The North Korean Nuclear Puzzle

Flickr, North Korea Victory Day 139, Stefan Krasowski

The North Korean nuclear threat has become a recurrent headline in the international discussion around weapons proliferation and nuclear security. This week, Kim Jong-Un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, publicly endorsed the claim made by Pyongyang that North Korean researchers’ work has led to the development of miniature nuclear warheads that could be fitted on KN-08 ballistic missiles, with which North Korea is already equipped.
Such claims come at a time of increased tensions between the regime and the rest of the world. On the 2nd of March, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2270, aiming to impose new economic and political sanctions on North Korea, following two illegal nuclear tests and the threat of coercive action made by Kim Jong-Un. Those tests were conducted on the 6th and 7th of January, when several ballistic missiles and nuclear tests were launched near one of the most controlled borders on the planet; the one separating North and South Korea.

North Korean researchers’ work has led to the development of miniature nuclear warheads that could be fitted on KN-08 ballistic missiles

The zone, supposedly demilitarized in 1953 by a common agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations, has now become the catalyst of tensions between the belligerent countries. Indeed, on one side, the North Korean government conducted illegal weapons testing near the neutral zone while, on the other side, the South Korean government joined forces with the US military to conduct the 2016 edition of their annual military drill operation deploying around 17 000 US and 300 000 South-Korean soldiers, furthering tensions with the DPRK. Although both the US and South Korea officials declared that they informed North Korean authorities of the non-offensive nature of these operations, Kim Jong- Un maintains a considerable hostility towards the maneuvers, declaring that his governments would be ready to take on preemptive strikes if necessary. More than the usual threat of tensions between the historically hostile countries, the region is now facing an apparently concrete nuclear threat from North Korea.
Although some experts, mostly in the Pentagon, are skeptical regarding the claim that North Korea would be now equipped with nuclear warheads, the threat of coercive action conducted by Kim Jong-Un’s regime is still present in the region. While the DPRK is not allegedly equipped with long-range ballistic missiles, it is still equipped with short range versions that could threaten East Asia as a whole. But is North Korea really willing to launch an attack on its neighbors?
The answer is, in fact, extremely complex. On one hand, the resolution 2270 of the UNSC seriously endangers the North Korean already fragile process of marketization. Indeed, exports from North Korean coal mines, especially towards China, have been severely compromised, as all vessels from North Korea are now subject to a tight investigation on both imports and exports. Moreover, as this new resolution addresses loopholes in previous sanctions, as reported by the UN Panel of Experts on Sanctions towards North Korea, trade in small arms and arms repair services towards and from North Korea are now severely compromised. The resolution also stresses an increased pressure on the country’s nuclear testing and means of research on the matter, as well as providing a basis for designation against diplomats and representatives of North Korea abroad.

Resolution 2270 of the UNSC seriously endangers the North Korean already fragile process of marketization

On paper, the pressure on the regime increases with this new resolution from the Security Council. But what makes the case of North Korea so complex and unpredictable is the fact that not only is Kim Jong-Un subject to an external tensions, but also to internal ones. Kim Jong-Un, who succeeded to his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011, is a relatively young leader. In this regard, he still needs to demonstrate that he can handle not only the pressure of the international community on his regime, but can also maintain the arguably endangered position of his country on the international scene. Indeed since China, North Korea’s only ally, is complying with the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and economic cooperation with South Korea is degrading, North Korea will need to find a new balance and place in the international spotlight.
But although the burden of shaping the image of his regime rests on the head of the young and unpredictable leader of the DPRK, would North Korea truly benefit from carrying out its threats of warfare?
The position of the country seems endangered, and warfare might be seen by many as the primary solution chosen by Kim Jong-Un to impose his regime on the international scene, but it could be argued that launching these nuclear warheads would do them more harm than good. As Pyongyang is reportedly only equipped with short range missiles, it could only hit neighboring countries who would find immediate support and response from allies such as the United States, which would remain out of range. Therefore, a nuclear launch on a neighbouring country would come at significant risk to North Korea.

warfare might be seen by many as the primary solution chosen by Kim Jong-Un to impose his regime on the international scene

While these new revelations made by the young leader are taken extremely skeptically by the international community, concern about innovation and progress in the field of nuclear armament in North Korea is growing and considered with unprecedented care by policy makers all around the planet.

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