Battle of Nuclear Buttons
What drives North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions?
The presidents of two highly- nuclearized states today are involved in an open clash of words, over an issue which is complex, sensitive and dangerous. President Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address was marked by a lofty message of having a nuclear button on his desk capable of reaching the US mainland and intention of mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. In response, Donald Trump in his twitter posts, taunted Kim John Un, stating the button on his desk being bigger and more powerful. If exchanges of callous messages continue, the war of words can be aggravated into a nuclear conflict in case there is miscalculation by either country of the intention of the other.
The New Year also displayed a new strategic move by North Korea, of accepting South Korea’s invitation to participate in the 2018 Olympic Games and to engage in diplomatic dialogue. The two countries who are still technically at war (considering the 1950-53 Korean War ended in truce, not a peace treaty) have decided to march together in the Olympics under one flag and have an inter-Korean hockey team. It has been hoped that the Pyeongchang Olympics would open the door to a brighter future in the Korean peninsula and a larger diplomatic breakthrough regarding North Korea’s nuclear regime.
“The issue of a joint women’s hockey team caused notable debate in South Korea with a majority of South Koreans opposed to the idea. The conservative population in South Korea have accused their president for opening the door for conversion of the Pyeongchang Olympics to Pyongyang Olympics.”
However, this move by South Korean President, Moon Jae In, is not taken so well by the conservative population in South Korea. The issue of a joint women’s hockey team caused notable debate in South Korea with a majority of South Koreans opposed to the idea. The conservative population in South Korea have accused their president for opening the door for conversion of the Pyeongchang Olympics to Pyongyang Olympics. A protest broke out in Seoul, upon the arrival of a North Korean celebrity, Hyon Song-Wol which was marked by the burning of Kim Jong Un’s photo. Would the people of two nations, who have developed separate identities adhere to the idea of a unified team to improve diplomatic ties? The jury is still out.
It seems that the isolated country, North Korea, is building a network of allies starting with South Korea. Critics say that the improving of North-South Korea relations could be tactic by Kim Jong Un to reduce US-led sanctions against North Korea and portraying the US as the primary obstacle between the two nations. However, it is hardly likely that despite improved North and South Korea relations, Kim Jong Un, is going to give up the nuclear programme, considering his behavior in the past.
Looking at North Korea’s behaviour over the past decade, it seems that the aggressive US stance towards North Korea has only been seen to make things worse. Coercive diplomacy and economic sanctions seem to have failed to annihilate North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In 2017, North Korea fired 23 missiles and conducted 16 nuclear tests despite the plea to stop by the international community. Despite UN Security Council sanctions passed in September, North Korea tested the ICBM, Hwasong-15 which was capable of hitting the US mainland, in November 2017. Kim Jong Un, certainly has no interest or intention to give up his nuclear ambition.
To understand North Korea’s nuclear ambition, it is imperative to remind ourselves why North Korea went nuclear in the first place. While America has been threatened by North Korean nuclear programme for the past decade, North Korea has been threatened by US nuclear weapons for more than fifty years. In 1953, after the Armistice agreement, the US pledged to defend South Korea from future attacks and deployed thousands of military there, a reminder to North Korea, that the world strongest military power was its enemy and had the capacity to deploy nuclear weapons. The threat of South Korea’s stronger economic position further adds to the insecurity faced by North Korea.
"North Korea seems to have internalized that building a robust nuclear arsenal was the only way to survive."
The end of the cold war lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most important geopolitical ally of North Korea, leaving North Korea as a target of US nuclear threats. North Korea seems to have internalized that building a robust nuclear arsenal was the only way to survive. Further North Korea had been labelled as an “Axis of Evil” by the Bush administration and was bombarded with continued sanctions since 2006.
The identity and foreign policy of North Korea has been shaped by the perceived threat of America, with its nuclear program propelling its survival and strengthening its position in the Korean peninsula. North Korea seems to have relied on the deterrence posed by the nuclear weapons so far, although it is hard to determine if North Korea will become offensive. The hope is that deterrence is the main goal of the North Korean nuclear regime.
“Any future solution will have to be premised on this rational understanding of the North’s behavior so as to avoid the obfuscation that often takes place in the popular rhetoric of a lunatic dictatorship with a sycophantic death wish.”
With the lessons learned in Iraq and Libya where two military dictators who developed nuclear capabilities were toppled by the US, it may be almost impossible for Kim Jong Un to trust the US and give up its nuclear programme so easily. The recent war of words only seeds in more mistrust. In face of the perceived threat, North Korea’s military spending is estimated to be $3.5 billion annually. North Korea has the world’s fourth largest military. Article 86 of the North Korean Constitution states, “National defence is the supreme duty and honour of citizens.” Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea has existed in near isolation, with little interest becoming a member of the international community or in collective security.
What can be done?
Therefore, North Korea looks at international relations from a realist perspective and lives on the philosophical principle of military-first politics to remain self-reliant which has fuelled its nuclear regime. Any future solution will have to be premised on this rational understanding of the North’s behaviour so as to avoid the obfuscation that often takes place in the popular rhetoric of a lunatic dictatorship with a sycophantic death wish. Only then will we reach a sound deal with North Korea and a future of openness for an otherwise desperately poor nation.
Views expressed are personal.
About the Author
Aishwarya Bansal is a student of Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Columbia University in New York City. A graduate in Political Science from Hindu College, Delhi University, Aishwarya has also worked with the American Red Cross.