North Korea’s Nuclear Arms Sustain Drive for ‘Final Victory’

July 31, 2017

max Fisher  from New York Times

A mystery has long surrounded North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Conventional wisdom holds that the North’s weapons are intended to address the country’s two greatest problems — military inferiority and economic weakness — by deterring the United States and extracting concessions.

But in practice, the weapons make both problems worse by increasing the risk of war and ensuring continued sanctions.

So what is driving the North’s actions? Earlier assessments pegged the country as irrational or warped by its own ideology. But virtually every expert now dismisses those explanations, saying that North Korea has managed its history-defying survival too cannily to be anything but coldly rational.

And with each test, most recently the launching on Friday of a missile that according to some estimates could strike most of the United States, the contours of a far more ambitious strategy grow clearer.

“People keep asking, ‘What do they want, why do they test these missiles?’ ” said Joshua H. Pollack, the editor of The Nonproliferation Review. “But they are telling us very clearly.”

The country says that it plans — and analysts increasingly take this claim seriously — to force the world to accept it as a full member of the international community and, eventually, to reconcile with the United States and South Korea on its terms.

North Korea envisions the United States one day concluding that it has grown too powerful to coerce and the status quo too risky to maintain, leading Washington to accept a grand bargain in which it would drop sanctions and withdraw some or all of its forces from South Korea.


A Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile being launched late Friday from an undisclosed location in North Korea. CreditKorea Central News Agency, via Associated Press

As a show of global acceptance, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, would then be welcomed in foreign capitals and at the United Nations. This political agenda, much like North Korea’s push for an intercontinental ballistic missile, was once dismissed as bluster. But the country’s actions suggest it means what it says.

Experts believe North Korea is likely to fall short of its grander ambitions, which appear premised on the kind of miscalculations to which new nuclear powers are often prone. Still, more modest goals, like a grudging global acceptance, may be more feasible.

Even if North Korea’s own leaders consider success unlikely, they may have judged, with some reason, that this is their country’s only shot at long-term survival.

The China Course

The key to understanding North Korea’s strategy may lie in the recent past of another Asian nuclear state: China.

Mao Zedong’s China began, in the 1950s, as a pariah state, isolated and threatened by the United States. It became, in the 1960s, a rogue nuclear power. And then it rose, through the 1970s, into an accepted member of the international community, embraced even by its onetime adversary.

North Korea appears bent on following that progression. A nuclear program that can threaten the United States, making war unthinkable, would be only step one — and may, with the missile tests this summer, now be complete.

China ultimately won acceptance by playing the United States against the Soviet Union, not by rattling nuclear sabers. Its size and power also made it impossible for other nations to ignore it, advantages that North Korea lacks.

But North Korea’s desperation, as well as its longtime obsession with China, may have led it to see the possibility, however misguided, of achieving success by following Beijing’s script.


Kim Jong-un, right, the North Korean leader, celebrating the test launch of the Hwasong-14 missile on Friday.CreditKorea Central News Agency,via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“You can see in their language and their approach that they are modeling all this on basically China and the U.S.,” Mr. Pollack said.

North Korea regularly offers the United States high-level envoy exchanges and even sports diplomacy. The Harlem Globetrotters visited in 2013; Dennis Rodman has made multiple trips. These outreaches, though dismissed as meaningless or just eccentric, appear taken from the history of Beijing’s approach a half-century earlier, with echoes of the so-called Ping-Pong diplomacy.

Though it is difficult to imagine today an American president flying to Pyongyang to shake Mr. Kim’s hand and normalize relations, it was not much easier, in the 1960s, to picture President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing.

“The key to understanding Kim Jong-un’s long-term strategy has to do with ‘byungjin,’ ” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. Byungjin, or parallel advance, is Mr. Kim’s policy of developing the economy alongside the nuclear program.

“Ideally, from his perspective, he could replicate the Chinese model by normalizing foreign relations, from the U.S. down, on the basis of a nuclear deterrent,” Mr. Delury said. Only then, with its economy, in theory, allowed to catch up to its neighbors’ and its leadership accepted abroad, could North Korea feel secure.

The country often explains its weapons as serving these goals, and it often ties its weapons tests to relatively small demands, like ending American military exercises on the peninsula. Mr. Pollack stressed that North Korea sees itself as playing a long game, in which small concessions add up over generations. Mr. Kim, who could hold power for decades, has time.

The Taiwan Corollary

A more radical version of North Korea’s strategy, Mr. Pollack said, drives toward “what they call the final victory: reunification.”

Experts disagree on whether North Korea remains intent on assimilating the South under its rule, as it tried with a 1950 invasion and subsequent efforts at destabilizing South Korea’s government. But the North continues to claim that as its goal, announcing the missile test on Friday with a pledge to “achieve the final victory.”


A joint missile exercise conducted on Saturday by the United States and South Korea at an undisclosed location in South Korea. CreditRepublic of Korea Armed Forces, via European Pressphoto Agency

“North Korea has consistently proclaimed its determination to unify the homeland and behaved accordingly,” B. R. Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea, wrote in a research paper last year.

Reunification, Mr. Myers wrote, would be “the only long-term solution to the regime’s chronic security problems.”

South Korea’s overwhelming prosperity in comparison with its neighbor leaves the North with little reason to exist as a separate state. This legitimacy crisis poses a danger just as existential as American military power.

The North’s leaders appear to have concluded, Mr. Myers wrote, “that unification would not be possible as long as U.S. troops remained in the South,” leading them to develop weapons that could be used to force an American exit.

While such goals might sound ridiculous to American ears, Mr. Pollack believes that North Korea sees this, again, as part of the Chinese model that worked once before.

For years, the United States recognized Taiwan, where it based troops, as the rightful Chinese government. But that relationship flipped in 1979, when the United States normalized ties with Beijing and broke its alliance with Taiwan.

North Korea may hope to use a similar playbook, splitting the United States from South Korea. The break would not need to be so drastic to fulfill the North’s goals; official neutrality would do.

Beijing’s stated goal of reunification with Taiwan will not happen for decades, if ever, but few doubt its sincerity. North Korea may similarly see reunification prospects as remote and generations away but still essential.

Nuclear Ambitions, Nuclear Risks

Research on nuclear diplomacy offers two lessons: that North Korea’s strategy is likely to fail and that the country is likely to try anyway.

Nuclear threats rarely succeed in extracting concessions from adversaries, according to a book-length study by the political scientists Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann.

Nuclear threats are simply not believable; the consequences of using the weapons are seen as too great to be credible. As a result, nuclear states are less likely to successfully coerce an adversary than non-nuclear states, which can more credibly threaten war.

And because nuclear weapons heighten the risk to both sides, they tend to lock the status quo in place — the opposite of North Korea’s goal.

Mr. Kim, the research by Mr. Sechser and Mr. Fuhrmann suggests, has greatly enhanced his ability to deter the United States from invading. But if he is hoping to force the United States into a major policy change, he is headed for disappointment.

But North Korea may overestimate its chances. Michael C. Horowitz, of the University of Pennsylvania, found that new nuclear powers are more prone to aggression.

And Colin H. Kahl, a Georgetown University political scientist, wrote in 2014 that, regardless of whether nuclear weapons actually work for extracting concessions, “new nuclear states appear to believe they do, at least for some period of time, and act accordingly.”

This may pose the gravest risk to both the United States and North Korea itself. Should Mr. Kim miscalculate with his nuclear threats, there is a small chance he could blunder into war.

In a war, nuclear powers with small arsenals, like North Korea, would feel strong pressure to fire quickly before their weapons are destroyed, even if they believe they will lose, according to research by Caitlin Talmadge, a professor at George Washington University. While such a situation is remote, the North’s strategic ambitions have introduced this risk.

If the world wishes to avoid these risks, Mr. Myers wrote, it would need to confront the “troubling explanations for North Korea’s armament, instead of continuing to ignore them.”


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