The detonation of North Korea’s fifth nuclear device, and second this year, ups the nuclear ante appreciably. Since the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006, the North Koreans have steadily increased the sophistication and power of their nuclear weapons. The first test was somewhere around one kiloton. That is tiny compared to nuclear standards. By the third test, the detonations were around 15 kilotons, or approaching the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The fourth test was claimed to be a more sophisticated hydrogen bomb. However, there is considerable doubt over this since a hydrogen bomb should have produced a larger kiloton explosion than was detected and claimed. This last test was estimated around the size of the Hiroshima blast. One analyst even estimated it greater than the Hiroshima blast with 20-30 kilotons of explosive force. The significance of the last test is that the North Koreans have claimed that they miniaturized the nuclear device. This means that a nuclear bomb could be used as a warhead on a missile and delivered in minutes to any target within range.
It is possible that the North Koreans are exaggerating their technological prowess on miniaturizing. They have a reputation for exaggeration and outright lies. Yet, they have also engaged in missile tests with increasing success. It follows that with deliverable missiles they would also want deliverable warheads. Even if the North Koreans have not perfected a miniaturized warhead or reliable missiles, it is clear that they are quickly moving in that direction. The gravity and urgency of the situation must not be ignored.
There are some estimates that the North Koreans already have as many as 21 nuclear weapons. Analysts predict that by 2020, that number could grow to 100 nuclear warheads. This would place North Korea as a nuclear power in the class of Israel, Pakistan and India.
The North Koreans like status and exaggerated feats. Despite a population of only 24 million, they have the fourth largest army in the world. With their past behavior in mind, there is no reason to believe that they will stop at 100 nuclear weapons. If they acquire more than 300, then they will pass China and France as the third largest nuclear power. It is an achievement that Kim Jung-un would relish.
Thus far, the presence of nuclear weapons has inhibited their use worldwide. Nations universally accept that the use of nuclear weapons against another nuclear power will result in mutually assured destruction. This has kept the world safe for over 70 years from a nuclear war. It is no coincidence that the three major wars between India and Pakistan all occurred prior the countries developing nuclear weapons. Only the 1999 Kargill war was more than a border skirmish or military standoff. Even at that, the war was much more limited than earlier ones. The presence of nuclear weapons between opposing counties has strengthened the hand of diplomats and limited the belligerence of generals whenever they have been present.
This may not be the case with North Korea. No country has acted more aggressively than North Korea over the last few decades. They routinely threaten war against South Korea or the United States. There have been multiple incidents where North Korea has fired or taken destructive actions that few other countries would dare.
In the Persian Gulf, Iranian boats often harass American ships and place both sides in jeopardy. Furthermore, when Western ships drift into Iranian territory, the crews have often been captured. However, all these incidents have either been resolved diplomatically or stopped short of a direct military engagement. It is purely a political cat and mouse game where each sides tries to go as close as it can to the edge without tipping the delicate balance of peace in the area.
The North Koreans handle things differently. The 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan cost the lives of 46 sailors. It is believed that the South Koreans wanted to take aggressive action, but were stalled by American pressure. This scenario tends to repeat itself on the Korean peninsula because the North Koreans enjoy militarily harassing the South Koreans. Although South Korea is not a nuclear power, it is protected by the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Despite that threat, the North Koreans repeatedly step over the line of belligerence that not even the Soviet Union dared. With more nuclear weapons and a deliverable payload available on missiles, North Korea may feel that it can push the envelope even further.
In the coming months and years, we can expect more tests by the North Koreans. They need to perfect whatever they are developing. Kim Jung-un will continue to call out neighboring countries, and may even take a more threatening action. They will barter for some aid, appear to be close to a deal, then back away. It’s been going on for years that way. There is no incentive for the North Koreans to change now that the power to kill millions is only minutes away from Kim Jung-un’s order.
North Korea is already under heavy sanctions in an attempt to cripple the economy and deprive it of the raw materials for its nuclear program. A few months ago, the United Nations approved the boarding and inspection of North Korean ships and planes at will. Sanctions bar North Korea from selling its raw materials in the open world market. In addition, North Korean international financial accounts have been closed and new ones banned.
There are calls for still tougher sanctions, but North Korea has become adept at illegal trade, counterfeiting, illicit drug sales and other disreputable behavior. There are only two ways to really bring North Korea to its knees. First, there is a blockade, but that is an act of war. Second, the Chinese must shut down the North Korean land trade routes. The Chinese are hesitant to do that because they don’t want North Korea to collapse with millions of refugees pouring into their county. Even more so, the Chinese don’t want to see an American ally, South Korea, swallowing North Korea and establishing a nation on its border. Yet, the Chinese know that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a threat even to them.
In response to the North Korean tests, the United States may upgrade its current ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in the area to counteract the North Korean nuclear arsenal. The Chinese are quite uncomfortable with this as they see that the BMDs can also be directed at them. If nothing else, the BMDs may be a potent bargaining chip to persuade the Chinese toward action. That will be an option for the next President.
With over a million men in uniform and millions more in reserves, North Korea’s army is twice that of South Korea. However, North Korea uses archaic Soviet weaponry from the 1970s and 80s. North Korea is no match for the modern South Korean military. Yet, since Seoul is only a few minutes from the border, the North Koreans can still wreck major havoc even in defeat by simply raining thousands of artillery shells onto the city. With defeat facing them, North Korea will rely on nuclear weapons. A nuclear attack in Seoul or Tokyo could kill and injure two million.
Even if North Korea never goes to war or uses a nuclear weapon, it has one of the most prized pieces of terror on the planet – nuclear weapons. The North Koreans need hard cash. A nuclear bomb would provide that when dealt to terrorists or another rogue nation. They already deal in the dirtiest parts of the international black market. They have no reason to hesitate over a nuke. More sanctions could also mean they will deal a nuclear sale sooner than later.
In many instances of international diplomacy, patience wins out. That isn’t probably the case with North Korea because tomorrow is apt to offer more disturbing choices than the present. Something needs to be done, but no one knows what it must be.
The Clinton, Bush and Obama Presidencies have all tried to curtail North Korea’s nuclear abilities. They have failed. That doesn’t mean anyone else could have done better. The South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians and United Nations have all failed as well. The next President will find his or her’s plate full of North Korean problems. It is going to take luck, skill and knowledge of the political intricacies of North Asia. A President who can’t handle that may leave a world far more vulnerable at the end of the Presidential term than at the beginning.
Kim Jung-un is young and may have another 50 years in power. He has already shown a Stalin-like ruthlessness at eliminating people who oppose him. He is probably not the type of leader who will pack up his billions in cash and gold, then head to another country when a coup arrives. Part of the reason is that North Korea is such a pariah that it doesn’t have many friends for its leadership to fly too. Even if they did, they would be wanted and eventually end up at the World Court in The Hague.
As bad as having a nuclear North Korea is, there is one thing worse: Letting North Korea militarize with nuclear weapons. By doing so, other countries may feel that they can do so as well. With India, Pakistan and North Korea going nuclear in the last 20 years, and with Iran hanging on the verge of doing so, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. Soon, the world will pass a point of no return. In another generation, nuclear non-proliferation may be lost to the failures of history, like the League of Nations.
North Korea is not a wealthy country. If they can go nuclear when facing sanctions, then so can anyone. Nuclear weapons may act as a deterrent to nuclear war when the nuclear powers number a handful. When the numbers reach a dozen, then more, there aren’t enough prudent world leaders with steady wills in crises to keep the nukes from going off. The world is rapidly reaching a tipping point where real leadership is needed to address the ultimate challenge of the twenty-first century.