North Korea: the art of the deal

Pyongyang is close to its nuclear-weapons goal. Diplomacy – and a sense of history – are now needed.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 August 2017

Pyongyang. (stephan)/Flickr. Some rights reserved.North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are causing widespread concern in the international arena. The strong focus on this one state, however, is also a timely moment to note that a number of relatively small states in broadly similar circumstances of insecurity have also had nuclear ambitions. These states are commonly described by analysts of international security as “fortress” or “garrison” states. How their nuclear stories worked out is worth recalling in today's dangerous atmosphere, particularly with Trump in the White House. 

The main contenders in this group are Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa, Israel and North Korea itself. It's true that several other states have had nuclear intentions, and took at least initial steps. Argentina and Brazil, and (perhaps surprisingly) Switzerland and Sweden were among them, but all terminated their programmes at quite an early stage. Of the five fortress states, two have not gone the whole way, one did so and then gave them up, one has a large and powerful nuclear arsenal and one – North Korea – is almost there. 

What of the other four?  

First, since 1988 successive political leaders in Taiwan have declared that the state will not “go nuclear”, but it certainly took the initial steps to do so after the People's Republic of China conducted its own first nuclear test in 1964. It had already built a research reactor in the later 1950s and conducted initial nuclear-weapons-related work at the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research, established thirty miles (43kms) southwest of Taipei in 1964. There are no signs at present that Taiwan is likely to change its policy, but the state would have the potential to do so within a very few years if that policy were to change.

Second, South Korea also had nuclear-weapons ambitions in the 1970s, but the military government at the time came under heavy pressure from the United States not to develop them. The considerable US military support available to Seoul was also a factor. Even so, a few reports suggested that some work was undertaken in secrecy, and in 2004 the government partially acknowledged this in contacts with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If South Korea had taken a decision to go further, it is probable that an initial nuclear-weapon test would have been feasible in less than two years.

What is common to all five “fortress states” is that they perceive (or perceived) themselves to be threatened in circumstances where they could not guarantee protection from much more powerful states. 

Third, the white South African government in the the apartheid era considered a nuclear-weapons programme to be essential for its security against countries to its north. By the late 1980s it had got as far as having a small arsenal with six operational nuclear weapons, and one in development. In a decision that caused some surprise, the government announced in 1989 that it was dismantling its arsenal and acceding to the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). This was represented as an ethical choice, though others attributed to the concerns of a white political elite facing the prospect of majority rule. Whatever the motives at the time, it is certainly the case that post-apartheid South Africa has been very prominent in calls for global nuclear disarmament.

Fourth, Israel is alone among the five in having persisted to developing a very powerful nuclear arsenal, though along the way it has had an extraordinarily close relationship with a superpower. The programme started in the 1950s  It had plenty of external help, initially from the French, and by the end of the 1960s had produced some devices. Now it has an arsenal of at least 100 weapons, capable of being launched by strike-aircraft, Jericho ballistic-missiles or submarine-launched cruise-missiles.

What is common to all five “fortress states” is that they perceive (or perceived) themselves to be threatened in circumstances where they could not guarantee protection from much more powerful states. Taiwan and South Korea do now see their security as being stronger because of US power, though in 2016 senior officials in South Korea’s conservative government broached the idea of reopening a programme, and one poll indicated majority public support. Israel, meanwhile, regards its nuclear force as absolutely essential, in spite of its relationship with Washington.

Pyongyang, it's good to talk

Where does this leave North Korea and why is there such current concern? The country has conducted several nuclear tests and probably has a handful of low-yield bombs. But that is not the same thing as being able to deliver them to, for example, the continental United States. This is where the recent testing of its most powerful missile, the Hwasong-14, is significant. Although not tested over a full intercontinental range (5,500-plus km), the trajectory used and the altitude reached means that North Korea is on the way to developing a weapon that can target American territory.  

That will take more time, with further tests and intensive work on re-entry vehicles and warheads. But the pace of development has exceeded the expectations of independent analysts. The key political point is that North Korea will most likely have that capability before the end of Trump’s first term in 2020, if he survives that long.

It is highly unlikely that North Korea will be deterred from this path. It has long feared US intervention, a fear hugely boosted by George W Bush’s state-of-the-union address in January 2002 when Pyongyang was labelled one of three “axis of evil” states. Another of these, Iraq, had its regime terminated the following year. Bush was unequivocal: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes present a grave and growing danger.”

North Korea will most likely have the capability to target American territory before the end of Trump’s first term in 2020, if he survives that long.

Trump now talks in similar terms, if more briefly and via tweets. The state department under Rex Tillerson is much more cautious, while others in Congress point to the huge dangers of any kind of military action. Among most diplomats in Europe there is a consensus that diplomacy has to be allowed to work, and that this must involve a determined effort to see the world as viewed from Pyongyang. This case is also argued powerfully by Gabrielle Rifkind (see "Let’s try and understand North Korea’s actions..." The Guardian, 31 July 2017).  This should be the way forward.

It's also essential that other states use whatever influence they might have and recommend great caution. This might have included the UK, not least since it is only a few months since the RAF was for the first time in decades exercising with South Korean and US airforce units (see "North Korea: the US-UK's latest target", 4 May 2017). 

That, however, seems unlikely given the chaotic internal politics of Brexit. The position is made worse by having in Boris Johnson a foreign secretary who seems more concerned to threaten to sail Britain’s brand new aircraft-carrier into the South China Sea. This act is almost certain to damage relations with China, the one country that has serious influence with Pyongyang.

But what of the United States, and the prospect that it will take military action? Here, three factors could well become relevant:

 – Trump himself, especially if he becomes immersed in yet more domestic controversies and then seeks an overseas diversion as a way out

 – Washington's defence and security apparatus is now largely in military hands. That the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff is a serving general is usual; what is most unusual is to have three retired generals as head of the department of defence, as national-security advisor, and as chief of staff at the White House

 – The ever-present risk of untoward escalation at a time of crisis, represented by the acronym AIM (accidents, incidents and mavericks). These are the variables that can potentially turn tensions into out-and-out violence.

This is a time for diplomacy that ensures tension with the "fortress state" is turned from military threat to a peaceful outcome.

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