North Korea has long been working on increasing and making a more sophisticated program for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and is also believed to have significant capabilities in regard to the weapons that would pose either chemical or biological threats. The considerable development of nuclear technologies in the country is attributed to the division of the Korean peninsula in two after World War Two, which led to North Korea developing an authoritarian form of government that established a system of global isolation and the absence of interaction or collaboration with potential global partners. North Korea viewed having nuclear weapons as a means to protect against the perceived external threat (Tow 2009). On the contrary, the country presents more threat to global security than the worldwide alliance of countries presents to North Korea. The lack of the country’s engagement with international organizations guiding the research and development (R&D) of nuclear weapons presents a challenge to the global community as there is no understanding of what North Korea may be working on as well as what steps it is planning to take. Furthermore, the escalation of the testing for weapons of mass destruction presents a matter of concern for international safety and security organizations. This paper aims to discuss the global issue associated with North Korea’s R&D of nuclear missiles to identify problem areas as well as potential avenues for improvement.
Background to the Issue
North Korea presents a problem to the international community because of the challenges associated with the lack of collaboration with global players. For example, the country withdrew from the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2003, and it is also not a part of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and has been conducting a large number of sophisticated nuclear tests (NTI 2018). According to the comprehensive research report prepared by Smith, the country is currently estimated to have “enough fissile material to build anywhere between six to thirty nuclear weapons, depending largely on how much highly enriched uranium it has produced, and is poised to grow its stockpile, perhaps dramatically, over the coming years” (2015, 7). The country has been conducting three increasingly impactful and powerful nuclear tests since its withdrawal in 2003, with the US becoming its focus in the efforts to show its prevalence in the global nuclear arena. In addition, the country has made bold and lenient nuclear threats to the global community under the guidance of Kim Jong Un.
Despite the growing concerns and threats associated with the nuclear potential of North Korea, limited attention has been given to its rising nuclear strategy for several reasons. First, there is a common misconception of North Korea as being a backward and incompetent country, the nuclear efforts of which should not be taken seriously. This has to lead to some downplay and dismissal on the part of the global community over several years. The attitude has shifted with the third nuclear test carried out by North Korea in 2013, after which many international analysts started taking the capabilities of the country seriously (Smith 2015, 8). Second, there is a lack of understanding regarding the potential of the country because little to nothing is known about the nuclear arsenal because the government keeps any information secret. Finally, the nuclear potential has been underestimated because of the assumption that the program is mainly associated with gathering international prestige and boosting domestic support associated with the longstanding leadership of Kim Jong Un.
The current nuclear program carried out by North Korea is concerned with the defiant efforts to show the capability to produce missiles that could be reliable and powerful enough to retaliate against any attack of their “enemies” (Smith 2015, 9). In his 2017 speech, the leader of the country paid attention to emphasizing the contemporary advancements of the missile and nuclear program. The year marked significant developments in the efforts to improve North Korea’s capabilities, which served as a reason for the increasing rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. In July 2017, North Korea tested the Hwasong-14 ballistic missile, which was later confirmed by the US to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) (Sang-Hun 2017). In August of the same year, it was found that North Korea was producing miniature nuclear weapons that would be possible to fit on ICBMs (NTI 2018). The revelation of the advancements made by the country caused the international community to engage in a dialogue about the possible mitigation of the escalating situation.
For example, the diplomatic thaw between North and South Korea has illustrated the efforts of the newly-elected South Korean president pursuing a policy of openness toward the North, with the athletes of two countries marching under the unified flag at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. In April 2018, the leaders of the two countries held their first meetings since 2007 (NTI 2018). The softening of relations between South and North Korea was instrumental in opening opportunities for the latter to engage in diplomatic efforts with the United States (Yanagisawa 2019). In June 2018, Kim John Un met with Donald Trump in Singapore, which signified the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the countries in history.
