By Joseph M. Siracusa
Any discussion of North Korea’s nuclear program should begin with an understanding of the limited information available regarding its development. North Korea has been very effective in denying external observers any significant information on its nuclear program. As a result, the outside world has had little direct evidence of the North Korean efforts and has mainly relied on indirect inferences, leaving substantial uncertainties.
Moreover, because its nuclear weapons program wasn’t self-contained, it has been especially difficult to determine how much external assistance arrived and from where, and to assess the program’s overall sophistication.
That said, what is known is that Pyongyang has tested three nuclear devices: in 2006, 2009, and, of course most recently, on 12 February 2013. They have all had varying degrees of success, and North Korea has put considerable effort into developing and testing missiles as possible delivery vehicles.
February’s detonation of a “smaller and light” nuclear device — presumably, part of the plan to build a small atomic weapon to mount on a long-range missile — was the first test carried out by Kim Jong Eun, the young, third-generation leader, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. And while it always intriguing to speculate on who is running the show in North Korea, the finger generallyseems to point to the military.
Many foreign observers have come to believe the otherwise desperate, hungry population (and failing regime?) that make up North Korea’s secretive police state is best symbolized by its nuclear and missile programs. Which gives rise to the basic question: what, then, is Pyongyang’s motivation for its nuclear and missile programs? Is it, as Victor Cha once asked, for swords, shields, or badges?
In other words, are the programs intended to provide offensive weapons, defensive weapons, or symbols of status? In spite of prolonged diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang officials over the past two decades, the question of motivation remains elusive.
Pyongyang’s interest in obtaining nuclear weaponry, beginning around the mid-1950s, has apparently stemmed in part from what it perceived as the US’s nuclear threats and concerns about the nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea. These threats, in turn, have pervaded North Korean strategic thought and action since the Korean War.
These actions may be gauged as offensive or defensive, but Pyongyang officials were at one point fearful of South Korea’s nuclear ambitions and later uncertain about the US emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons and its nuclear “first use” policy in defense of the South. These nuclear-armed additions included 280mm artillery shells, rockets, cruise missiles, and mines.
Against this backdrop, all of North Korea’s nuclear activities tend to focus on a single goal: preservation of the regime. Possessing nuclear weapons would diminish the US’s threat to the nation’s independence, but it could also reduce Pyongyang’s dependence upon China for its security.
North Korean officials, too, may feel that a small nuclear force offers some insurance against South Korea’s dynamic economic growth and its eventual conventional military superiority.
Pyongyang undoubtedly views its burgeoning nuclear arsenal as a symbol of the regime’s legitimacy and status, which would assist in keeping the Stalinist dynasty in power. Additionally enhanced status would, of course, assist in gaining diplomatic leverage.
Although the North Koreans have boasted about their nuclear deterrent’s ability to hold the US and it allies at bay, it is fairly clear that North Korea has vastly overstated its ability to strike, in part because of the limited amount of fissile material available to Pyongyang and also because of its inability to field a credible delivery option for its nuclear weapons.
The North Koreans have launched long-range ballistic missiles in 1998, 2006, 2009, and 2012, with limited success. By comparison, the US test fires its new missiles scores of times to ensure that they are operationally effective. North Korea would need many more tests of all the systems, independently and together, at a much higher rate than one every few years, to have confidence the missile would even leave the launch pad, let alone approach a target with sufficient accuracy to destroy it.
This was dramatically demonstrated on 13 April 2012, by the failure of the much-hyped effort to employ a three-stage missile, which would send a satellite into space. If the missile was, as Washington and Tokyo believed, a disguised test of an ICBM, the fact that it crashed into the sea shortly after launch illustrated that North Korea’s development and testing of missiles as possible delivery vehicles had miles to go.
Joseph M. Siracusa is Professor in Human Security and International Diplomacy and Associate Dean of International Studies, at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Among his numerous books are included: Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction (2008) and A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy, and Politics, 2 vols., with Richard Dean Burns (2013).
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Image credit: North Korea Theater Missile Threats, By Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS.) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.