North Korea’s provocative test launch of a new ballistic missile last weekend is a sobering reminder that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is one of the world’s most dangerous and intractable security issues.
The successful test of the Pukkuksong-2 missile, in violation of multiple UN resolutions, demonstrates that North Korea is making rapid progress in developing more reliable solid-fuel rockets that are becoming increasingly difficult to locate and destroy.
Perfectly timed to disrupt the intimacy of Donald Trump’s dinner with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the missile test was a clear message from Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s own unpredictable strongman, that he is not going to be intimidated by the new US President.
This is Trump’s first major foreign policy challenge and governments around the world are waiting to see how he responds. Is Trump going to be a cut-through president willing to match his tough words with tough action? Or is his bark worse than his bite?
Trump’s answer to Kim’s challenge will tell us much about the broader conduct of his foreign and defence policies. Kim, on the other hand, has established form. He has repeatedly threatened to destroy the US with nuclear weapons, and his regime’s propaganda is regularly punctuated with warlike rhetoric and visually explicit images of nuclear destruction being rained down on perfidious America.
The North Korean nuclear problem has been with us for so long that it is easy to dismiss such claims as exaggerated or the product of Kim-phobia — a visceral dislike of everything associated with North Korea’s “Supreme Leader”, who seems to be just about everyone’s choice of evil incarnate.
Until recently, nuclear experts and North Korea-watchers were generally sceptical about Pyongyang’s ability to make good on its threats. However, Kim’s ascension to the top job has been a game-changer. Over the past five years, he has poured resources into his country’s nuclear weapons program and is now perilously close to achieving his cherished ambition of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile able to strike the continental US.
When Kim came to power in 2011, Western intelligence agencies assessed that North Korea had already succeeded in producing a handful of crude nuclear weapons with plutonium extracted from a small Russian-supplied research reactor. Each was able to generate about 10 kilotons of explosive force, roughly the size of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 and powerful enough to destroy a small city. “Little Boy” killed 66,000 people, injured another 69,000 and destroyed most residential buildings within a 1.67km radius of the blast’s epicentre.
Kim’s dour, introverted father Kim Jong-il also bequeathed to him the Taepodong ballistic missile capable of reaching US forces stationed in Japan and Guam but not the continental US. Technical setbacks to the missile program helped persuade Barak Obama that North Korea was not an existential threat to the country. There was still sufficient time to avert a nuclear crisis.
But Obama was shaken by the 2010 discovery that the regime was operating a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility equipped with hundreds of centrifuges, giving North Korea a second pathway to nuclear weapons. Instead of being restricted to a small number of relatively low-yield plutonium bombs, North Korea could make uranium bombs as well as use a mix of highly enriched uranium and plutonium to make more nuclear weapons from a given amount of fissile material.
This means that North Korea can quickly expand the number of its nuclear weapons, greatly increasing the threat. How many more is still uncertain. China’s top nuclear experts believe North Korea has 40 warheads in its inventory, a figure that approximates with US estimates.
Kim Jong-un’s inventory of warheads is calculated to grow to about 100 by 2020, which would give North Korea a nuclear arsenal comparable to those of India, Pakistan and Israel. Kim Jong-il may have succeeded in getting the bomb, but his son is on track to making North Korea a genuine nuclear power.
If that were not worrying enough, Pyongyang wants to develop hydrogen bombs — thermonuclear weapons vastly more powerful than those currently in the North Korean arsenal.
The largest hydrogen bomb ever tested was by the Russians in 1961. Known as “Tsar Bomba”, it was more than 3000 times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb.
To give some idea of the impact, a bomb of this size dropped on Sydney would completely destroy the city, window panes would be cracked as far away as Adelaide and everyone within 100km of the blast would suffer third-degree radiation burns.
Fortunately, hydrogen bombs are difficult to make and a bomb the size of “Tsar Bomba” would be too big to put on a missile.
It is more likely that Kim’s triumphant claim to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb last year was really a test of a boosted atomic weapon that packs more punch by using a higher proportion of its own nuclear fuel.
