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Getting Used to a Nuclear-Armed North Korea

Dec 14 , 2017
  • Yue Li

    Senior Fellow, Pangoal Institution



After a successful long-range missile launch in the very early morning of 29th November, North Korea’s state news agency claimed that the missile was a Hwaseong-15, “tipped with [a] super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the US”.

The ICBM test shattered any hopes North Korea’s 75-day halt in its nuclear armament program might have encouraged, and provoked strong objections and protests from all quarters. North Korea, already in a pressure cooker, turned up the dial even further.

The US is now seeking ways to “tighten the noose”, by urging China to cut oil supplies and ties to North Korea, calling on nations to “enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from the DPRK”, and warning North Korea of possible military action. It is believed that more major sanctions are on the way.

While the US seems to be meeting North Korea’s belligerence with its own “fire and fury” statements, China, along with Russia, remains more rational and level-headed.

“Knowing oneself and one’s problem ensures success”, goes an old Chinese saying. If the US and its allies see North Korea’s nuclear weapon program as a major international security threat, it makes it all the more important to the isolated regime, whose leadership regards it as a way to defend the state, ensure the regime’s survival, and to win on the international stage.

It is not difficult to see why North Korea is choosing to develop nuclear capability for its defense. It has calculated that a nuclear weapon allows it more deterrent power at a cheaper price than upgrading its huge conventional military forces.

The double-pillar policy of economy prosperity and nuclear armament has been constantly touted by the Kim regime for three generations, such that it is now seen as a keystone of national policy. North Korea’s leaders see it as a way to rid itself of perceptions of poverty and weakness, as well as a way to gain and keep the support of the populace, thus ensuring the Party’s survival.

North Korea has more plans for its nuclear weapon program. North Korea can now shoot rockets over China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and into the US. With such a big bargaining chip, North Korea won’t waste any time in arguing for bigger and bigger concessions.

What we need right now, is to holistically take into account the concerns of all parties, and to find a way to resolve this issue and achieve long-term regional peace and stability.

The most critical moment is when a nuclear weapon is on the launch pad. North Korea might not intend to fire its nuclear missile, as it’s fully aware that doing so would be suicidal. Therefore, is it necessary for people in the region to panic and scream for help? I don’t think so, unless they’re looking to use it as an excuse to do something.

It’s commonly acknowledged that North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapon program anytime soon, so there’s no use being unhappy about it. It is also unhelpful to regret past opportunities to stop the program. However, there is no reason such opportunities will not appear again, as North Korea later weighs balancing its national accounts against keeping nuclear weapons that can never be fired.

As a member of the international community, North Korea is pledged to the peaceful use of nuclear power, which could be an option and applied to its destination of developing nuclear capability. In my personal opinion, it could be a probability event for the economy pillar playing major supportive role in the future North Korea, although we are not sure about the exact time when the nuclear armament pillar finishes its job, which is built to open a roof window of privilege for the country

It’s not easy for North Korea to live under the heavy pressure from the international community, especially in the form of sanctions. The closer it gets to intercontinental nuclear weapon capability, the more it will suffer within the pressure cooker. In this sense, time is on the side of peace. It should be remembered that pressure tactics are used to force North Korea to talk, not to destroy it or cause an explosion, and that every pressure cooker has a safety valve.

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