due to its emergence as a “powerful state,” in part due to acquisition and demonstration of nuclear weapons. In this section therefore we examine closely how this strategy has unfolded from 2006 up to today.

North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

The DPRK has not articulated a clear declaratory policy with regard to its nuclear weapons. We also lack most information needed to evaluate its operational doctrines that apply to whatever plutonium it has weaponized and/or deployed. The prevailing assumption in the strategic circles is that the DPRK will reserve its nuclear weapons for some form of strategic deterrence, and act cautiously to avoid any pathway to nuclear escalation involving its forces.

Indeed, a renowned Russian expert on the DPRK argues that the appearance of a DPRK nuclear force has reduced the risk of war in the vicinity of Russia's borders.2 The DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself has argued along these lines, stating that its nuclear weapons filled a “nuclear vacuum zone” in Northeast Asia. “By the deterrence effect provided by the Republic's possession of nuclear weapons,” it continued, “the danger of the outbreak of a war has noticeably reduced.”3

History suggests otherwise. The DPRK pursued a slow-motion proliferation strategy in order to compel the USA to change its hostile policies towards the DPRK – a goal that proved unobtainable. But there is little to suggest that the DPRK's nuclear capacity is primarily military in nature, or aimed at buttressing conventional deterrence in Korea. Rather, it is a political and symbolic force aimed at keeping the great powers – especially the USA – on the back foot, and at seeking a way to match and overwhelm the ROK's superiority in every other element of national power in the competition for ultimate dominance in the Peninsula.

Thus, military incidents involving substantial use of force against one of the states party to the Korea conflict is of great significance at this early moment in interpreting the DPRK's nuclear-strategic orientation, as against its nuclear weapons capacity about which much is known or can be inferred. The North Korean attack on the Cheonan in March 2010 followed by the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November suggests that the DPRK intends to exploit this capacity for expanding political ends, not deterrence. There is no military, let alone nuclear, response to such a strategy that makes sense. Rather, a political strategy is required to counter the DPRK's nuclear aggression, one that devalues not only its nuclear weapons, but the role of nuclear weapons in general.

We argue that such a strategy is available to the allies in Northeast Asia, and should be implemented with Russian and Chinese support at the earliest opportunity. This strategy is for the ROK and the USA to initiate a ROK–Japan nuclear-weapon-free zone, and for the ROK to fashion a distinctly non-nuclear security strategy that leverages its middle power status contributing to the solution of global problems.

Unlike the current approach of matching DPRK threats with expanded but mostly rhetorical nuclear extended deterrence, which plays into the DPRK's hands, a nuclear-weapon-free zone would leave the DPRK sitting in splendid isolation atop a small pile of useless nuclear weapons in very deep economic hole from which there is no exit, and facing massive, overwhelming conventional force in response to any DPRK first-use of nuclear weapons. This strategy is described in more detail in the conclusion to this essay.

But first, we will examine the significance of the attack on the ROK corvette Cheonan on 26 March 2010, with some related remarks about the subsequent attack on Yeonpyeong Island.

The Cheonan Was Different

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

Almost certainly, the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo that was fired by a DPRK submarine, according to a ROK government investigation.4 It is always problematic to interpret an event based on one party's story, especially when the other's, as with North Korea, has been one of complete denial.5

Yet some aspects are clear. If the investigative team is correct, then the attack was pre-planned well ahead of time, and entailed prepositioning an attack submarine at risk of being identified before, during or after the attack given the existence of extensive anti-submarine warfare hydrophones in the area, long contested underneath as well as above the waves. A submarine was not in an area coincidentally able to launch an attack.

It is also not plausible that the torpedoing was the result of some kind of jockeying between surface warships, trading blows “in the heat of the moment.” This attack differs from previous provocations in this area, which were characterized by risky confrontations by surface vessels with outcomes that were improvised rather than pre-planned in that no one could know who would shoot first.6 Moreover, the DPRK's submarines do not have secure communications using either satellites or other underwater transmission communications. The submarine that attacked the Cheonan left port almost certainly did so with pre-delegated authority and orders to attack.

