What a Nuclear North Korea Really Means

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Nations with nuclear weapons (Wikimedia: Public Domain)

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.

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How to Tame North Korea

Kim Jong Un (Attribution: Monico Chavez)

Kim Jong Un (Attribution: Monico Chavez)

North Korea is an irrational, out-of-control and unpredictable dictatorship. To most people this seems like an apt description. If you think this, you are wrong.

The truth is that the North Korean leadership, headed by the Kim family, is very rational, very predictable and very much in control of their actions. For decades, they have conducted a successful foreign policy based on threats to achieve rewards. They have cowed their neighbors and every major power that has encountered them. This is not the work of a bunch of nut jobs who like launching test missiles that crash into the Pacific Ocean. This is a coordinated policy of intimidation.

The cyber warfare generated against Sony over The Interview is a continuation of the decades-old policies of the North Korean government to make the world think that North Korea is unpredictable. This policy is designed to create instability on the Korean Peninsula and make the United States, South Korea and Japan perpetually nervous.

The North Koreans never go so far as to provoke an actual military strike against them. Their actions are outrageous, as with the cyber attacks on Sony or shelling of South Korean islands a few years ago. Yet, their actions are limited, followed by boisterous threats, then they get a few concessions and go silent for awhile.

A small elite rules North Korea. They must keep the country on a perpetual war footing in order to propagandize the destitute populace. They pretend that if they let their guard down, then their country will be overrun and suffer even worse than they do today.

If the international community is constantly wary of North Korea, then it is going to tread cautiously whenever the Kim regime stirs the pot. With nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel, North Korea has the largest military on earth.  This is nearly 40% of the population. Add in the world’s largest submarine fleet, largest special forces, nuclear weapons and a likely chemical and, maybe, biological weapons capability, and North Korea is a real threat. The huge size overshadows the poor morale, inadequate discipline and Cold War era weapons that comprises the armed forces.

As long as the Soviet Union existed, North Korea could play off the Soviets and Chinese for favors and know that they were protected from an American attack. The end of the Cold War changed everything. The North Koreans developed the Songun or military first policy. This is partly responsible for some of the famines that have plagued North Korea as the entire purpose of society has been detoured towards the military. Recently, some privatization has allowed a flourishing black market and small-scale private farming.

It is only by comprehending this situation can the nature of North Korea’s attack on Sony be interpreted. For the North Koreans, the Sony attack has been an overwhelming success. It has upset the hated Americans. While they expect some retaliation, it provides another bargaining chip to achieve future concessions. It also reinforces their reputation as an unconventional and unpredictable foe.

The Obama administration has promised to respond appropriately to the North Korean cyber attack. That could be any number of things, none which holds much promise.

  • Off the table is a military response. Seoul is just a few miles from the DMZ. Any war means its destruction, a destruction of the South Korean economy and quite a big problem for the world’s economy.
  • Another option is pressuring the Chinese to do something. This is unlikely to achieve anything. The Chinese aren’t happy with North Korea, but they are even unhappier about the prospect of a unified Korean Peninsula allied with the United States. They might agree with a tepid slap on the wrist, but that is it.
  • Another option that has little likelihood of success is for the U.S. to engage in counter cyber warfare. This idea is akin to a rich fellow who drives a Mercedes trying to bump someone who drives a $500 clunker off the road. The guy in the Mercedes is going to suffer the real damage. The U.S. is wired; North Korea has a barely functioning internet system. What kind of damage can the U.S. do? On the other hand, the North Koreans have a wealth of targets.
  • North Korea could be added to the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. It was removed as recently as 2008 by the Bush administration. Essentially, that would limit trade and penalize people who do business with North Korea. Since most trade to North Korea is restricted anyway, that isn’t going to do much.
  • More sanctions could be imposed, but there is very little to sanction that hasn’t already been sanctioned. Besides, most of the goods that do drift into North Korea come from China, where the U.S. has no control.
  • Humanitarian aid could be cut or eliminated. Since this is done mainly by the U.N. and private organizations, there is little the U.S. can do. In this case, those who are going to suffer are going to be the poorest. Of course, North Korea probably hands out this aid as political favors anyway. The most destitute probably never see it.
  • Americans could be forbidden from traveling to North Korea, and an international travel ban could be imposed by persuading other nations to join. This idea has some merit as the North Koreans are trying to lure tourists to vacation there and spend their hard currency. Yet, this remains but a small part of the North Korean economy.
  • The North Korean leadership could be targeted in ways that the Russian leadership has been targeted after it invaded the Crimea. Their ability to hide money abroad would be limited. Bans could be placed on the travel of these high officials. War or human rights crimes could be charged against the leadership as well. Again, there are some minor options available.

