North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities will not undermine the current deterrence system and regional balance of power nor lead to a nuclear arms race, writes Stephen Szuster
The resumption of a nuclear weapons program in North Korea and its successive missile tests in recent months have stoked great alarm, especially when the regime is routinely portrayed as impulsive and reckless. But the assumption that a nuclear capable North Korea will induce wholesale instability needs to be challenged.
Northeast Asia is one of the most economically dynamic places in the world and it is clear the West’s chief interests in the region are peace, stability and security to enable collective economic growth. Interests, it should be noted, which align with those of China.
The most pressing question is whether North Korea’s nuclear weapons program threatens stability.
Challenging the caricature
To many of us looking on, the North Korean regime is erratic and unpredictable. This characterisation underpins the common view that it will use force to coerce and extract concessions from the international community under the threat of nuclear escalation.
An understanding of North Korea’s contemporary history, however, compels us to re-conceptualise the regime, acknowledge the logic that guides its behaviour and identify the limitations of its strategic choices.
Following the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung focused on rebuilding the economy and developing greater military strength to prepare for the forceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Over subsequent decades, however, tectonic shifts in the geopolitical landscape altered his strategic thinking.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a response to evident security concerns, not due to the psychopathy or irrationality of its leaders
During the Cold War, North Korea benefitted from alliances with the Soviet Union and China, and integration into the international socialist economy. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union precipitated an economic collapse and devastating famine.
By the end of the twentieth century, the balance of power had shifted decidedly in favour of South Korea, which possessed superior military capability and which had established diplomatic relations with China and Russia. These developments spurred the North’s nuclear weapons program in response to evident security concerns, and not due to the psychopathy or irrationality of its leaders.
Implications for stability
Following the logic of its history, we can examine the nuclear strategy North Korea may employ and its impact on the region.
There are two schools of thought: the first argues that these weapons are likely to embolden the regime to challenge the regional status quo with little fear of repercussion.
The second school argues, conversely, that nuclear weapons could serve as a stabilising influence. The regime’s nuclear status makes it a clear target of the major powers. This may discourage North Korean aggression for fear of undermining its last means of deterring US and South Korean military intervention and be content with having sufficiently compensated for its many conventional military disadvantages.
There are several compelling arguments that North Korea is a revisionist state. According to Shane Smith, for example, it has few ‘vested interests in a stable regional status quo that unevenly benefits others’, leading to its nuclear capability having a destabilising influence.
Yet, even if it were to be emboldened, embarking on aggressive international posturing, it is doubtful wholesale instability would eventuate. This is because the North’s nuclear weapon capabilities do not alter the regional balance of power nor undermine the long-standing alliance structures and tightly woven conventional and nuclear strategic deterrence system. As Choi and Bae argues, this system ‘is rigidly intact and is almost immune to disruption by North Korea’s nuclear weapons’.
Not only does a nuclear-armed North Korea confront the South Korea-US-Japan alliance, its aggression and instability created in the region are directly contrary to China’s interests.
Even North Korea would ultimately prefer the status quo to the pursuit of an uncertain and unlikely victory through war
Regional conflict or the disintegration of the North Korean regime would result in economic recession, an enormous refugee crisis and US military intervention on China’s doorstep would be almost assured. These circumstances would be intolerable to China and would wreak havoc on its internal security.
Faced with such unprecedented isolation, and bearing in mind its ultimate goal of regime survival, even North Korea would ultimately prefer the status quo to the pursuit of an uncertain and unlikely victory through war.
What if South Korea and Japan were to lose confidence in US security guarantees? While important strategic interests are at stake in Northeast Asia, in the event of war with North Korea the US does not face an existential crisis. Not so for South Korea and Japan.
If North Korea pursued a ‘decoupling strategy’ successfully, could a credible ICBM capability discourage US intervention? With Japan and South Korea not assured of US willingness to fulfil its commitments, it could generate an asymmetry of interests . But the current alliance structure, conventional weapons superiority and the credibility of US extended deterrence have thus far been sufficient to assure regional security.
This will continue even if North Korea develops a credible ICBM threat.
This is due to the success of a multitude of confidence building measures. They include statements from the Obama and Trump Administrations, the establishment of the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, adoption of the US-ROK Tailored Deterrence Strategy, employment of the US-ROK Counter Provocation Plan, large scale joint military exercises, US strategic bomber flyovers and deployment of the THAAD missile system.
Command decentralisation is anathema to the strictly hierarchical and totalitarian political-military system in North Korea
All of which have been sufficient to assure Seoul to date, despite the most recent spate of missile tests. Even if North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities were to improve at an unexpected rate, the US could reintroduce nuclear weapons to South Korea. (They were removed in 1991.)
This move is not likely to be necessary. There are indications that the North Korean regime would be unable to achieve the levels of nuclear modernisation necessary to undermine the US assurances. or that it would even be desirable for the regime to do so. This is due to the level of command decentralisation that a tactical nuclear strategy requires, anathema to the strictly hierarchical and totalitarian political-military system in North Korea.
Safeguards to security
Furthermore, South Korea can improve its own deterrence credibility through conventional means. It has done so, for example, by its credible threat to target the North Korean leadership directly in any conflict as part of a decapitation strategy.
Recent history and its unprecedented isolation demonstrate that the regime’s strategic decision-making is rational and centred on regime survival. A nuclear-capable North Korea cannot undermine regional stability without assuming an unacceptable level of risk to its own survival.
North Korea possessing nuclear weapons is not in itself enough to induce volatility. Its ongoing nuclear weapons program is concerning, but it will not automatically lead to instability in Northeast Asia. An arms race is by no means guaranteed.
North Korea is a rational actor that makes a clear-eyed appraisal of the conventional and nuclear deterrence system that operates in its region. The international community will be able to demonstrate resilience in the face of its aggression.
Featured image: Workers’ Party parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, 2015 Photo: Uwe Brodrecht Source: Wikimedia Commons