Indeed, one has to go back all the way to 1976 when DPRK ground troops attacked US and ROK soldiers at Panmunjon who were cutting down a tree and later fired on a US helicopter in Operation Paul Bunyan;7 or to 1969, when DPRK aircraft downed a US spy plane, or to 1968, the failed DPRK commando raid on the Blue House in Seoul followed 2 days later by DPRK seizure of the US spy ship Pueblo near Wonsan, to find a similar outright, purposeful attack on ROK or US conventional military forces by North Korea.8

Some suggest that the sinking was a revenge attack for damages inflicted on a DPRK vessel in the same waters last year, on the “action for action” principle adhered to by the DPRK in foreign policy. Another interpretation of the attack is that it was a black eye to ROK President Lee Myung-bak in the never-ending competition for inter-Korean dominance, and specifically, a response to his junking of many of the past cooperation agreements between the DPRK and the ROK and the imposition of new conditions on ROK–DPRK cooperation, not just an escalation of the almost annual tit-for-tat naval conflict in the West Sea. In this view, the correct historical parallel in this argument was the DPRK downing of Korean Airlines flight 858 in 1988 due to the calculated insults by the ROK to the DPRK during fruitless negotiations over co-hosting of the 1988 Olympics. This explanation may explain the timing of the attack, but not its modality.

Some observers have speculated that this operation might have been undertaken by a rogue element, operating without Kim Jong-il's knowledge, or an over-enthusiastic implementation of a vague directive to avenge the past humiliation suffered at the hands of the ROK navy.9 This is certainly conceivable because personalized and centralized command and control systems in military organizations often distort outcomes relative to intended effects. However, it is not credible that a premeditated attack on this scale would have occurred without Kim Jong-il's oversight and knowledge, even if his approval was “disavowable” on the principle (often used by leaders of states and corporations) that he can always deny having ordered it later in the course of negotiations and dialogue should this prove necessary or desirable.

Since then, the DPRK has undertaken many unconventional military operations in the ROK, including insertion of small groups of spies via tiny submarines. It has engaged in firefights at the DMZ. In 1983, it attempted to kill then ROK President Chun Doo-hwan by bombing a building in Rangoon. It fired many short, medium and long-range rockets beyond its borders or into disputed areas, escalating tension and leading to sanctions. It has arrested ROK fishing vessels that strayed into its waters or self-declared maritime security zone.

But it has never undertaken a covert operation on this scale against ROK or US conventional forces, let alone barraged civilians in a village with artillery and rocket fire.

In light of this risk, Kim Jong-il could not be sure that escalation from a clash at sea to the DMZ and beyond would not result in the elimination of his regime and leadership, and he was willing to take that risk, or believed that conventional and nuclear deterrence sufficed to minimize it to an acceptable level. He might believe that being able to hurl thousands of high explosive projectiles for a few hours or days onto northern Seoul, killing scores of thousands of civilians, might deter the US–ROK forces from responding to the loss of the Cheonan. That is probably a reasonable estimate of how the US and ROK leaderships did appraise the risk–benefit stakes in the aftermath of this clash, leading to extraordinary restraint after the sinking.

But Kim Jong-il could not have been certain that conventional deterrence would hold. Moreover, it seems likely that he has not previously attempted such a brazenly offensive military attack for the entire three decades of his ascendency precisely because he is acutely aware of the inferior state of the DPRK's military force. He is reportedly a cautious and intelligent leader so we surmise that something new affected his calculus, namely, that his nascent nuclear force provides a novel reason for US and South Korean leaders to respond cautiously, and that this factor likely offset some of the risk associated with attacking the Cheonan.

As planning for an attack proceeded, he likely knew in March that he had a visit pending to China in May. The DPRK has long sought to enter into bilateral negotiations with the USA and has found the Six-Party Talks to be a cul de sac at best. What better way to force the USA to engage in bilateral dialogue than to attack a ROK warship, with all the attendant risks, ensuring thereby that the Six-Party Talks are blocked, activating Chinese and Russian diplomacy with the USA, and doing so in the belief that the DPRK is untouchable because it now casts a nuclear shadow over the ROK in a way that never arose during the Cold War when Chinese and Soviet nuclear forces targeted US nuclear forces in the ROK? Certainly, doing so in this manner is consistent with a long history of improvised, incremental, and multi-purpose risk-taking by the DPRK.10 If so, then nuclear deterrence may have played a role in the timing and audacity of the attack.