When it comes to reviewing the options, there aren’t many meaningful choices to punish North Korea. For the U.S. and its allies, that means the likely response will be some finger wagging and then more concessions down the line in hopes of placating the Kim regime.

All these options ignore the one thing that the North Koreans fear the most: Information. North Korea exists as the most brutal state in the world because it keeps a tight lid on what happens in its society. The Soviet Union crumbled because it instituted political, economic and social reforms, but also because it allowed information technology. Once a repressive regime opens the door a little too wide, the popular uprising is like a flood. It can’t be stopped. It is this that the international community must encourage.

Of course, China and Vietnam liberalized without collapsing. One of the reasons was that neither reformed the political system, which the Soviets did. This is important, but neither the Chinese or Vietnamese were under pressure from outside sources as the Soviet Union was or as North Korea is. The Soviet Union’s existence depended on a Cold War and threat of Western imperialism. That is very much the way North Korea is today. The other important difference is that the Kim regime does not appear to have the capability to pull of a sophisticated reform like the Chinese did that keeps the elite in power while improving the lives of the people.

Fortunately, the very limited efforts by the North Koreans to reform the economy opens the door a sliver. The leadership is increasingly split between the old guard and an emerging elite who enjoy Western or Chinese goods. Among the average people, the slow acceptance of capitalism in the marketplace is creeping forward. Both of these developments are twin wedges that can destabilize North Korean society.

In 2012, South Korean activists tried to release balloons over North Korea that carried pamphlets. The North Koreans threatened military retaliation. As recently as this fall, more balloons were released and more threats from the North Koreans bellowed. Releasing pamphlets by balloons has been common for years, but the balloons are almost always released from South Korea and probably never make it far into North Korea.

The apoplectic response from the North Koreans reveals just how threatening this tactic is. To destabilize and cause the collapse of North Korea requires dissension from within. Once the people realize that they are being lied to even more than they realize now, structured North Korean society will face its ultimate threat from within. The few thousand elite who rule North Korea can’t even truly trust the rank and file military who are kept in line by a horde of lies.

This plan of destabilization requires letting the people understand about freedom, democracy and the affluence of capitalism. One of the best means to do this is to fund North Korean exile groups based in China who smuggle literature across the border. These groups are often underfunded or even ignored.

The U.S. and its allies always respond the same way to North Korean provocations. It has had little impact. What would have an impact are massive pamphlet, video and audio releases from Wind Supported Air Delivery Systems over the entire country, counter-jamming measures on the airwaves so Korean language broadcasts can make it across the border and other efforts to spread outside information. This may include even some creative cyber warfare aimed at putting information into the North Korean internet system instead of disrupting it.

Basically, it is time to conduct massive strategic psyop operations whenever North Korea strays outside the international norms. The psyops don’t need to be loaded with propaganda either. Simple news from the outside world is adequate enough. Such an action will cause the North Koreans to once again go apoplectic. When they do, those releases and broadcasts should ease. No one wants the North Koreans to actually go to war. They may do that if they feel the influx of information coming into their country is coming too fast and overwhelming them. This is a long range plan that is going to take years to tame North Korea into being a more responsible nation or even to bring its downfall.

Tactical Psyop Operation in Iraq (U.S. Federal Government, Public Domain)

Tactical Psyop Operation in Iraq (U.S. Federal Government, Public Domain)

While this idea may seem silly or even weak-willed to some, psyops, including pamphlet dropping has a long history of success in military operations. The United States dropped pamphlets prior to the Iraqi invasion in 2003. During the Korean War, 60-80% of the nearly 200,000 North Korean and Chinese soldiers who surrendered were heavily influenced by psyop operations. These actions are effective in wartime and can be just as effective in peace.

If North Korea learns that every time they provoke the world by shelling South Korea, lobbing a missile into the Pacific or cyber-attacking a company that the response will be an influx of information breaking down their walls, then the North Koreans will begin to think twice about their deeds. Appearing to be irrational and dangerous will not be beneficial to them if their information-controlled society becomes a target. The leadership doesn’t care about political isolation or economic sanctions. They can get what they need even with sanctions. They don’t care about the people who are the ones who will really suffer. Yet, expose the lies behind the curtain they hold, and their existence is threatened. That is the only way to change their behavior.

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