What’s really driving North Korea’s nuclear quest?

There is a chance to resolve the crisis through dialogue.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

North Korea’s nuclear programme is the direct consequence of the US-UK adventurism of the past 25 years. Burned into Pyongyang’s psyche are the Western interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. When Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear ambitions in 2003, in order to be welcomed back into the global community, a suspicious Kim Jong-il was invited to follow his lead. Gaddafi’s death at the hands of Western-backed rebels eight years later vindicated Pyongyang’s scepticism.

The lesson that North Korea learned was that the problem wasn’t having weapons of mass destruction, but rather not having them. Its nuclear experiments were transformed from optional to essential. The regime realised that it was not merely losing a conventional arms race, but in danger of being humiliated. North Korea spends a quarter of its budget on the military but its economy is barely 2 per cent of South Korea’s; as a result, Seoul’s defence budget is five times larger than Pyongyang’s. The US, Japan and South Korea together outspend North Korea by a factor of 50.

Meanwhile, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, must ensure that economic growth continues – GDP grew by 4 per cent last year – in order to keep Pyongyang’s privileged elite content. Yet North Korea is no developing country; rather, it is a failed industrial state. There is no pool of peasant labour waiting for induction into manufacturing. If the economy is to grow and flourish in the country’s “special economic zones”, labour will need to be diverted from the army, rather than from agriculture. Nuclear deterrence saves money and manpower.

North Korea’s nuclear programme has prompted the UN, under pressure from the US, to ratchet up sanctions after every nuclear test and missile launch. In 2013, Kim Jong-un (who replaced his father, Kim Jong-il, as leader after his death in December 2011) resolved to go for broke. The party adopted the “byungjin line”, ordering the “simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the economy”. Despite scepticism and sanctions, Pyongyang has delivered.

Because of the two recent launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the sixth nuclear test, the US must now take into account the possibility that Pyongyang could hit the American mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile. The full range is unproven, the re-entry technology rudimentary and the targeting unsophisticated. There is, as yet, no possibility of multiple warheads or decoys on any North Korean ICBM, which should make it a comparatively easy target for Washington’s erratically performing missile defence system. In the absence of sophisticated guidance technology, enabling precision delivery, the death toll from a semi-random strike that penetrated the US’s leaky shield would likely be between 10,000 and 20,000 people. The American response would be a thousand times more deadly.

Nevertheless, unless there is some early resolution, the world and east Asia will become increasingly disordered. The US will seek to force the UN to impose a trade embargo on North Korea, while simultaneously assembling a “coalition of the willing” for preventive military action against Pyongyang. Washington will seek to recruit the UK after the Conservative government’s courting of Donald Trump.

Late last year, for the first time, RAF Typhoons participated in joint military exercises with the US and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula. In Operation Invincible, they prepared for overthrowing the Kim regime. At the same time, in northern Wales, US, Japanese and British special forces “captured” the moribund Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in Operation Vambrace Warrior. (A strike against North Korea would lead to the death of millions in Seoul.)

Beijing’s political relationship with Pyongyang is toxic, yet China has the economic leverage to enfeeble its neighbour. President Xi Jinping, however, is aware both of North Korea’s willingness to fight and of the prospect of millions of refugees migrating to north-eastern China, with US troops stationed on the Yalu River. If Washington wants to “save the armistice”, Beijing wants to “save the revolution” and prevent an arms race in the region.

In South Korea, the new progressive president, Moon Jai-in, elected in May after the impeachment of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, finds himself, as he recently told his cabinet, in an “impossible position”. Elected on a platform of engagement with the North, he is now boxed in by Washington and Pyongyang.

Donald Trump’s erratic and solipsistic approach makes it impossible for Moon to do much beyond maintaining close relations with US in the short term. To China’s fury, South Korea might seek to develop its own independent nuclear deterrent.

As for Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not wasting a crisis. Long determined to make his state a so-called normal country, he will seize the opportunity to emasculate Article 9 of the national constitution by removing the “peace clause” to enable full re-militarisation. If South Korea also seeks to become a nuclear state, Japan will follow.

Yet there is a chance to resolve the crisis through dialogue. North Korea is changing under the influence of modest market-based reforms. Pyongyang knows that its position is as strong as it will be with its technological and economic limitations. It is open to a comprehensive solution to the crisis that offers security guarantees, a peace treaty with the US and humanitarian and development assistance.

In 1994, an “agreed framework” with the US offered all of this and more and arrested North Korea’s nuclear programme for a decade. The best hope, in the present uneasy circumstances, is a reprise of the agreed framework – for slow learners. 

Glyn Ford is the author of “North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival” (Pluto Press). He was a Labour MEP from 1999-2009

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move