For a number of years around the turn of this century, I was a member of an international group that brought together academic and official persons to discuss nuclear security problems in the Asia-Pacific region. It was part of a wider project to reduce tension and build confidence, which worked in parallel with formal diplomatic meetings. Apart from technical persons, it also included diplomats, but because of its relative informality, it tended to be referred to as ‘Track Two’.
Amongst the regular participants in this process was a certain Mr Kim (Myong Chol) who represented the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea). He has stayed in my memory from that time, because of a conversation we had in May 2000. We were both going to a ‘Nuclear Experts’ meeting in Washington and, by chance, our planes landed at Dulles at about the same time. We met in the airport arrivals hall and agreed to share a taxi into town. We naturally talked about matter on the agenda which, of course, included the North Korean nuclear programme. This then, as now, was a matter of some international anxiety. In the course of this conversation he told me directly that it was his earnest hope that they (North Korea) could land a nuclear weapon on some American city. It seemed astonishing and chilling but I didn’t think he was jesting. He was simply expressing the enormous depth of antagonism and hatred that the North Koreans felt towards the United States.
This is back in my mind because the North Korean authorities (specifically, the National Defence Commission) have explicitly repeated Mr Kim’s passionate aspiration. “We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets will be launched by the DPRK one after another and a nuclear test of higher level will target against (sic) the US, the sworn enemy of the Korean people.” (New York Times, 24-1-13). So, what are we to make of all this? Would they actually do it? In May 2000, I suggested to Mr Kim that the likely American response to such an attack would entail enormous destruction across North Korea, as they attempted to ensure that nothing like it happened again. He realised that but he would die happy!
This may not be the same with the present North Korean leadership and the other Mr Kim (Jong-un). The DPRK missile and nuclear programme may be seen by them as simply a matter of deterrence against a persistent threat from the South, and the South’s American allies, and the talk is simply intended to reinforce and make more plausible their deterrent posture. Of course it may also (and more simply) be seen as a continuing regime survival strategy, which has, as its purpose, to deflect internal attention away from North Korea’s enormous social, economic and political problems. In that context, the country’s official name – Democratic People’s Republic – is tragically ironic and Orwellian. The people have no democracy and it is not even a republic. Kim Jong-un is the third in a baleful line of autocratic monarchs.
Insofar as the continuing North Korean nuclear and missile programme is to be seen as deterrence, it may be asked how plausible it is. In an earlier blog (June 2010), I pointed out the powerful de facto deterrent effect of the enormous conventional arsenal that the North maintains on its border with the South. It may be doubted how much that is augmented by the possibility of a stray ICBM with a possible nuclear payload. It isn’t exactly ‘mutually assured destruction’. On the other hand, if nothing happens to change the track of present developments, there could be a time when the threat becomes more plausible. In an earlier paragraph, I speculated that any attempt by the DPRK to hit an American city might be followed by a retaliatory strike. I didn’t say what kind of strike that would be. If the North Korean attack was serious enough, would the US response be nuclear? And if it was, what would China make of nuclear weapons dropping on its borders? This seems to me to suggest that China ought to be taking a more serious interest in what its neighbour is doing than has been apparent in recent times.
There is something else about what is going on in North Korea that ought to give us pause and that is its uranium enrichment programme. The earlier DPRK weapon tests were of plutonium devices. What is presently expected is the detonation of a uranium device. This is, in principle, a simpler operation. The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium device. There are still major technological challenges to constructing a deliverable warhead and, has been seen in Iran, continuing difficulties in amassing significant quantities of weapons-grade material, but just getting a nuclear detonation is easier with uranium than with plutonium. This gives rise to the concern that I also raised in my June 2010 blog, that of the material getting into the hands of terrorists. This it seems to me is the most potent present threat.
Would the North Koreans actually supply weapons-grade uranium to terrorists who come with ready cash? I think the answer to this question is more plausibly, ‘yes’ and is thus the greater present danger. That isn’t to say that their rocket and nuclear warhead programme is not a potential threat to all their neighbours, including China. The latter, particularly, needs to take it very seriously, notwithstanding that they, with the Soviet Union’ were largely responsible for the North Korean nuclear programme in the first place.