On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Workers Party, North Korea has announced its intention to launch a rocket – or a long-range missile – while further advancing its nuclear programme, in contravention to the United Nations Security Council resolutions. The question is the following: by moving towards becoming a de facto nuclear power and threatening to use nuclear weapons, is North Korea changing the game in North East Asia? To answer this question, our in-house expert Alain Guidetti recently sat down with Evans Revere, former U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and currently senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
These announcements generated a lot of headlines in the United States. My reaction was a bit calmer than that. We’ve heard a lot about this before. We’ve heard threats to expand, develop and further their nuclear weapon programme and indeed they’ve taken a number of steps over the last several years to do that. They’ve also taken a number of steps in the missile development area and recently in smaller, short-range missiles.
“You can’t be a credible nuclear weapon state unless you can demonstrate that you have a credible weapon and the weapon has to be delivered by a credible mean of delivery.”
But having said that, this time it seems to me that the North Koreans are due to take some significant step. It’s been a while since they have launched a so-called satellite using a long-range rocket, or carried out a nuclear test. And if you believe the North Korean rhetoric, in recent years they have shown their determination to be a de facto nuclear weapon state and to develop the means to deliver nuclear weapons. Those two goals require exactly the same thing: testing. You can’t be a credible nuclear weapon state unless you can demonstrate that you have a credible weapon and the weapon has to be delivered by a credible mean of delivery.
So, what’s driving this is not, as a lot of so-called experts say "a desire to make a political statement", "a desire to celebrate a particular holiday", or "a desire to undermine the north-south dialogue". The main force that is driving these statements, I think, is the need for them to test both the missile frame and possibly also a weapon.
But let’s look at the reality right now. And the reality is so far that there is no indication at the normal launch site of any significant preparations in the near term for a launch. Now that doesn’t mean that they have not prepared the vehicle in some sort of hidden fashion and then it could be moved into position fairly quickly. But if you’re looking at occasions in which they could meet the technical requirement of testing the long range rocket that would launch the satellite, the October 10th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party would be a convenient date to do that. It would be the confluence of both the technical requirement that they have identified and a political requirement to celebrate the anniversary. As far as the nuclear test goes, their plan requires them at some point to demonstrate again that they have taken their nuclear weapons capability up to the next level. At some point they’re going to do that. The only question is when. And once again at the areas where they would normally carry out these test there is no indication of a nuclear activity. And if you believe their recent statements, their suggestion was that the missile launch, the rocket launch, the satellite launch will come first.
I don’t think we should focus solely on the United States. This is an international issue and it has been internationalised for a number of years through the UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit the North Koreans from doing this. So, it will not only be something that irritates the United States greatly, it will be something in a direct and clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
Thus, the real question is: “What are we collectively going to do in response?”. The United States will certainly take some initiative in this regard working with the Japanese, with the South Koreans and hopefully with the P5 in the UN Security Council. I would expect that there will be a strong effort by the United States to further strengthen the array of sanctions that have been applied on North Korea.
If you look, for example, at the sanctions that we have placed on Iran which is not a nuclear weapon state, the sanctions that have been placed on North Korea pale in comparison. So, there would be a strong argument to propose that we take much tougher measures against Pyongyang.
“Despite all the differences that we see between Washington and Moscow in so many other areas, in this area, when it comes to proliferation when it comes to the development of nuclear weapons, the Russians have been quite tough.”
The real question is: “To what extend the Chinese and the Russians would cooperate in this?”. Everything that I’ve heard from the Russians recently suggests that they are as firm and as adamant in their position on the North Korean nuclear programme as the United States is. Despite all the differences that we see between Washington and Moscow in so many other areas, in this area, when it comes to proliferation when it comes to the development of nuclear weapons, the Russians have been quite tough. Regarding China, I would like to think that the violation of one or more UN Security Council resolutions would bring Beijing on board in some fashion and that we would have more than just a President statement or a declaration by the President of the Security Council.
If you look back over the last five years, since the sinking of the Cheonan in early 2010 and the attack of Yeongpyeong Island in November 2010, the incredible escalation of North Korean rhetoric that we saw in 2012 and 2013, the breakdown of the so-called Leap Day Agreement, the failure to get the North Korea back to the table of the Chinese hosted Six-Party Talks, there is a rising level of frustration and concern in Beijing about North Korea. What we’re seeing now is a manifestation of an increasingly higher concern and frustration and even anger vis-à-vis Pyongyang. This cooling in the relationship was manifested recently in the parade in Beijing where the North Koreans were present at a much lower level than many other delegations.
“There is a rising level of frustration and concern in Beijing about North Korea.”
But it is unclear if there has been a fundamental shift in China’s strategic position vis-à-vis North Korea. I said in a conference a few weeks ago that at the end of the day China still has North Korea’s back. Beijing is still prepared to support them. But do not underestimate the degree to which this frustration, this anger is affecting this relationship, below the strategic level, at a tactical level. There seems to be a shutting down of certain avenues of contact. There is definitely a cooling in the number and the intensity of diplomatic visits and exchanges back and forth. But I still question whether the Chinese have engaged in a strategic shift away from Pyongyang. Some people think that they are in the process of doing that. I’m a bit sceptical about that.
The rhetoric is not new. We actually heard direct threats from North Korea to strike specific American cities a couple of years ago. The fact that they have said it again suggests that this is now part of their strategic doctrine and that it will be part of their new narrative.
If you step back and think about it, the North Korean use or imminent use of a nuclear weapon would be a suicidal act from North Korea. They know that, but they continue to make threats. They are telling us that they are and that they will continue to be a nuclear weapon state and that they have no intention of reversing this. This tells us something about the severity of the problem that we face. The North Koreans have now declared in any number of ways that they are now member of this nuclear club whether we recognize them in this capacity or not. The message for us is “you have to deal with us as a nuclear weapon state from now on”.
What is very troubling is that in the next crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang may be tempted to use the existence of its nuclear arsenal as a tool or a device to blackmail or intimidate its neighbours. Right after the confrontation that took place on the Korean Peninsula, last August, North Korea said that the reason why this crisis came out in this fashion was because of the nuclear deterrence. For me, the nuclear weapons are something that they would be tempted to rely on. Thus, this requires us to think very carefully about the responses that we might carry out during the next crisis.
For instance, will the South Koreans be so willing to respond to an artillery attack the next time with counter-artillery attack if, in the back of their minds, they think that the North Koreans might then respond by threatening of use of a nuclear weapon? If there is a confrontation, for example, in the Sea of Japan between North Korea and Japan you will have to take into account at least the possibility that the North Koreans might wave this tool to intimidate the Japanese or others. The game is changing. The nuclear issue will definitely be a destabilising factor, because we can no longer feel comfortable that we will be able to keep a confrontation or a provocation under control. And we will have to be prepared for that.
We are moving into unknown waters here. And to me it is a reflection of the failure of our various efforts individually by the United States and collectively by the Six Parties to the negotiations in some other venues to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. The failure of our diplomacy, and I’m not accusing anyone, I’m basically stating a fact, means we have failed to stop North Koreans from getting to the point where they can now do this and we are going to pay a price for that.
It is hard to believe that any of those countries would ever go down the nuclear weapons path under the circumstances that we have right now. But a failure of confidence in the American deterrence would be a nightmarish development because it could cause some parties in the region, including our allies, to begin to think about other options. But so far, the United States has put in place all necessary measures with its allies that the level of confidence in the U.S. deterrence is and will continue to be there.