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North Korea's nuclear threat in the limelight

Published: Fri 8 Jan 2016
North Korea's nuclear threat in the limelight

Professor Christoph Bluth, Professor of International Relations and Security.

The test of a nuclear device on 6 January 2016 by North Korea once again highlighted the fact that since the end of the Cold War 26 years ago the Korean peninsula has become a major fault line in the regional security of Northeast Asia as North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons to support its diplomacy towards the South and the United States.

Much of the discussion around this test which is North Korea’s fourth test of a nuclear explosive device has been around the Pyongyang’s claim that his was a thermonuclear device (also known as a hydrogen bomb). There is no concrete evidence to support this claim, which is dismissed by experts. However it is important to understand why the DPRK is seeking to demonstrate its military prowess in this fashion.

The division of the Korean peninsula has always been a source of instability given that neither side is satisfied with the status quo as a permanent solution. After North Korea lost economic support and reliable security guarantees from its erstwhile sponsors (Russia and China), the top priority for North Korea has been regime survival. The Kim regime feels threatened by the changed geopolitical environment and in particular what it calls the ‘hostile policy’ of the United States, and its severe economic difficulties.

During the 1990s it looked as if North Korea was willing to curtail its nuclear programme in return for economic and political concessions. This changed during the Bush administration and a decisive factor was the Iraq war, which seemed to demonstrate the need for a capacity to deter a US attack. The North Korean elite believes that the nuclear programme enhances the status of the DPRK and  is needed for deterrence against external aggression. It also provides internal legitimacy for the regime by demonstrating that North Korea is a great and powerful country.

On the other hand the external threat to North Korea is primarily created by the nuclear programme in the first place. There is a curious paradox that underlies North Korean foreign policy, which is that it is fundamentally predicated on making North Korea appear dangerous to the international community. This motivates the United States and other countries to engage with North Korea in order to mitigate the threat, but in order for this to be sustained the threat has to be periodically revived. This creates the seemingly inescapable cycle of conflict and cooperation. It also accounts for North Korea’s diplomacy, which to outsiders sometimes appears erratic and even irrational.

The problem is that this diplomacy has run its course and neither the United States nor South Korea are willing to make substantial concessions in response to North Korea’s military threats. The danger is that North Korea will resort to ever greater threats in order to achieve its objectives. Therefore some level of engagement with North Korea over arms control and economic cooperation is vital. While denuclearization may not be achievable for now, North Korea may be prepared to agree to limits on its nuclear programme in return for a range of political and economic agreements. This is why the US “strategy of patience” may no longer be advisable and greater efforts to pursue arms control with North Korea should be undertaken.

Professor Christoph Bluth, Professor of International Relations and Security

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