North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

What does this series of actions and events tell us about the DPRK's stance with regard to nuclear weapons? Up until 2005, the DPRK often referred to its nuclear weapons program as “nukes,” a diplomatic negotiating abstract noun (a related report provides details and key texts from the DPRK11). The phrase then morphed into a potential “physical deterrent,” a “nuclear deterrent” (past, present, future unspecified), a “war deterrent” that it would be forced to develop against the threat of invasion or US pre-emptive attack, until in mid-2005, it simply stated outright that it had nuclear weapons and that these not only guarantee the peace in Korea, but also defend the ROK (!).12 Then (as it began to re-engage for negotiations with the USA and four other states), North Korean rhetoric alluded to building, then bolstering its nuclear deterrent, followed after the July 2006 UN Security Council resolutions on its missile program, to undertaking “stronger physical actions” leading up to its October 2006 nuclear test.

In this entire period, the DPRK played the same game that it did with nuclear threat from 1992 onwards. That is, it tried to force the USA to change its policies towards the DPRK while confronting China with the reality of the DPRK's newfound power asset. In 2006, one of this essay's authors dubbed the DPRK a “stalker state,” or one that was attempting to harass and compel the USA with nuclear threat, not one that is aimed at strengthening deterrence.13

To comprehend the DPRK's nuclear strategy over this first phase of nuclear breakout, it is essential to grasp the difference between deterrence and compellence.14 The term “deterrence” refers to actions or words that are intended to stop an adversary from doing something that they intend to do, either immediately, or in a generic manner (sometimes the latter is called “dissuasion”). In contrast, “compellence”– similarly a set of words and actions combined to achieve an effect on another party – aims to compel, that is, to force an adversary to act differently, again, either immediately or in some generic manner. In Western thinking, the concept of compellence is often associated with the phrase “coercive diplomacy” while the concept of deterrence is often called “containment.”

In the DPRK's case, the nuclear weapons proliferation activity originated as a compellence strategy in 1991, when the DPRK began a concerted campaign to engage the USA and to force it to adjust its “hostile” policies. The coercive rather than deterrent nature of its strategy is what explained the slow-motion nature of its proliferation activity, its proclivity to attack apparently sacrosanct targets (such as the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] system), and its calibration of these activities with exquisite precision to its negotiating strategies with the USA and third parties.

In our view, the DPRK was and is not seeking primarily to demonstrate that the DPRK is a “responsible” state armed with nuclear weapons. If it were, then it would seek to obtain international recognition and legitimacy by using this capacity only for deterrence by reinforcing regional “stability” based on mutual threat perceptions between nuclear weapon states, and in particular, by reassuring its neighbors and the nuclear weapons states in the region – in short, that it would behave like other established nuclear weapons states (at least according to their self-images!).

Indeed, the DPRK has declared that it doesn't seek prestige or external recognition of its nuclear weapons status and stands outside all legal frameworks governing nuclear weapons. In effect, it has attributed to itself a self-declared nuclear outlaw status. In response to the call by 189 countries at the 2010 NPT conference that the DPRK denuclearize and return to the NPT, it rejected any notion that it is beholden to the international community or its rules for governing nuclear weapons. As the DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman stated, “The DPRK does not want anybody to recognize it as a nuclear weapons state nor feels any need to be done so [sic]. It is just satisfied with the pride and self-esteem that it is capable of reliably defending the sovereignty of the country and the security of the nation with its own nuclear weapons.”15

There was never any reason to expect the DPRK to play the game of strategic nuclear deterrence as learned during the Cold War between the USA and the former Soviet Union. Instead, the USA finds itself for the first time facing a small, aggressive and hostile state without a secure retaliatory capacity but possessing nuclear weapons used more for compellence than deterrence. There is no rulebook or standard operating procedure for this game, and both sides are improvising as they counter each other's latest moves. As Patrick Morgan pointed out in 2006,16 like the North Koreans, the USA used nuclear threat for most of the same period to attempt to change rather than deter DPRK behavior. Indeed, it is often not clear that US practitioners perceive the difference between deterrent and compellent threats in their own nuclear posture, so they are ill prepared to perceive the DPRK's strategy.