A consoling thought, perhaps, but far from reassuring. As nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis argues, if the US does nothing, over time North Korea’s nuclear arsenal “will grow in number, grow to threaten the continental United States, and eventually grow to include very powerful staged-thermonuclear weapons”
But a nuclear arsenal without a reliable delivery system is rather like having bullets without a gun. Although he inherited the Taepodong from his father’s program, along with 1000 missiles of older design capable of reaching South Korea and Japan, Kim realised that none had the range or reliability to credibly target the US mainland. He needed an intercontinental ballistic missile, with functional heat shields to withstand re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere and a guidance system to ensure the missile could hit its target.
He also needed to compact his nuclear warheads to fit on the nose cone of the ICBM, a difficult technical feat that had eluded his father’s scientists.
Kim’s response was to accelerate the development of an indigenously produced ICBM, designated by Western intelligence as the KN-08.
In 2015, Admiral William Gortney, then head of US Northern Command, assessed that North Korea had probably solved the size-reduction problem and could mount a nuclear warhead on the KN-08, an opinion shared by South Korea.
Initially thought to have a maximum range of 9000km, an upgraded variant known as the KN-14 would put Los Angeles and all of mainland Australia within range. However, a purported satellite launch last year, which was a pretext for an ICBM test, suggests that Pyongyang may be able to extend the range to 13,000km, far enough to reach New York and every other city in the US.
It’s one thing to acquire nuclear weapons. But what are chances North Korea would risk using them against a superpower?
Although the answer is unknowable, most experts believe the aim of North Korea’s nuclear program is to deter Washington from seeking regime change, rather than to attack the US, which would be a suicide mission given the overwhelming conventional and nuclear force at the disposal of an American president.
For Kim and his father, the real lesson from Saddam Hussein’s 2003 overthrow is that nuclear weapons capable of reaching major US population centres are the only real deterrent against US-instigated regime change or American retaliation in response to North Korean actions that threaten the US and its allies.
If he can achieve this goal, it might seem reasonable to conclude that the risk of a nuclear conflict will be reduced, as Kim should feel more secure from US attack.
However, this ignores his mercurial and violent temperament and the widening cracks in the North Korean system, with elite and popular disaffection becoming more evident.
Kim has already brutally killed his uncle, a former military chief, dozens of senior officials and now, it appears, his half-brother Kim Jong-nam. These ruthless purges may have eliminated potential rivals but they are also indicators of the regime’s fragility.
During the US presidential election, Trump opponents anguished over his character and publicly questioned whether he could be trusted with the nuclear codes. But North Koreans are asking the same question of their leader and their conclusions are disturbing.
When interviewed by the BBC, Thae Yong-ho, a North Korean defector and former senior diplomat, sketched out a plausible scenario for Kim using his nukes.
Predicting that the Supreme Leader would be toppled by a “people’s uprising”, Thae believes that Kim will use nuclear weapons as a last resort, even though such an act would seal his own destruction. “He knows that if he loses power then it is his last day, so he may do anything, even to attack Los Angeles.”
Throw into this combustible mix an untested US President with a reputation for bombast and unpredictability, and novice advisers with little knowledge of the intricacies of the North Korean problem, and you have all the ingredients for a full-blown crisis.
The question now is: what will Trump do?
His rhetoric suggests a more aggressive US posture but it is not clear that he has a workable, thought-through policy on North Korea. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump appeared to be open to the prospect of Japan and South Korea acquiring their own nuclear weapons, although he later refuted the imputation.
Immediately before last weekend’s ballistic missile test, Trump confidently but wrongly declared: “It won’t happen.” Since the test, he has given little more than pro forma support to threatened allies Japan and South Korea, and implied strong action that has yet to materialise.
In the short term, Trump is likely to respond by stepping up military exercises with allies, accelerating the deployment of the missile defence system known as THAADS to South Korea and seeking further sanctions against Kim’s regime. But the policy incoherence that has characterised his administration’s first month suggests that we may have to wait a little longer to discern a strategy for dealing with North Korea.
A reactive, shoot-from-the-hip response to this, or the next, North Korean ballistic missile test would only inflame an already dangerous situation, confronting Trump with an international crisis that would shade just about everything else, including escalating tensions with Iran, which does not possess nuclear weapons.
