The nuclear crisis and North Korea

Owen Miller offers a historical and geopolitical analysis of the situation on the Korean peninsula

North Korean flags in front of a large concrte building

Photo by (stephan), Flickr – edited – Creative Commons

So far 2017 has been one of the most dangerous periods in northeast Asia since the end of the Korean War in 1953. While there have been a number of acute crises on the Korean peninsula since 2010, including a ‘war panic’ in 2013, this is the most worrying period yet. The most obvious change is that we now have an unpredictable US president taking us into uncharted territory – matching North Korea’s fiery rhetoric via his Twitter account and threatening to ‘totally destroy’ the DPRK in front of world leaders at the UN General Assembly. Trump makes previous US presidents’ hostile rhetoric towards North Korea look restrained by comparison, but fortunately his rhetoric has not yet been matched by actions.

The North Korean government has also ramped up the situation by greatly increasing the frequency of its missile tests and making clear progress in its pursuit of a viable nuclear arsenal. This year the DPRK carried out 17 missile tests, including four in July/August and one in September. It now has functioning Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology, although how far and  accurately its missiles could carry a payload is still in question. We have also seen North Korea carry out a sixth nuclear test at the beginning of September, detonating an explosion inside a mountain that was far larger than any of its previous tests and powerful enough to cause a minor earthquake in northeastern China. Meanwhile, August saw the massive annual war games carried out by the US and South Korea, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian. These exercises involve around 50,000 South Korean soldiers, 15,000 US troops and included computer simulations of strikes on North Korea. During the height of the tensions the US flew B1-B strategic bombers over the Korean peninsula on two occasions, on 31 July and again in a mock bombing run in late August. While provocative, flights like this are nothing new and under Obama the US even flew B2 stealth nuclear bombers over Korea.

Targeting China

There has been a further development during the same period that has received minimal coverage in the Western media: the completion of THAAD deployment in South Korea. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense is a type of missile defence system that uses rockets to shoot down long range missiles. While the US claims it is installing the system in South Korea to protect the country from North Korean missiles, there is strong evidence that the system is actually aimed at neutralising China’s ICBMs and thereby furthering the US policy of aggressive containment of Chinese power in the region. The deployment of THAAD began under recentlyimpeached South Korean president Park Geun-hye and was halted by the incoming centrist president, Moon Jaein, who promised to improve relations with North Korea. However, Moon has been careful to stick close to Trump and used the North Korean missile and nuclear tests as an excuse to allow the completion of THAAD deployment in the southwestern town of Songju. The deployment has been met with strong resistance from local residents and Korean peace activists. When hundreds of locals and activists made a last ditch attempt to prevent the final deployment of rocket launchers in Songju in the early morning of September 7 they were met by 8,000 police who forcibly cleared their protests.

To understand why northeast Asia is such a flashpoint and why North Korea acts in the way it does we need to look at some history. The division of the Korean peninsula was perhaps the first act of barbarism of the Cold War, coming almost immediately after the US dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 (incidentally killing many Koreans as well as Japanese). The US unilaterally chose the 38th parallel, just north of the capital Seoul, to divide Japan’s former colonial possession into US and Soviet occupation zones. The outcome of this decision was the creation of two Cold War client states and the devastating Korean War of 1950-53. The war was of course catastrophic for the whole peninsula, but it’s important to remember just how destructive  it was for the North. The US Air Force was essentially unchallenged in bombing North Korea and used its supremacy to flatten every urban area in the country, destroying both residential areas and industry, killing 100,000s. Only a year into the bombing campaign the US had effectively run out of targets. They were particularly keen on incendiary bombs, using vast quantities of a newly developed substance called napalm.

US nuclear threat

The Korean War is crucial for understanding why the North Korean ruling class feels so threatened by the US and why that feeling is likely shared by much of the country’s population. The roots of the nuclear crisis can also be traced back to the war, when the US repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons against China and North Korea. General MacArthur, commander of UN forces, and Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, talked of using nuclear weapons in Korea in the winter of 1950-1 when the US was on the back foot in the face of a Chinese advance. Later, in 1953, President Eisenhower once again raised the spectre of nuclear weapons as a means to force the pace of negotiations for an armistice. Then, only four years after the war ended in 1957-8, the US began to deploy nuclear weapons to South Korea, in the form of Honest John tactical nuclear-tipped missiles. The US kept nuclear weapons in the South until they began to  withdraw them in 1991 under George Bush Snr, although the capacity of the US to strike North Korea with Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), ICBMs and air-launched nuclear missiles has not been diminished.

The same historical moment that saw the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of the current nuclear crisis on the peninsula. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 North Korea lost its superpower backer and was thrown into a struggle for survival. The fall of the USSR and the unwillingness of China to fill the former superpower’s role brought disaster for North Korea. Economically it meant ruin. The North lost its source of subsidised energy and commodities, which led to the collapse of the state-controlled economy and food distribution system. This was then compounded by floods in 1994-6 and a catastrophic famine that lasted until 1998. In the space of a few years North Korea crashed from a partly industrialised state capitalist economy
to a state that one economist described as ‘the world’s poorest advanced economy’. It was also a disaster for North Korea’s security and international standing, something that had already been declining for some years in the face of South Korea’s meteoric economic take off since the 1970s. The sense of insecurity was further heightened by the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the fast
pace of reform and opening in China and the general sense that the days of any self-declared ‘socialist’ nation were numbered. Thus, from the early 1990s North Korea’s leadership began to focus overwhelmingly on the problem of regime survival.

The North Korean ruling class has long seen the problem of survival as primarily military and geopolitical rather than economic and has always understood the US as the biggest threat facing them. They settled on the nuclear solution as their best option for survival from quite early on and began to accelerate nuclear development from at least 1992. North Korean leaders, beginning with Kim Il Sung – who died in 1994 – saw the possession of nuclear weapons as the most cost effective deterrent against US attempts at regime change. This led them to use their existing experimental nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to reprocess plutonium for weapons use and also to develop a sophisticated domestic missile programme.

North Korea’s strategy for survival has been quite rational and consistent over the last three decades. Neither Kim Jong Un, nor his father or grandfather could be justifiably described as ‘irrational’ in their approach to international relations, let alone portrayed as ‘crazy’ as the Western media so often does. It is also important to understand that the current situation, in which North Korea has acquired both nuclear nuclear weapons and long range missiles, was by no means inevitable. Over the last few decades North Korea has given many indications that it would welcome serious negotiations with the US, covering topics such as diplomatic normalisation and trade relations, a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War and a security guarantee from Washington.

First nuclear crisis

This was shown most dramatically by the first round of the Korean nuclear crisis, which was resolved quickly by direct negotiations between the US and North Korea, brokered at first by Jimmy Carter. In fact, the crisis only lasted from early 1993, when the IAEA announced it suspected that North Korea was not in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to the signing of the Agreed Framework in late 1994. Under this agreement, between the DPRK and the US Clinton government, the North Korean side agreed to stop reprocessing plutonium and demonstrate full compliance with the NPT. In return the US agreed to build two light water reactors to produce nuclear power for North Korea and provide 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually until they were completed. Another important aspect of the framework has often been overlooked: both sides agreed to move towards the normalisation of political and economic relations, while the US would provide assurances that it would not use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea.

Strategic patience

The Agreed Framework did last for almost a decade, but it was already beginning to crumble in the late 1990s due to problems on both sides. Notably, the Clinton administration, like every US administration since, seemed to believe that North Korea would shortly go the way of the East European states and collapse. To make matters worse the Republican control of the US Congress in the late 1990s meant that it was difficult for the Clinton administration to fund its side of the deal. Progress on the light water reactors was extremely slow and the North Koreans began to reactivate their missile programme in response. However, it was the arrival of George W Bush and the War on Terror in the early 2000s that finally killed off the Agreed Framework. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, along with Bush’s designation of North Korea as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ in his 2002 State of Union address, convinced North Korea that the US no longer wanted a deal and preferred regime change. After this there were more attempts at talks which ultimately ended in failure, and in 2006 North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon. Since the early 2000s everything that has happened, from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars to the Arab revolutions and the Western intervention in Libya, has kept hammering home the same lesson to North Korea: don’t give up your nuclear programme!

We now have the worst of all possible scenarios. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and seems to have achieved quite advanced missile capabilities. However, in the face of an  increasingly hostile US the North Koreans do not feel any more secure and seem to be desperately trying to shock the US government into negotiations. Meanwhile, underlying tensions between the US and China continue to simmer and the wider arms race in Northeast Asia is heating up. This has led to talk among politicians in South Korea and Japan of boosting their own ballistic missile capabilities and even of pursuing nuclear weapons in the future. While the latter position is still on the political fringe in both countries, it should be remembered that both Japan and South Korea are often described as ‘nuclear-capable’ states who have both the materials and technical knowhow to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery systems in a relatively short space of time.

What next?

The question on many people’s minds is: what is likely to happen now? Broadly speaking there are three scenarios for how the current phase of confrontation could be resolved. First, a war of  some sort, although unlikely, should not be entirely discounted. Second, the current acute crisis could subside and return to the low level crisis that has existed for decades, with the constant threat of conflict. Third, there could be a negotiated settlement between the US and North Korea that deals with all the outstanding issues (or at least begins to) and paves the way for the thawing of relations between the two Koreas.

The first possibility is unthinkable since even a war that remained limited to the Korean peninsula and did not involve nuclear weapons would be likely to leave 100,000s dead and wounded. Even with all the heightened tensions and rhetoric of the last few months war is unlikely because the costs would be unacceptable to both sides. However a war that began by accident or through uncontrolled escalation is still a possibility, as it has been since the end of the Korean War. A return to something like the status quo prior to the current crisis seems the most likely outcome, but this will solve nothing and leave northeast Asia in a highly unstable situation.

The third scenario of a negotiated settlement seems very unlikely at the moment, especially considering the temperament of Trump and the technological advances North Korea has made. However, a negotiated agreement between the US and North Korea is not impossible, and we should not believe the liberal media when it says we are at the mercy of ‘two mad men’ intent on starting World War III. We also need to remember that we are not powerless: global opinion and antiwar sentiment can have real influence. Anti-war movements around the world should be demanding immediate peace talks, based initially on a compromise such as the ‘freeze for freeze’ suggested by China and others. This would see North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programmes in return for the US freezing its military exercises on the Korean peninsula.

In the longer term, a lasting deal between the US and North Korea would require the US to abandon its policy of pursuing regime change by ‘strategic patience’: doing nothing and waiting for North Korea to collapse. It may also mean the international community tacitly accepting North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, as it has done in the past for Israel, India and Pakistan, and leaving the question of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula to be solved at a later date. Obviously we want to see a world entirely free of nuclear weapons, but such a world will only be achieved with the disarmament of the big nuclear powers, the US, Russia and China, not by the disarmament of nuclear minnows like North Korea.


Further reading


This article was originally published in the most recent issue of rs21 magazine.

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