North Korean top leader Kim Jong-un inspects ballistic missiles before launching last month./ The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
North Korean top leader Kim Jong-un inspects ballistic missiles before launching last month./ The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)

Reaching a point of no return

big read June 27, 2017 01:00

By SUPALAK GANJANAKHUNDEE
The Nation

7,694 Viewed

Options to rein in North Korea are running out as the “containment policy” fails to yield results.



FANS OF the American comedy hit series on the Korean War, M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), might remember watching dozens of episodes without seeing a single North Korean soldier. But in real life, the whole situation is far from funny. Virtually all rhetoric coming out of the White House these days is matched by Pyongyang’s missile tests, with photos of the military top brass standing side-by-side congratulating leader Kim Jong-un.

It’s not an understatement that North Korea’s nuclearisation and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) activities are increasingly destabilising North Asia to the point of no return. 

And within a year or two, according to experts in Seoul and Tokyo, a North Korean ICBM with a nuclear warhead could be capable of reaching the United States, perhaps New York City. 

President Donald Trump appears to concede defeat after his earlier statements vowing to break the ice with Pyongyang and ridiculing as a failure years of former president Barack Obama’s “containment” strategy of Kim’s regime. Trump is now swallowing his own ego as tensions with North Korea reach new heights.

North Korea’s advancing missile and nuclear programmes are the “most urgent and dangerous” threat to United States security, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said this month.

On the operational front, Admiral Harry Harris, US Navy commander of the US Pacific Command, during his testimony before the House armed services committee on April 26, said North Korea remained the US’s most immediate threat in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. 

A number of missile and nuclear weapon tests over recent years is moving North Korea to its stated goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. “As a military commander, I must assume that Kim Jong-un’s claims are true – his aspirations certainly are,” Admiral Harris said. “The US Pacific Command must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take him at his word. That means we must consider every possible step to defend the US homeland and our allies.”

Nuclear ambitions

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could be traced back to the early 1960s, when then leader Kim Il-sung asked his ally, the Soviet Union, to help develop nuclear technology.

The outside world realised that the country’s dream is coming true when it conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006. This test yielded an explosion of less than one kiloton. Compare this to the latest test, which had a yield of 11-12 kilotons – almost equivalent to the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the World War II, said Narushige Michishita of the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS).

“Over the past ten years, North Korea has made progress in developing a nuclear capability comparable to level of the US in 1945,” he said. 

In 2013, North Korea declared it had conducted a test of a smaller and lighter A-bomb, and last year claimed it could even develop a hydrogen bomb. An assessment by the US Defence Intelligence Agency leaked to the public recently that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of being mounted on missiles, but its ICBM capability is nevertheless still low, according to Michishita.

A nuclear weapon is indeed being developed and experts estimate that Pyongyang is currently in the same league as India and Pakistan with possession of anywhere between 13 and 30 nuclear warheads. Kim Jong-un is now focusing on the development of a ballistic missile. 

Missile development began since his grandfather Il-sung’s time in the 1960s. The nation’s founder had told his military academy to develop missiles that could reach US military bases in Japan and nearby. The regime originally copied and developed short-range Scud-type missiles in the 1980s, but major success was seen only in 1993, a year before his death, when the country managed to test medium-range missiles. 

Kim Jong-un took the project even more seriously and has made greater progress, arguably more than both his grandfather and father. His country test-launched more ballistic missiles last year than in the previous few years combined. This included the first launch of the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and the claimed development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Both experienced noteworthy – and often spectacular – failures, but they have also achieved some successes. 

But the series of test flights in May was not consistent with an ICBM, the US Pacific Command said in a statement.

Other sources have stated the test demonstrated a new type of ballistic missile that would be hard to detect and shoot down. The missile reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometres, but its short trajectory meant it could fly faster and strike a target more precisely, according to a Japanese military expert.

