It is very difficult to draw any strategic consideration from the recent escalations in the Korean peninsula. No significant conclusion can be reached through merely analytical means. According to many experts, North Korea (NK) has developed the capability to produce fissile nuclear material (both enriched uranium and weapon grade plutonium), to detonate nuclear explosive devices – the last test was carried out in February 2013 – and to cross a major technology ballistic missile threshold in December 2012, when it succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit.
All these elements clearly denote that NK, outside the legal framework of the Non Proliferation Treaty according to which the NK is still a non-nuclear weapon state (even if the NK withdrew from it in 2003), is a de facto ‘nuclear weapon state’. Consequently, the ultimate goal of any international action should not be to deny this reality, but to find a way to reverse this situation towards a full denuclearization, if any, of the NK. Such a strategy might be designed following the case of South Africa. In the past, South Africa developed nuclear weapon capabilities, but there is no proof that the country actually managed to carry out nuclear tests, which are a necessary step to develop operative nukes – however, in the 1990s the Southafrican government decided to dismantle all its six nuclear weapons to eventually join the NPT in 1991 as a Non Nuclear State. In exchange for that, a full normalization of the country into the international community was granted and security assurances provided. Unfortunately, a South Africa model is very difficult to image for the NK, since, for instance, the North is still in a “state of war” vis-à-vis the South, and even the 1953 Armi-stice Agreement was nullified in February 2013 by NK.
However, any declared nuclear weapon posture is always a political message towards domestic and international constituencies, and this is the hard part to read. The recent bellicose rhetoric of Pyongyang could be following the same path, although, trying to read the NK nuclear leaves, for the first time it seems that Mr. Kim Jong-un is not dealing with the usual “do ut des” nuclear brinkmanship. Instead, it seems that all the moves of the third leader of NK are focused to establish a non-negotiable regional and international nuclear-focused security posture, without any other economic and political strings attached – an attitude which reminds the moves of the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. Furthermore, to try to gauge the future strategic directions of the current situation, which is very critical due to the absence of any kind of hotline between the two Koreas. In-deed, there exists today the potential risk of excalation to a full-fledged war in the Korean Peninsula as a possible consequence of even small scale, conventional confrontations, for instance due to the non-authorized or accidental action of some local command post along the DMZ. The absence of any dialogue between the NK and the South Korea (SK), and between the NK and the US, further increases the possibility of the above catastrophic scenario, albeit the NK strategic forces and the NK nuclear deterrent are under the strict control of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, Mr. Kim Jong Un.
Therefore, it is mandatory to contextualize the current NK stakes within the traditional NK narrative, as well as the recent national/regional/international facts in order to play down this potential disaster in the Korean Peninsula (KP).
So let us suggest some interpretations of the question. The Supreme Commander Mr. Kim Jong-un follows a traditional approach within the Chuch'e (or ‘self-determination’), the core nationalist ideology, namely to impose its specific mark on the domestic constituency. In a sort of ancestral trilogy. Mr. Kim Il Sung was the master of the reunification, Mr. Kim Jong-il was the creator of the Sŏn'gun ‘military first’ policy and the future historians are going to tell us if Mr. Kim Jong Un is actually being the initiator of a new ‘Nuclear Chuch’e’ or ‘self-reliance nuclear policy ’ – i.e. a sort of ‘nuclear first’ policy to address the several existential threats that both the country and the regime face. If this turns out to be correct, then Mr. Kim Jong Un will be the leader that boasted the full nuclear weapon capability of the NK. One way to reverse this potential trend is to “think out the box”, namely to forget the nuclear dimensions of the NK and to begin a serious regional and international discourse to address firstly the establishment of a permanent peace regime in the KP, and only after to address the irreversible nuclear weapon disarmament of the country. To confirm this line of thought, there is a recent official statement of the Korean Central News Agency of DPRK (KCNA), released on April 1st, 2013, that, as much as we know, is a first expression of a preliminary NK nuclear posture: “1. the nuclear weapons are just means of defence […] 2. for deterring and repelling the aggression and attack of the enemy against the DPRK […] 5. the DPRK shall never use nukes against the non-nuclear states […]” . If this is the case, then the NK must move from the actual (potential) idea of a counter-valued nuclear strategy ( i.e. aimed to maximize the civilian causalities) to a (potential) minimal credible nuclear deterrence, like the one pursued by the Pakistan or India in South Asia, by restarting the production of nuclear fissile materials. Indeed, the NK has fully mastered both the uranium enrichment technologies and the plutonium separation ones to produce plutonium for its weapon program processing the waste of its five megawatt graphite moderated reactor in the Yongbyon complex that was disabled in 2007. The dismantlement took place under an ultimately failed denuclearization deal with members of the so-called ‘Six party Talks (6PT)’, namely Russia, China, the US, SK, NK and Japan. Furthermore, the country can rely on a relevant reserves of uranium ore, which amount to approximately 26 million tons . Therefore, if this is the envisaged strategic trend, only a comprehensive deal, addressing not only the nuclear dimensions but also the security and economic issues, can reverse it. In this context, China, the only decisive ally of NK, could play a pivotal role to identify the essential benchmarks of this Grand Bargain and then to transfer them in the 6PT or in some sub-group within it.
For the authors, Beijing's old Post-Cold War idea of regarding the NK as China’s ‘strategic depth’ against the pair US – SK is not effective any more. Indeed, among other considerations, any pro-gress by Pyongyang to achieve soon operative nuclear mid-range ballistic missiles by improving its Musudang type – if not achieved yet – will induce the US to move permanently in the Pacific area its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence (ABMD) system. As a consequence, the ABMD – which is a ‘Sea-Based Midcourse’ system designed to intercept ballistic missiles post boost phase and prior to re-entry – might reduce the deterrence potential of the Chinese strategic forces, and hence it should be in the strategic interest of Beijing to persuade its NK ally to reverse its nuclear pace in the KP in order to achieve a full denuclearization, since the attached political costs could trigger more regional instabilities and transform the North East Asia in full-fledged nuclear-weapon armed region.