Thus, the available knowledge on the issue makes it complicated to overlook the nuclear-related decisions of the government. Now, the country has policies and investments in place to suggest the long-term ambitions for a survivable second-strike nuclear capability to deter possible attacks and coercion. The government has increasingly invested in the development of different-range ballistic missiles that are easy in their use and transportation and can, therefore, take advantage of the varied terrain, underground facilities, and tunnels. Besides, it is notable that there is also evidence that North Korea is working to explore both submarine and silo launch technologies to boost the survivability of their missiles (NTI 2018). The statements from the governmental and policy documents indicate a strategy of “dealing with deadly retaliatory blows at the strongholds of aggression” (Smith 2015, 9).
The problem associated with North Korean nuclear threats is exacerbated by the evidence of the government having greatly ambitious plans insight with an increased role of atomic weapons in line with its strategy of warfare. In this case, North Korea followed the examples of Russia, the US, and Pakistan, all of which embraced the strategy to threaten quick escalation in response to the perceived or real nuclear weakness. For the country, adopting such an approach may lead to serious operational, economic, and technical challenges, as well as the risks of escalating diplomatic relationships with key international stakeholders. It remains to be found as to how North Korea could overcome such obstacles in an effort to strengthen its relevance in the international arena.
The government of North Korea has also underlined its intent to place more significant bureaucratic and political weight on its nuclear operations while also creating a system of controls that would be strengthening its centralized authority (Smith 2015). For example, in March 2012, North Korea upgraded the Missile Guidance Bureau, responsible for the R&D of long- and short-range missiles, to reach the status of Strategic Rocket Forces Command, which has a certain degree of autonomy from the Korean People’s Army and makes direct reports to the leader and the General Staff Army (Smith 2015). It is believed that the new Command would be the foundation for the nuclear forces of North Korea.
The slow but increasing openness of the North Korean leadership toward a diplomatic dialogue may offer the opportunity for international players to engage in a negotiation regarding the decrease of the country’s nuclear potential. However, it is important not to downplay the potential that has been overlooked previously. The country remains in possession of a considerable nuclear arsenal and a long-range ballistic missile system alongside with the availability of a uranium enrichment sites as well as other facilities that are concealed from the global community. The high levels of secrecy complicate the possibility of carrying out productive nuclear deal-making. Caution should be used when interpreting the statements made by North Korea; while the leadership is open to the principle of denuclearization, the country remains open to being prepared to relinquish nuclear weapons as it sees fit.
Solutions to the Issue
The international community should be continuing its efforts at engaging North Korean leadership into the discussion about its nuclear power potential to reach consensus. There should be a clear and mutual understanding of the goal of such collaboration, as well as the benefits it will yield for the parties involved. According to Bandow (2019), for the CATO Institute, there is no real way to determine the true intentions of the North Korean government without negotiation. The results of the meeting between US and Korean presidents showed that Washington and Pyongyang would be open to developing their relationships while also working on the improvement of the regional security environment.
Easing the tensions between North Korea and the international community is possible in different ways. For example, it is necessary to relax the sanctions that inhibited inter-Korean cooperation while also working on making a peace declaration or treaty. A statement of peace is essential because of the presence of US troops in South Korea, and the North Korean government sees a potential risk of attack on the part of Americans. In making the decision to reduce the capabilities of nuclear power, a peace statement is essential to consider. In addition, an improvement suggestion is to formalize the promise of North Korea to have no nuclear missile tests while also making the US accountable to terminate its military exercises in the Korean peninsula. If North Korea is unwilling to do anything laid out in the peace treaty, it should become evident quickly. However, there is no way in finding out without negotiating. Therefore, the key to solving the North Korea nuclear problem is communication and collaboration between governments to come to a conclusion regarding the ultimate unambiguous goal.
Bandow, Doug. 2019. “How to Solve the North Korea Crisis Once and for All.” Cato.org. Web.
Sang-Hun, Chloe. 2017. “U.S. Confirms North Korea Fired Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.” The New York Times, Web.
Smith, Shane. 2015. “North Korea’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy.” Wmdcenter.ndu.edu. Web.
Tow, William. 2009. Security Politics in the Asia-Pacific: A Regional-Global Nexus? New York: Cambridge University Press.
Yanagisawa, Kyoji. 2019. “The North Korea-United States Summit and the Possibilities for New Security-Oriented Thinking.” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 2 (1): 357-369.
NTI. 2018. “North Korea Nuclear.” Nti.org. Web.