The missile is believed to be the Hwasong12, which has a maximum range of 4,000km. Theoretically the missile could reach the US military base on Guam, although the test missile travelled only 800km before falling into the sea 400km outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

ICBM capability

It appears North Korea will be able to have an ICBM soon. The latest launch indicated that Pyongyang has rockets powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead into space before it re-enters earth’s atmosphere and heads to a target, and the country will very soon test a real ICBM, perhaps by late this year, according to security expert Uk Yang, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum. 

In addition to its nuclear capacity, North Korea fields the fourth largest conventional military in the world. “Despite a number of noteworthy shortfalls in training and equipment, we must take seriously the substantial inventory of long-range rockets, artillery, close-range ballistic missiles, and expansive chemical weaponry aimed across the Demilitarised Zone at South Korea and US forces stationed there,” declared Admiral Harris.

North Korea’s existing missiles are already a significant threat to the 90,000 American troops stationed in the Pacific and US treaty allies Japan and South Korea. 

Pyongyang’s Nodong missile could reach Tokyo in just 10 minutes, said Michishita at GRIPS.

Immediate threat to Japan

North Korea’s militarisation is regarded as an immediate threat to Japan. Successive Japanese governments over the past years have taken measures to respond to the missile threat, according to officials at the Foreign and Self-Defence ministries in Tokyo.

The governments have spent at least $10 billion (Bt337.7 billion) to acquire missile defence systems from the US. In service now are sea-based SM 3 and ground-based PAC 3 systems. One is designed to shoot down incoming missiles outside earth’s atmosphere while the other can destroy missile that have entered the atmosphere. 

In the next three to four years, Japan plans to procure more advanced system known as SM 3 block 2A, which has better speed, more accuracy and longer range, said Michishita. 

Another measure is the civil defence system comprising two warning systems. One is Em-Net, which is a text-based emergency network warning, while the other is J-Alert, which is an automated siren-cum-voice message. 

The third measure is consultative with the US on “extended nuclear deterrence” or a nuclear umbrella. “Since Japan does not possess nuclear weapons, we have asked the US to retaliate with nuclear weapons against anyone who uses nuclear weapon against us, he said. 

There are debates among citizens and strategic planners in Japan these days to have “strike capability”. There are differences on the issue, since Japan currently has just a defensive policy. 

While some experts said it makes sense for Japan to have such a policy, the situation has changed after North Korea has developed nuclear weapons, said Michishita. 

“It is a good idea to have a defensive missile capability along with a strike capability, thus forcing North Korea to find it more difficult to launch missiles against Japan,” he said. 

Unlike Japan, South Korea is in a dilemma and difficult position.

“While North Korea as a country is our enemy since it poses a nuclear threat to us, the Koreans are our brothers, sharing the same ethnic blood, and North Korea in the future would be our partner if reunification becomes a reality,” said Lee Nae Young, chief of the National Assembly Research Service.

THAAD hits ties

However, the deployment of the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system to defend against the North Korean threat has adversely affected relations between South Korea and China. While Seoul intends to use the system as a shield to protect itself, Beijing considers it a security threat, fearing the US might use the system to spy on China’s nuclear deterrence systems. China has retaliated economically against South Korea by not issuing visas for their citizens and later banned Chinese tourists from going to South Korea.

Experts at a Seoul-based private think tank said while such retaliation did not seriously hurt South Korea, the measure undermined Beijing’s strategy in the region. 

China’s reaction could force South Korea further into the arms of the US and Japan, while “our [South Korea’s] military could get even closer to the US, and the missile system could have far more integration with the US”, said Hahm Chaibong, president of the private think-tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “But that’s really what China does not want to see,” he said. 

“What economic damage has China done to us? Minimum, so some cosmetic companies are suffering, our K-pop stars might not be able to go to China. At the micro level it is a big deal, but our foreign trade volume is huge,” he said. 

South Korea is a big supply chain for China. For example, the iPhone manufactured in China has components imported from around the world, with some of the most important ones coming from South Korea, either from LG or Sumsung, he said. 

“China will hurt too”

“If they want to place sanctions on us, it would also hurt their own economy. So China is very careful not to touch the major component of economic ties and wouldn’t want us to complain to the World Trade Organisation, Hahm said.