The reader should note that official DPRK statements aimed at the outside world are calibrated to different audiences, whereas domestic statements state, often forthrightly, what is on the mind of the leadership to leading cadres and to the population as a whole. Sometimes, what is said and who said it is of unmistakable importance – especially when it involves the military, and the message is highlighted in both domestic and foreign-oriented DPRK media. Moreover, North Korean media are associated with the voices of different agencies, in particular, the cabinet, the military, and the party, and often these voices speak at cross-purposes in the competition to inform and channel the top leadership's will, that is, of Kim Jong-il and his top advisors. At strategically critical junctures, these voices will sometimes line up or go silent, and Kim's voice will speak through an entity he controls directly, such as the National Defense Commission.17

In 2009, after a yearlong lull in projection of nuclear threat by the DPRK in 2008 while it waited for Obama to reveal his hand, the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed a fundamental shift in the DPRK's compellence strategy. It declared flatly: “It is the reality on the Korean Peninsula that we can live without normalizing the relations with the U.S. but not without [sic] nuclear deterrent.”18 This statement signaled a shift in the primary target of DPRK nuclear coercive strategy for the entire period from 1989 to 2008, wherein the DPRK attempted to compel the USA to change its policy.

To ensure that everyone understood the significance of this reversal of past strategy, the DPRK spokesman explained that: “Though [sic; even if] the bilateral relations are normalized in a diplomatic manner, the DPRK's status as a nuclear weapons state will remain unchanged as long as it is exposed even to the slightest U.S. nuclear threat.”19

By February the cabinet was openly expressing its frustration with the new Administration noting that,

. . . at a time when building of mutual confidence was needed more than at any other time for the successful progress of dialogue, the United States irritated our nerves by colluding with their follower forces and conducting various military exercises and made a racket about inspecting some combined readiness for attacking our Republic, under the pretense of coping with a ‘sudden change in the situation.20

It was time, they said, for “dialogue or war. It is time for the United States to clearly express its position.”21

With no response from the Obama administration, the North Koreans moved toward another long-range rocket launch in April. The response from the UN Security Council and the new US president took dialogue off of the table for the time being. The Korean People's Army (KPA) noted that it had “never pinned any hope on the six-party talks”, and the Party declared that the DPRK would “never set its foot in the venue of the Six-Party Talks” again.22

The Cabinet had now fallen into line with the other institutions, indicating that there may have been a policy decision from Kim Jong-il to build toward a second nuclear test. The Cabinet paper noted in April that, “had our Republic not built powerful deterrent . . . a nuclear war, would have broken out on the Korean peninsula”.23 The second nuclear test was conducted on 25 May 2009.

In the wake of the second nuclear test, North Korea seems to have decoupled the nuclear program from relations with the USA. Rather than attempting to provoke a change in US policy or build the DPRK's military strength, the focus of the program appears to have been oriented toward stabilization at a time of leadership transition. After the test, the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated it was now “impossible . . . to even think about giving up . . . nuclear weapons”.24

Denuclearization was now redefined as negotiable only after a peace treaty between the USA and DPRK. Through Chinese channels in September, Kim Jong-il mentioned Kim Il-sung's “dying behest” to achieve Korean denuclearization for the first time since 2005.25 However, to reach this goal required that the antagonists in Korea first convert “hostile relations between the DPRK and the United States . . . to peaceful relations through DPRK–US bilateral talks” meaning that any discussions on denuclearization would need to follow a peace treaty.26

In March the Cabinet issued a final, almost resigned plea for dialogue: “[A]lthough we wish for dialogue and peace, we never beg.”27 The KPA, far from settling the stage for further negotiations, expressed a willingness to use the DPRK's arsenal offensively noting that, “those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army.”28 The Party noted that the nuclear deterrent would “guarantee the supreme interests of the country and the defense of its security”.29 Now a peace treaty was the goal, forced by nuclear threat, rather than denuclearization as a pathway to resolving US–DPRK hostility. The nuclear card was off the table and no longer up for discussion.

If indeed the DPRK has given up compelling the USA to change its policy as a lost cause – especially now that Obama is flanked by a radical Republican Party majority in the US Congress – then the DPRK leadership is also free to focus its nuclear threat on whatever target generates the most return, whether it be economic, dealing with the USA, or reunification.

