North Korea: A Perennial Nuisance

Strategic View

The latest North Korean nuclear test has caused the international community to once again reexamine all of the available policy options for how to hinder and eventually end North Korea’s nuclear program and create a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula. The Cipher Brief spoke with former CIA leadership analyst Soo Kim about the importance of the nuclear program to the Kim Jong-un regime and how South Korea could respond to the provocations of its neighbor to the north.

The Cipher Brief: The G20, ASEAN, Obama’s last visit in Asia, and North Korea’s Independence Day were all events concurrent with the nuclear test. How does the regional state of play factor into the decision to conduct a nuclear test?

Soo Kim: Regime survivability figures as one of North Korea’s primary motivators for nuclear provocations. Pyongyang’s nuclear test earlier this month – on its National Day – could serve to bolster the Kim regime’s eroding legitimacy to external watchers. The DPRK’s state television described the nuclear test as a significant elevation of the North’s arsenal – perhaps a statement in defiance of the international community’s sanctions against the nuclear test and a series of missile provocations earlier this year. Verified or not, Pyongyang’s claims that the country has mastered the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile is cause for alarm among its regional neighbors.

TCB: The nuclear test is the latest in a string of provocative actions out of North Korea this year. What does this say about Kim Jong-un’s leadership of the country?

SK: In the first couple years of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, North Korea watchers had interpreted his erratic, ruthless, and provocative behavior as signs of an insecure young dictator awkwardly attempting to bluff his power to the external world and assert his authority over the North Korean population – threats backed by tenuous capabilities. The recent string of provocative actions, however, progressively demonstrates the DPRK’s potential to menace the region’s stability. We have seen an improvement in the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

The continual, progressive nature of North Korean provocations indicates that Kim is less an irrational dictator pressing random buttons to bluff and eke out concessions, and that the regime’s threats may actually be working toward substantiating its destructive potential. This indicates that Kim may be more intentional in his threats and desire to become more dangerous – for what purpose, we have yet to see.

In the past, the North’s provocations were rewarded with concessions and aid, but it’s possible that Kim has longer-term objectives in mind. He knows that each time the DPRK conducts a nuclear or missile test, it rattles the international community – in particular, the U.S. and South Korea. That Kim Jong-un, a young leader of a backwards totalitarian country, can rattle the nerves of the big boys, might be enough of a victory for the North Korean leader, who may be taking a longer-term approach in dueling with his regional neighbors and the U.S.

TCB: This test comes only six months after the previous one, and there is evidence that North Korea’s nuclear test site has been prepared for another test, though no indications of when it may occur. Other than advancing its technical ability, what does the regime think it stands to gain from increasing the tempo of its nuclear tests?

SK: As mentioned, this month’s nuclear test marks North Korea’s second just this year. As an aside, in the four years since Kim Jong-un assumed dictatorship, the DPRK has already conducted 37 missile tests. That’s more than twice as many missile tests as those conducted during his father, Kim Jong Il’s reign.

Pyongyang’s rapid demonstrative sequence of its nuclear and missile capabilities signals to its external audience that the regime may be able to deploy more nuclear weapons and delivery systems quicker than we anticipated, and consequently, the North’s nuclear threats might be less bluff and closer to reality. This makes North Korea’s nuclear threats a more credible menace to the security of the region – perhaps Kim’s intent. A palpable North Korean nuclear threat implies to the international community that the DPRK is a nuclear state. Whether we officially designate the North as such is of little import.

TCB: South Korea is in the most precarious position of all. What does President Park Geun-hye need to do to take a firm stance while avoiding an escalation in tensions?

SK: With a little over a year left in her term, President Park Geun-hye’s options toward North Korea are under time constraint. Of course, a lot can happen in a year, but realistically, Park most likely will not take any drastic measures against Kim Jong-un. If Park’s goal vis-à-vis Pyongyang is to remain firm while avoiding escalation, maintaining a consistent DPRK policy and not making concessions to the Kim regime, while rallying the international community’s continued backing on sanctions and other restrictive measures against the North would be the default course of action.

If South Korea were to veer from its course right now, taking either a more lenient or dramatically more hardline approach with the Kim regime, the former option would put Seoul under the whims of Pyongyang. The latter option, if not backed with adequate policy, defense, and diplomatic measures, could backfire with escalated peninsular confrontation.

As many Korea watchers have pointed out, the means by which Washington, Seoul, and the international community can clamp down on the North’s behavior have reached their limits. New presidential administrations in the U.S. and South Korea may wipe the slate clean, but unless all interested parties – including China – present a consistent, united front against the DPRK, the North Korean dilemma will remain a perennial nuisance.

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