In early June, however , newly elected President Moon Jae-in decided to delay the additional deployment of THAAD a month after taking office. While two THAAD launchers will not be withdrawn, the deployment of four additional ones are being delayed until an assessment is first completed on their impact. 

Strategically, the US, Japan and South Korea share the same position in dealing with the situation in the Korean peninsula. While the countries have enforced deterrence policies, they also want to push maximum sanctions against North Korea but look forward to engaging with the country. The problem is how to enforce the measures properly to obtain good results. 

While US President Donald Trump expects China to exercise its influence over Pyongyang, Eric Harwit, an expert on China affairs at Hawaii University, said leaders in Beijing might not want to harshly push North Korea.

North Korean top leader Kim Jong-un inspects ballistic missiles before launching last month./KCNA

While China has many ways to put pressure on North Korea, since 95 per cent of its oil and gas supply comes from China, Beijing does not want to use that approach, he said. 

“The bottom line is that no matter what China does, North Korea will not give up its nuclear programme and the pressure could destabilise the region as well as the regime in Pyongyang,” Harwit said. “A missile also could be used against China. So I’m not so optimistic that China wants to do this.”

An unstable regime in Pyongyang would also pose threat to China, he said. If the regime collapses, China would face a massive influx of refugees from North Korea, he said. 

Blockades and sanctions will not defuse North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, agreed Lee Sanghyop, director of the Centre for Korean Studies at Hawaii University. Sanctions would affect ordinary people, rather than the nuclear programme, he pointed out. “North Korea will not give up its nuclear ambitions even if many people there were to die,” he said.

Experts in Tokyo and Seoul agree that Pyongyang is developing its nuclear capability as a bargaining chip in international politics, rather than using it to wage war. “A nuclear weapon capability would be powerful when you are not using it. Leaders in Pyongyang know this and use that logic,” said Uk Yang.

Pyongyang’s leaders believe carrying out nuclear tests is the best survival strategy, so persuasion is not enough to make North Korea give up its nuclear programme, said Lee Nae Young of NARS. “Therefore sanctions are an option as other diplomatic means in the past have failed, while a hard-line policy too has not produced any good results,” he said.

“Simple sanctions won’t help” 

Simple sanctions won’t yield good results by stopping or delaying North Korea’s nuclear programme either, argued Japan’s Michishita. “We have to learn from past experiences. People say we should not buy the same horse for the third time,” he said. 

During Kim Jong-il’s reign, the international community put pressure and engaged with North Korea but failed to stop the project. On the contrary, Pyongyang has made a lot of progress with its nuclear programme. Under the first deal in 1994, when North Korea floated the nuclear option, the US, Japan and South Korea paid $2.5 billion to the regime in Pyongyang to convince it to give up [but they did not], he said.

In the second deal in 2007, five countries in the six-party talks paid $400 million to North Korea for the same purpose. Under the agreement, once the North shuts down its nuclear reactors, the US and its allies will provide that country with 500,000 metric tonnes of heavy fuel oil every year, he said. 

Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un has developed a nuclear capability to use as a leverage in dealing with the outside world, not because of a sole economic deal, said Hahm of Asan Institute. Jong-un does not want to go down that road to sustain his regime. He wants to hold onto nuclear weapons to win world recognition that his country is a nuclear state. The North wants to proceed as a nuclear power, perhaps in the same manner as the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, he said. 

There are plenty of ways to impose sanctions against North Korea, he said. “But the kind of sanctions in the past are ridiculous compared to the threat. If you compare Iran and North Korea, Iran is part of the world economic system and it is easy to sanction, but even then UN sanctions have never mounted to anything in the past,” he said. 

It was not UN sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table, it was unilateral sanctions by individual countries such as the US and those of the European Union, he said. 

“For example, if all British insurance companies refuse to provide insurance to any ship carrying Iranian cargo, that is a severe sanction. There is nothing like this concerning sanctions against North Korea,” he said.

There are also effective options for the US. That is secondary sanctions via its strong financial networks against any companies, notably Chinese, which do business with North Korea, Hahm suggested.

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