Thus, with this radical change announced publicly, the question becomes: what is the primary target of the DPRK's nuclear threat projection since 2009 and will it remain the same?

What is the Primary Target?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

The single most critical fact about the March attack was that it was on a ROK, not a US warship. We infer that the attack on the Cheonan (and the subsequent artillery attack in November 2010) had two strategic goals. The first was to bring North Korean nuclear compellence to bear directly on the ROK and its reunification goal; the second was to force China to choose decisively to back the DPRK against the USA.

By conducting these attacks, the DPRK induced the USA to respond in ways that activated Chinese concern about US forces in its sensitive coastal waters, and forced it to choose between backing the DPRK or face further instability in the Peninsula. When the first attack did not bring the desired US presence in the West Sea to a sufficiently threatening level, the DPRK attacked again, this time scoring the jackpot prize, that is, an aircraft carrier task force within easy flying distance of China. China responded sharply to these risks, refusing to condemn the DPRK, increasing its economic support, and pushing back against US naval deployments and ROK anti-Chinese rhetoric. In effect, the DPRK used its conventional forces combined with nuclear threat to force China to back it, and thereby ensure that its security patron was committed to keeping the USA at bay. This contrasted with the proliferation-breakout period (1989–2006) wherein the DPRK's primary target was changing the USA's relationship with the DPRK.

This shift does not mean that the DPRK will desist at further efforts to compel the USA or other states to change their policies by projecting nuclear threat at them. Nor does it mean that the DPRK won't continue to strive to extract some measure of deterrence against US nuclear or conventional attack or retaliation from its own nuclear capacities.30 Rather, it means that the DPRK is using its nuclear weapons to leverage the threat posed by the great powers to each other to the DPRK's advantage – not a game that the nuclear weapons states are used to playing with a small state. In a sense, the DPRK had adopted a Gaullist “touts azimut” or all points-of-the-compass nuclear strategy that will select targets of opportunity as they become evident. It will flexibly reshape its strategy in an improvised way on each occasion.

In addition to manipulating great power relations to its own advantage, we suggested above that the DPRK may also be applying nuclear compellence as part of a renewed political-ideological push for reunification on North Korean terms. In this regard, being a “nuclear armed state” is the only dimension in which the DPRK can match or surpass the ROK's overwhelmingly superior power capacities. The attack highlighted the ROK's dependency on the USA for a nuclear US–ROK response in conventional military terms (including the eventual postponement for months of anti-submarine warfare exercises in the area where the Cheonan was struck) and underscored the perception of many influential South Korean leaders that the US nuclear deterrent is vacuous, when it is self-evident that the DPRK exploited an enduring conventional vulnerability in ROK military defense with great political effect, and paid no price.31

As we noted earlier, statements from the DPRK's National Defense Commission, which stands above the three primary agencies of the party, military and cabinet, deserve special attention. The 28 May 2010, statement by Pak Rim-su, Policy Department Director of the Commission, was such an extraordinary statement. On that date, Pak explained on North Korean television that the DPRK's nuclear weapons were acquired to deal with the ROK's anti-DPRK “confrontation” of which the Cheonan incident was merely one instance.32 Stated Pak:

As has been clearly confirmed today again, the recent incident of ship Chonan's sinking is the shameless fabricated act and smear act that the South side conceived of thoroughly for the confrontation with the fellow countrymen. The fact that [South Korea] is going berserk in the anti-Republic confrontation in the entire region while picking on the incident of ship Chonan is a blatant declaration of war against us and a specially gross criminal act of driving North-South relations into a state of war, and thus, is the act of self-destruction of them digging up their own graves.

It was none other than to become prepared for an acute situation like today that we have devoted all our energy into strengthening the nuclear deterrent under the military-first banner. We firmly believe once again that it is perfectly just to have consolidated powerful military strength, including the nuclear deterrent, under the military-first banner.

Including nuclear weapons, our mighty physical means – our physical means – which the world is not yet able to even imagine or predict, are by no means an exhibit or an article in custody. In other words, it is not something to merely exhibit in a display case to look at, nor is it an article in custody to store, and store, in storage.

Indeed, now is the time to fully explode our military potential and to demonstrate the mettle of our revolutionary armed forces.