Trump’s strategic options are far more limited than he may realise because the US is caught between a rock and a hard place. Tighter sanctions have not worked, and China is the only country with any real leverage over Pyongyang, supplying the regime with most of its heavy oil and buying two-thirds of North Korean exports.
However, Beijing is in no mood to do the US any favours on North Korea, given Trump’s trenchant criticisms of China’s “unfair” trade practices, alleged currency manipulation and militarisation of the South China Sea.
Besides, Chinese leaders, understandably, are concerned that regime change in North could be a far worse outcome than the status quo, leading to an uncontrolled exodus of North Koreans into China and the removal of an important buffer state against US and Japanese influence. It would also raise the spectre of “loose nukes” falling into the hands of terrorists or other states.
Without Chinese co-operation Trump has few options for constraining North Korea, and none of them is good.
One is a high-risk pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities and ballistic missile force.
This might have been possible at an earlier stage in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But it is too late now, because the North Koreans are moving their ballistic missiles around the country on trucks in a nuclear version of the pea and thimble trick, which means that US intelligence cannot be sure of locating them.
Further complicating a pre-emptive strike is China’s likely hostile response, opposition from Japan and South Korea, and North Korea’s progress in placing ballistic missiles on a potentially even harder-to-find submarine, which it appears to have developed by reverse-engineering an old Soviet-era diesel submarine.
Last weekend’s test of a KN-11 Pukkuksong-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile is a clear indication that North Korea wants to develop what is known as a second-strike capability. This would allow it to launch a punitive nuclear response from submarines even if all of its ground-based ballistic missiles were to be destroyed by an American first strike.
A second option, regime change, is probably beyond the capacity of the US to engineer and any such attempt would be fraught with danger. If Kim believes his regime is going down because of US destabilisation, he may press the nuclear button and hope he can take the US with him.
A third option is to do nothing and get used to living with North Korea as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.
This is superficially attractive as it seems to minimise the likelihood of conflict. But it may produce even worse outcomes by forcing Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons, calling into question the viability of the whole nuclear non-proliferation regime, which has been largely successful in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and freeing up North Korea to export its nuclear and ballistic missile technology. Pyongyang is a proven proliferator, having supplied Syria with nuclear technology and Iran, Yemen and Egypt with missile components.
A fourth, least bad option is to make one last attempt to engage North Korea in the hope that Kim will limit, or trade off, his nuclear weapons for peace and economic aid — lots of it. Various iterations of this strategy have been tried unsuccessfully since the 1990s. They failed because of an underlying trust deficit between Washington and Pyongyang, and North Korea’s unwillingness to trade away the deterrent power of nuclear weapons for an uncertain peace.
However, if Kim’s intransigence causes diplomacy to fail, China will be under strong pressure to accede to a further strengthening of UN sanctions, particularly if Kim continues to intensify nuclear and ballistic missile testing. The US would then have a stronger political and moral case for ramping up its national and regional missile defence systems.
Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising that the Obama administration listed the North Korean nuclear issue as the No 1 national security problem for the incoming Trump team. Unfortunately, Obama’s unwillingness to engage North Korea under his policy of “strategic patience” only served to embolden Kim and did little to advance denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula or the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
The stakes are high for Australia too. It is difficult to imagine a more critical national security issue than a high noon confrontation between a nuclear-armed North Korea and our principal ally, the US. This could be bigger than a conflict between China and the US in the South China Sea. A dense network of personal relationships between the two countries and their many shared interests helps moderate Sino-US tensions. The same cannot be said for the US and North Korea where mutual distrust is off the scale and diplomatic contact minimal.
A nuclear-armed North Korea is contrary to our counter-proliferation objectives and a nuclear crisis would be extremely detrimental to our core trade and security interests. Northeast Asia accounts for more than 50 per cent of our exports and we have longstanding security obligations to South Korea stemming from our membership of the UN’s Command Military Armistice Commission that dates back to our involvement in the Korean War.
If Kim wants to demonstrate his willingness to use nukes without directly targeting the US mainland, it is not inconceivable that he could strike the vitally important US-Australia joint facility at Pine Gap, which provides crucial early warning of North Korean ballistic missile launches.
This is one of many security scenarios defence and foreign policy planners ought to think about as the old international order unravels and we are forced to confront the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea.