North Korea: Fact File
Vol 11 Issue 2 May - Jun 2017
An analysis of North Korea’s quest to acquire missile and nuclear capabilities
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
North Korea’s Objectives
The stated ideals underlying North Korea’s (DPRK) foreign relations are independence, peace and friendship. It “strives to further strengthen friendship and solidarity with the world’s people on the basis of the ideas of independence, peace and friendship and to make the international community independent and democratic and thus actively contribute to the common cause of mankind to build a free, peaceful, friendly new world, free from domination and subjugation”.
It is also the stated aim of North Korea to reunify the two Koreas. The then President, Kim Il Sung had presented a Ten Point Programme of the Great Unity of the Whole Nation for the Reunification of the Country stated by at the Fifth Session of the Ninth Supreme People’s Assembly 0n 6th April 1993 which remains an abiding aim of the nation and its government.
The Juche Principle: In pursuit of this endeavour, North Korea is guided in its activities by the Juche idea authored by President Kim Il Sung. The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction. The Government of the DPRK steadfastly maintains Juche in all realms of the revolution and construction. Establishing Juche means adopting the attitude of a master towards the revolution and construction of one’s country. It means maintaining an independent and creative standpoint in finding solutions to the problems which arise in the revolution and construction.
As expounded by the North Korean government, it is the “policy of the Government of the Republic, guided by the Juche idea, to treasure the Juche character and national character and maintain and realize them. The Government of the Republic always adheres to the principle of Juche, the principle of national independence, and thus is carrying out the socialist cause of Juche”. In keeping with its political philosophy, North Korea has periodically asserted its need for a nuclear deterrent since the Korean War, when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons against it.
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities
North Korea signed the Nuclear NPT in 1985 and entered into an agreement with US in 1994, wherein among other stipulations, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its old, graphite-moderated nuclear reactors in exchange for international aid to build two new light-water nuclear reactors. In 2002 the Bush administration revealed that North Korea has admitted to operating a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of the 1994 agreement. In consequence North Korea withdrew from the NPT in early 2003.
North Korea claims to have conducted five successful nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009, in 2013 and in January and September 2016. Over the tests, the yield of the bombs appear to have increased with the September 2016 having an explosive yield of between 10 and 30 kilotons. While the 2006, 2009 and 2013 tests were all atomic bomb tests, North Korea claimed that its January 2016 test was of a hydrogen bomb, a claim though doubted by experts. While analysts believe the first two tests used plutonium, there is no clarity amongst them on what has been used in the subsequent tests. Plutonium stocks are finite & North Korea has plentiful reserves of uranium ore which it could enrich and build a nuclear stockpile.
Can North Korea deliver a nuclear bomb?
There is no consensus on where North Korea has reached in terms of miniaturising a nuclear device so that it can be delivered via a missile. Prof Siegfried S Hecker of Stanford University and an acknowledged expert on North Korea’s weapons’ development opines that “we must assume that the DPRK has designed and demonstrated nuclear warheads that can be mounted on some of its short-range and perhaps medium-range missiles”.
US Concerns and Imperatives
The US perspective on North Korea is tinged with frustration that the several diplomatic, economic, and military concessions both from itself and South Korea made since 1994 have not altered North Korea’s single-minded determination to carry on with its nuclear and missile programmes. Though the US pulled out its nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in the early 1990s, reduced its forces at the Demilitarized Zone North Korea never changed its behaviour and continued with its efforts to develop an intercontinental nuclear attack capability and engaged in a covert nuclear program in violation of its commitments, to the US as also the international community to reach a stage where it has directly threatened to attack the US mainland.
Several compulsions underlay the response of the US. Besides enforcing ‘discipline’ into North Korea’s conduct and its compliance to the NPT and abjuring its nuclear and missile programmes, the US is increasingly wary of its ‘actual’ capabilities, particularly due to the ominous threats that North Korea has been making to execute an attack on the US homeland. US carrier fleets, its bases at Okinawa and Guam are well within striking range of North Korean missile attacks.
As the supreme global power, the US does not want to be seen as buckling and seeming weak under the pressure of threats. It has so far exercised great restraint and is applying all the diplomatic pressure at its command to persuade North Korea to comply with international protocols and fulfil the commitments to the International community.
So far, notwithstanding the statements of its leadership, the US has been seeking to exert diplomatic pressure on North Korea through China, as evident from President Trump’s now famous tweet “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies will!”