The DPRK has been no less explicit in its external statements. On 21 April 2010, the DPRK issued its first in-depth statement of nuclear doctrine, including an explanation of its no first-use position first announced in 2006.33“The mission of the nuclear forces of the DPRK,” the statement reads, “is to deter and repel aggression and attack against the country and the nation until the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the world is realized. The DPRK is invariably maintaining the policy not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or threaten them with nuclear weapons as long as they do not join the act of invading or attacking us in conspiracy with nuclear weapons states.”34

This qualification is clearly targeted at the ROK and Japan, both of whom are in alliance with a nuclear weapon state (USA). Obviously, there is no objective way to determine what the DPRK perceives to be an invasion, an attack, or conspiratorial attack with a nuclear state. Consequently, there is no way to know when the DPRK no first-use commitment is operative, if ever. Thus, the ferocity and immediacy of the threats projected in the DPRK's extraordinary statement issued on 26 March – the same day as the Cheonan was sunk – are remarkable: “Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army and the just war to be waged by all the infuriated service personnel and people.”35

This extreme, exterminist rhetoric was reiterated a month later in the chilling, more formal language of the authoritative 21 April statement.36 The ROK is no longer protected by DPRK nuclear weapons, as was declared in 2005. Now, it is a nuclear target so long as it is allied with the USA.37

The DPRK began to hammer on this theme in 2009, but then, it was aimed primarily at compelling the United States to change its negotiating stance.38 This time, the meaning is much clearer. In Pyongyang's view, the ROK and its policies towards the DPRK, as well as its alliance with the USA, make it fair game for a DPRK nuclear first strike.

Moreover, the DPRK denigrates the ROK for relying upon the USA to match the DPRK threats with countervailing nuclear threat, rather than either ignoring the DPRK threats, or matching them by developing a ROK nuclear force. To this end, North Korean writers portray the ROK leadership as seeking to confront the DPRK in a confrontation of “northward aggression” backed by “outside forces” (especially the USA).

As one North Korean commentator wrote on 19 April 2010: “The conservative gang is willing to unhesitatingly light the fuse of a nuclear war in the land of the fatherland in cahoots and collaboration with the aggressors to realize its wild ambition for confrontation. It has now become clear beyond doubt that their harping on ‘cooperation over the nuclear issue’ is a prelude to a nuclear war.”39

In short, the DPRK equates ROK reliance on US nuclear extended deterrence as “a racket of asking for a nuclear pre-emptive attack on us,”40 and thereby characterizes the ROK leadership as traitorous and disregarding “the national soul.”41

This psychological warfare links the nuclear strategy back to the underlying, fundamental conflict between the ROK and the DPRK, which is indeed competition as to which Korea will inherit the mantle of Korean nationalism in the struggle to claim its place as the rightful guardian of the Korean “soul.” Domestically, nuclear armament justifies the arduous years of North Korean struggle and starvation. In one move, it devalues the overwhelming superiority of the ROK in economic status. How, after all, is one to measure who has legitimate claim to the “national soul?”

Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

In developing its own path to security, there is no reason to believe that the North Koreans will be “strategically patient” as counseled by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.42 In fact, the USA does not have a meaningful policy towards the DPRK except for “containment” and is merely improvising its response today. Relying on additional nuclear threat will simply result in escalation of DPRK nuclear threat rhetoric and action. The obvious riposte to US-led action at the UN Security Council or interdicting DPRK ships is to complete its uranium enrichment plant, complete its pilot light water reactor, create its own nuclear alliance with another state, and/or stage a third nuclear test.43

Overall, the DPRK and US nuclear forces are involved in inter-Korean compellence games, not deterrence. This is a very dangerous situation that needs to be curtailed immediately – first and foremost by the North Koreans “advised” by China and Russia; and second, by the USA working with the South Koreans on the current conflict over the sinking of the Cheonan and the aftermath of the artillery exchange.

The current cycle of escalation can spin out of control rapidly and result in an open conflict that would be very costly to all the states in the region. It is urgent that the USA finds a new way to enter into a dialogue with the DPRK. The situation is urgent and demands US pro-active diplomacy far beyond the passive stance of patiently waiting for the two Koreas to sort out the latest imbroglio on the peninsula and tightening sanctions against the DPRK. The Six-Party Talks are a tired formula that events have rendered empty of meaning.

The USA needs to find a new strategic framework for regional security management that is consistent with security imperatives on the one hand, and Obama's Global Abolition agenda on the other. More of the same, including more nuclear threat projection as pressed by many strategists in Korea and Japan, will redound to the DPRK's benefit and will not work.

The essence of this strategy is not military, although the conventional military component is as or more important than ever. There is no military strategy to stop the risk of DPRK first- or retaliatory-use of nuclear weapons in Korea or against external targets. As has always been the case, conventional deterrence is what keeps the peace in Korea, to the extent that either side intends to attack the other today. If anything, nuclear threat is as likely to make people crazy and prone to do dangerous things, as it is to concentrate the mind on the need to avoid and resolve conflicts – as demonstrated by historical accounts of nuclear crises.44

The DPRK's nuclear narrative is based on one asset, and is brittle and weak. Its weaponized plutonium remains more of a psychological threat device than a deployed nuclear force at this stage. In particular, the DPRK has no way to field a secure retaliatory force against the USA, which in turn extends nuclear deterrence to the ROK and Japan. From a purely military perspective, the DPRK's nuclear weapons are a strategic liability that complicate conventional operations for the KPA and divert command attention that would be more usefully spent on conventional forces, already in a parlous state. In short, the DPRK's nuclear weapon capacities mostly work at the psychological and political rather than the military level.

If we are correct, then we would anticipate more low-level conventional attacks to exploit the DPRK's newfound ability to threaten its neighbors behind its nuclear shield, and provocative actions designed to create alliance stress, to divide the great powers on the UN Security Council, and to demonstrate that the DPRK cannot be forgotten or ignored.

In line with its resurgent anti-US strategy, this stance would include doing whatever it can to accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world to reduce the relative power of the US nuclear force;45 and, as the DPRK media stated on 5 July 2010, “to further reinforce our nuclear deterrent as needed in a new developed method”46– presumably a reference to the uranium enrichment at Yongbyon that was revealed to the world in November 2010. The attack on Yeonpyeong Island suggests that more provocations may be in store and we should indeed buckle up our seat belts.

The only circumstance that we can imagine the DPRK entering into genuine negotiations with regard to denuclearization is one in which its leaders believe that the USA has irrevocably removed nuclear threat from targeting the DPRK should it become non-nuclear, and is willing to shift from a hostile to at least neutral stance with respect to the continued existence of the DPRK state, as it currently exists.

We suggest that an effective strategy to devalue the DPRK's nuclear weapons and to neutralize its nuclear aggression is not to rely on nuclear deterrence or war-fighting, but a far more compelling non-nuclear political strategy buttressed by credible conventional deterrence, and premised on unrelenting engagement – the dimension of greatest relative North Korean weakness and vulnerability.

In our view, this strategy could be realized in this region by proposing a ROK–Japan nuclear-weapon-free zone on a treaty basis, leaving the door open for later accession to the treaty by the DPRK (once denuclearized, by whatever pathway).47 Alternatively, the DPRK might be invited to join such a zone at the outset by committing to its normative framework, but delaying its substantive compliance as occurred with Argentina and Brazil and the Treaty of Tlatelolco.48

Such a zone would reduce pressure on the USA to serve as the nuclear hegemon by bringing the negative security assurances of all three nuclear weapon states into play in the region. It would be consistent either with a recessed nuclear deterrent that is fully “over-the-horizon” and never referred to; or to the elimination of traditional nuclear extended deterrence in bilateral alliances and its replacement by nuclear existential deterrence – the caution induced in crisis decision-making by the mere existence of nuclear weapons.49 Moreover, in reality the reformed US nuclear posture has already transformed the military basis of traditional nuclear extended deterrence but the bilateral and multilateral institutional realities have yet to adjust to and catch up with this strategic reality.

It would also deepen Japan's existing commitment to remaining a non-nuclear weapon state – of profound concern to China – and reduce the nuclear threat posed to Japan and the ROK by Chinese nuclear forces. A zone would also anchor US conventional forces in Korea for a long time, thereby establishing a buffer between China and Japan, and, over time, becoming a pivotal rather than a partisan deterrent in Korea itself, so long as the division into two states remains.

It could take years for such a zone to finally bring about the denuclearization of the DPRK. Moreover, reciprocal steps, each contingent on the other moving forward simultaneously or in defined sequences, would need to be taken by the DPRK and the USA before the DPRK fully denuclearized, and the USA fully implements its negative security assurance to the DPRK as a party to a zone. In the case of Argentina and Brazil, this phase of accepting and implementing all the non-nuclear requirements of the Tlatolelco Treaty took 18 years. Hopefully, it would take less in the case of the DPRK in a Northeast Asian zone. But a zone is consistent and even designed to make a gradual approach more likely to work for the USA and the DPRK than the current, freewheeling standoff. It is much more likely to bring about a reduction in DPRK threat perceptions, and to induce it to implement a no-first-use commitment against non-nuclear states – that is, against the ROK and Japan – and to enable the USA and the DPRK to find ways to synchronize their positions in ways that serve each other's interest in avoiding war and eliminating nuclear weapons from Korea.

Finally, it must be emphasized, a zone is the only way that the DPRK can obtain a legally binding, sovereign negative security assurance that the USA will not attack it with nuclear weapons should it revert to non-nuclear status. For this reason alone, it is imperative that the USA explore whether the DPRK might find a zone interesting as a back-door re-entry to the NPT–IAEA system.

It is urgent that the ROK develop such a countervailing strategy. It needs it to counter the DPRK's nuclear threat, to reconstitute the nuclear component of its alliance with the USA, and to articulate a distinctively ROK middle power strategy at important global events that it will host over the coming years, such as the second Global Nuclear Summit in 2012.

Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References

In writing this essay, we encountered methodological issues that we believe we should draw to the attention of the reader.

In most nuclear weapon states, a researcher has access to official statements of policy or fact, open source media reports, unclassified primary (especially historical) and secondary literature, sometimes leaked or declassified official documents, and perhaps most important, the opportunity to interview officials and decision-makers who are retired or still in active duty.

In the case of the DPRK, almost none of this material is accessible to the researcher except for official or officially approved public statements released via state-controlled media. Some have interviewed defectors or refugees to obtain first-hand information, but although such information may be useful, it is also biased and notoriously problematic. Occasionally, researchers talk “privately” with DPRK officials, and often the insight gained is highly illuminating. However, the basic research technique of crosscutting and extensive interviews combined with a diverse array of unclassified and declassified contemporary and historical documentation is simply not feasible when analyzing the “DPRK perspective” on any important topic, especially one like nuclear weapons.

Thus, we declare loudly that this essay is provisional, even speculative, and may overstate the case that the DPRK has shifted from viewing the USA as its primary target of nuclear deterrence. Likewise, our related thesis – that its nuclear capacities gave the DPRK leadership the confidence to attack the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island – its first major military actions in violation of the Armistice in Korea for nearly 4 decades and the first under Kim Jong-il's leadership – is also tentative. Many of the DPRK's statements to which we referred may have competing interpretations based on context and timing.

An alternative “reading” of the overall ebb and flow of events and DPRK actions and statements may be plausible. In fact, we encourage other researchers to challenge the selection and interpretation that we have made in assembling our own argument. We have also referred to specific objections made by reviewers of this essay in the text, in order to make the reader aware that when it comes to North Korea, one is dealing with a “Black Hole” research problem, that is, one in which light (information) goes in but mostly does not come out; and what is visible is distorted by gravitational forces emanating from the Black Hole.

Nonetheless, we assert that it is critically important to read what the leaders of a de facto nuclear weapons state like the DPRK are declaring, to themselves, their own population, and to the world – especially those statements that are aimed at the ROK and the USA. We also hold that when the domestic and international versions of key statements about nuclear weapons capacity and intention are closely aligned, and when all three core agencies – the party, the military, and the cabinet – speak with one voice, then there is a high probability that the leadership is expressing its actual perceptions and views rather than simply spewing vitriolic rhetoric aimed at achieving tactical effects in a negotiation or to distract attention from some other action.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Competing Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Cheonan
  4. North Korea's Nuclear Shadow and the Sinking of the Cheonan
  5. The Cheonan Was Different
  6. North Korea's Nuclear Compellence Strategy
  7. What is the Primary Target?
  8. Conclusion: DPRK Nuclear Nationalism and Military Escalation
  9. Epilogue: Peering into the Black Hole
  10. References
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Footnotes