Published daily by the Lowy Institute

North Korea’s emerging blackmail strategy

A deadlock in negotiation between the US and South Korea leaves Pyongyang to make all the gains.

On the DMZ (Photo: xiquinhosilva/Flickr)
On the DMZ (Photo: xiquinhosilva/Flickr)

A recent New York Times article has drawn much criticism from the US intelligence community for depicting North Korea’s continued missile development as “a Great Deception.”

Analysts have responded by proclaiming that North Korea has never agreed to cease its missile and nuclear development program, or offered to declare the existence of the missile facilities during the June summit. Pyongyang has so far only complied with its missile moratorium, blown up its guard posts near the Demilitarized Zone, and pledged to take further steps if the US eases sanctions.

The fact that these missile facilities exist is an open secret and constitutes nothing new in the context of North Korea’s pursuit of a survivable nuclear arsenal.

As North Korea’s nuclear strategy is taking shape, it is using the threat of resumed nuclear and missile testing to blackmail South Korea and the US to make concessions.

Notably, the outcry at the New York Times article implies that there is a misperception between how the public and pundits view progress with North Korea. The publicity and expectation both before and after the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore in June, as well as South Korea’s exaggerated statements about the incoming peace with North Korea, have persuaded the public that Pyongyang is denuclearising.

Kim’s low-cost concessions, reducing the number of troops along the demilitarised zone and stopping missile tests, make good front-page stories and can easily distract non-experts from Pyongyang’s low-profile missile production activities. The current negotiation deadlock with North Korea, coupled with the fear of a return to North Korea’s missile testing activities and the public’s high expectation, puts a great pressure on South Korea and the United States to strike a nuclear deal with Pyongyang.

After a year looking for a functional missile design, it is logical for Pyongyang to switch to mass production to maximise the survivability of its arsenal. Such a move is a part of North Korea’s plan to disperse a great number of missile launchers from its bases at the onset of a conflict and conduct multiple launches from various pre-designated or surveyed sites throughout the process. North Korea’s dispersal of missiles reduces the likelihood that the next Korean War would be limited and Washington might have to go to great lengths to destroy all of North Korea’s missiles.

Also, Kim Jong-un has reasons to delegate his nuclear launch authority to field commanders if his safety is at risk or threaten to strike the US Pacific bases and the mainland by raising military alert level and diffusing launchers to force Washington to abort its invasion plan. Both of these measures are highly escalatory in nature and constitute too much of a risk for any sober leaders to accept.

As North Korea’s nuclear strategy is taking shape, it is using the threat of resumed nuclear and missile testing to blackmail South Korea and the US to make concessions. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in has invested much of his political capital into the Korea détente and he is struggling with domestic economic reforms. At the beginning of the peace process, his administration has regarded inter-Korean economic cooperation as a growth engine for the South Korean economy. Since Moon’s approval rating depends on economic reform and inter-Korean relations, North Korea’s return to its parallel development of its nuclear weapons and economy may shatter his agenda.

The Blue House’s recent rejection of the New York Times article’s portrayal of North Korea as a deceiver reflects Moon’s fear that the United States and North Korea may abandon the negotiation at South Korea’s expense. What South Korea wants at the moment is Washington to ease the sanctions in order to advance the dialogue with North Korea, which is also what North Korea has been looking for.

The US is also frustrated at the mismatch in progress between US-North Korea negotiations and inter-Korean relations and wants to find a quick solution to the deadlock. Vice President Mike Pence recently announced that the US would not require North Korea to submit its complete list of nuclear weapons and missile sites before the second Trump-Kim summit. Pence also added that the second summit must result in a concrete plan to disclose those sites and weapons in order to be considered a success.

Pence’s statement indicates that the US is determined to make real progress with North Korea. Unfortunately, Pyongyang’s declaration dilemma ­– giving the US a full list of its sites will be too dangerous, while only disclosing a fraction of those sites will make Washington question Pyongyang’s sincerity ­– is liable to hamper the next round of negotiation. Pyongyang will gain prestige for its second meeting with the US President. Yet only if Washington is willing to lift some of its sanctions first, which is unlikely at the moment, can North Korea respond with its concessions.

North Korea’s nuclear program has reached a stage that it is cheaper for it to preserve the program rather than giving it up in exchange for US concessions. Pyongyang’s burgeoning nuclear strategy and its ability to resume nuclear and missile testing at any moments constitute the country’s blackmail strategy.

If Pyongyang does not see any progress forthcoming, it will ramp up its pressure in the coming months. South Korea and the US have to reconcile their differences over sanction lifting measures before they can overcome the present deadlock.

You may also be interested in