China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food and energy. Its support for North Korea has been long standing, dating back to the Korean War (1950–1953), when its troops flooded the Korean Peninsula. Even thereafter, it has both economically and politically supported successive North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il and presently Kim Jong-un.
Strains in the China-North Korea relations began in 2006 after the later tested its first nuclear weapon and China supported the UN Security Council Resolution 1718 that imposed sanctions on North Korea besides other Resolutions that reflect a shift of its stance to a harsher position. After North Korea’s most recent nuclear test in September 2016, China called on North Korea to not take action that would “worsen the situation.” Nevertheless, China continues to have wide-ranging ties including economic exchanges and high-level exchanges. Interestingly, it has strongly resisted any punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations after allegations of torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity were made.
China also provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for upwards of 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume. Conversely, China’s purchases from its neighbour include minerals, seafood, and manufactured garments.
China-North Korea trade has also steadily increased. Trade between the two countries peaked at $6.86 billion in 2014. But its recent actions have been somewhat harsher. In February this year, China’s commerce ministry temporarily suspended coal imports from North Korea through the rest of the year, a move that enhances the effectiveness of existing UN sanctions against North Korea. Beijing had previously banned coal imports from North Korea in April 2016 but had allowed exceptions for “people’s well-being.”
Since the new ban, some vessels carrying coal have reportedly been turned away at Chinese ports.
Richard N. Haass, President US Center for Foreign Relations assesses that “Chinese leaders have no love for Kim Jong-un’s regime or its nuclear weapons, but that China dislikes even a remote prospect of North Korea’s collapse and the unification of the Korean Peninsula. Stability on the Korean peninsula however remains China’s foremost interest though it supports North Korea to ensure the existence of a friendly country at its Northeast borders which also provides a buffer between itself and South Korea in which a large number of US troops are based.
China has been ambivalent on the question of its commitment to defend North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance says China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression. Importantly, it has now taken the position that in case of a conflict being initiated by North Korea, it would not abide by its treaty obligation.
China also fears the prospect of a deluge of North Korean refugees flooding into its territory in case of a war. Even today, the refugee issue is already a problem for China which has been facing flak from humanitarian groups for seeking to repatriate North Koreans escaping across the border. Estimates of North Korean refugees in China range from thirty to sixty thousand to even two lakh refugees.
China has been the destination for South Korea’s exports amounting to $124 million during 2016, but has been compelled to take retaliatory measures against South Korean businesses to oppose the deployment of the THAAD in South Korea’s eastern province of North Gyeongsang.
China could in fact impose severe hardship on North Korea by curbing desperately needed food and fuel but has shied from any drastic action so as not to destabilise that country.
South Korea – Changed perspectives?
Moon Jae-in, leader of South Korea’s liberal Democratic Party and a career human rights lawyer is the son of North Korean refugees has said he wants to improve relations with North Korea. Amongst his major political positions have been an intent to reopening a joint industrial park on the Northern side of the border that had been closed due to the previous Government’s belief that it was as source of funnelling money to Kim Jong Un’s regime and to review the decision to allow the US to deploy the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea. Several South Koreans in fact prefer a softer approach in dealing with North Korea, possibly due to fear of South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, being within direct firing range of North Korean artillery lined up along the border. Likewise, there is fear of severe economic retribution by China which has strongly opposed the deployment of the defence system.
There is also robust opposition to THAAD in some parts of South Korea over safety and environmental concerns as well as fear that China, which staunchly opposes THAAD, will inflict severe economic punishment on South Korea in response to its deployment.
Present State of the Conundrum
On 14 May 2017, North Korea conducted its latest missile test – a ballistic missile that flew for half an hour and reached an unusually high altitude of 2,000 km (considered a flight pattern that could indicate a new type of missile) before landing in the Sea of Japan, close to Russian soil. Experts feel that if flown on a standard instead of a lofted trajectory, the missile could have a range of 4,500km (about 2,800 miles) which is longer than North Korea’s current missiles. It had launched the Pukguksong-2 missile, an upgraded, extended-range version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile from the same site.
North Korea’s state media has stated that Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” policy is only aimed at “stifling us” and will compel the North to “strengthen our nuclear deterrent at the maximum speed” and that North Korea “will bolster its nuclear capability unless the United States abandons its hostile policy”.