BY MONTE R. BULLARD AND JUDITH NORTON | IN-DEPTH PIECE
North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities and their delivery systems is trouble for the U.S. and the PRC. The two powers have concerns regarding the North’s nuclear and missile proliferation. The PRC is concerned about the impact of the continued advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs on the regional security architecture. For the U.S., North Korea poses a major challenge to nonproliferation, a cornerstone of American foreign policy. For the U.S. and the PRC, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could serve as a structural force sparking a regional nuclear arms race with Japan in the lead, which in turn could reignite the nuclear ambitions of South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan… all of which have the indigenous capability to develop nuclear weapons.
To date, the North Korean regime’s pursuit of missile and nuclear capabilities has generated greater cooperation between the U.S. and Japan and the U.S. and South Korea regarding missile defense, which the PRC strongly opposes. In the case of Japan, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has not yet served as a catalyst for it to pursue the nuclear option; instead, it has caused the U.S. and Japan to engage in a research program on missile defense. Japan’s threat perception and regional posture could change if the deterrence power of the U.S. military deteriorates for any reason, such as an attack against the U.S. military infrastructure using an EMP. In the case of South Korea, because in recent times North Korea has increased dramatically the speed and scope of nuclear and missile programs, it has led to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, a U.S. anti-missile defense system, to South Korea. The PRC is against the deployment of missile defense to the region and, more recently, expressed strong opposition to the deployment of the THAAD system to South Korea to the extent that it actively limits trading relations with South Korea. Although the PRC’s objection is more likely driven by political rather than security concerns, both variables influence its position. From the PRC perspective, the missile defense system could undercut the deterrent effect of its missile and nuclear forces. More importantly, however, the U.S. could expand the system to incorporate the first island chain consisting of Japan and Taiwan and even the Philippines. The two possibilities, particularly the latter, could exacerbate the PRC perception that a U.S.-led force is surrounding China and challenging its sovereignty and territorial claims. In response, the PRC could make qualitative and quantitative advancements to its forces (see here) escalate claims over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea, as well as become assertive in the area around the Korean peninsula.
DEPLOYMENT OF TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS TO THE PENINSULA
The North Korean pursuit of nuclear capabilities has raised the issue of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). Decades ago the U.S. withdrew TNWs and delivery systems from the peninsula following the signing of a series of agreements in 1991 called the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI). The leaders of North Korea and South Korea later signed an accord titled “Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchange and Cooperation”, and agreed to make the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons through the 1992 inter-Korean Joint Denuclearization Agreement. Subsequently, however, both sides perceived that the other side undercut the spirit of the Agreements, as North Korea continued to develop weapons grade plutonium while South Korea continued to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella to provide extended deterrence. In recent times, however, South Korea’s defense minister suggests reviewing the possibility of a redeployment of TNW to the peninsula, an issue that Chinese officials state is "out of the question". The defense minister's observation is in line with a discussion with a South Korean military officer who observed a few years ago that the U.S. and South Korea should deliberate the use of TNWs. Specifically, this means the ‘use of low-yield nuclear weapons delivered by short-range military systems in a specific theater of operations to achieve limited operational goals’ (see here). In stark contrast, South Korea’s president has stated opposition to the relocation of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, as well as to the development of his country’s own nuclear weapons program. The position of the president indicates the government perceives no real threat yet from its security environment and is not yet concerned about the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrence guarantee. If and when the threat perception of the South Korean government changes, the U.S. and South Korea could more seriously revisit the issue of TNW.
PROLIFERATION RESTRAINED BY U.S. REGIONAL ALLIANCES
A primary restraint on regional proliferation has been the U.S. regional alliance system, which consists of alliances with Japan and South Korea as well as a U.S. deterrence guarantee for Taiwan. As for Japan, the 1951 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States is the core of the U.S. security position in the region. It allows the U.S. to maintain military bases in Okinawa in exchange for a U.S. commitment to defend Japan in the event of an attack. In the case of South Korea, the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea requires the U.S. to help South Korea defend itself while placing South Korea under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The U.S.’s and South Korea’s predominant strategic concern is the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Regarding Taiwan, the U.S. passed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) (Public Law 96-8). The TRA states the U.S. will “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”. As long as the U.S.’s security guarantee is reliable and its extended deterrence and nuclear umbrella remain credible, it reduces the probability that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan will pursue their own nuclear weapons capabilities. All three countries are prevented from nuclearization by U.S. policy.
Although the U.S.’s treaty-bound security relationships are the cornerstone of the region’s security architecture and reduces the probability of nuclear proliferation by countries in the region, it intensifies the siege mentality of the North Korean regime and society. Furthermore, President Trump’s past comments stating that South Korea and Japan should acquire their own nuclear weapons exacerbate the North’s siege mentality.
NORTH KOREA'S SIEGE MENTALITY
Surrounded by foes who pose a military threat to North Korea’s regime legitimacy, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, and, uninterested in being coopted in to China’s sphere of influence, North Korea perceives the country is under siege from the outside world. From the North Korean viewpoint, it not only faces a conventional military threat from the U.S. and South Korea and the U.S. and Japan, but also from the U.S.’s attempt to create an alliance between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. Moreover North Korea sees these countries pose a nuclear threat to it. In one discussion with North Koreans, they stressed that Japan, not the U.S., has posed and continues to pose the greatest security threat to North Korea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but no one addresses this issue. The North’s siege mentality drives the regime to advance its nuclear program and acquire nuclear-capable missiles to protect itself (as mentioned, it initiates possible nuclear proliferation by South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan). It also leads the North Korean leadership to continue the juche ideology that stresses self-reliance, as well as the related ideology of songun, a “military-first” politics that requires the society to have complete dependence upon and respect for the military. During my visit to North Korea, the two ideologies were promoted and were the drivers continually shaping the perception of the North Korean regime and society.
From the North Korean perspective, the two Koreas remain locked in a protracted and intense competition. North Korea believes each side is jockeying to demonstrate which side has developed the most superior socioeconomic and political systems. During my visit to the DMZ from the North side, the discussions there centered on two issues: Ending the state of war between the North and the South through a treaty formalizing the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953; and the fact that the North Korean flag on the North’s side flew higher on the flagpole than the South Korean flag on the South’s side. The North Korean threat perception is partly shaped by the legitimacy war, which was active between the North and the South during the cold war.
South Korea no longer views the two sides as locked in a legitimacy war. South Korea perceives it has surpassed North Korea in terms of economic development, international prestige, as well as military capabilities. Accordingly, its threat perception is different from the North’s. From its viewpoint, North Korea presents more of a political problem than a military one, specifically because it lacks institutional capacity.
A U.S. RESOLUTION
For the U.S., the situation between the North and the South translates into two challenges the U.S. needs to resolve. On the security plane, a verbal commitment from the U.S. to not attack North Korea with conventional weapons or use tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict with the North is insufficient. North Korea could require a formal security guarantee from the U.S. But, it would undercut the credibility of the U.S. regional alliance system. Furthermore, the North Korean regime perceives that President Trump is unpredictable, so it is unclear whether a formal security guarantee would be seen as reliable, particularly given his recent position to amend, and, if the amendment is unsatisfactory, cancel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the political plane, previously North Korea wanted to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. However, U.S. experts contend the North wants to the U.S. to recognize it as a nuclear weapon state prior to moving ahead with negotiations on a peace treaty. Recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power is one way for the North to obtain political legitimacy and “absolute security”, but it is not an option for all the parties involved in trying to denuclearize the peninsula. For the U.S., North Korea requires certain levels of national security and political legitimacy that the current U.S. administration needs to identify to establish an equitable foundation for negotiations on denuclearization.
To find those levels, the U.S. must consider the North’s viewpoint on nuclear weapons and even Japan. As one North Korean stated to me, “if other countries can have nuclear weapons, we can have them too; when other countries give them up, we will give them up”. This comment was followed by the observation that previously the North wanted the Korean peninsula and Japan to be completely free of nuclear weapons. As mentioned, one North Korean even indicated that given North Korean history, Japan, not the U.S., poses the greatest threat to its security. For the U.S., this means the North Korean nuclear issue could go beyond the Korean peninsula to include Japan.
In addition the formation of U.S. regional policy should factor in the primary drivers shaping Chinese perception of and policy on North Korea (and Taiwan) in order to secure more even cooperation. Specifically, the U.S. needs to understand the PRC's bottom line on North Korea in order to see how far it can push the PRC on North Korea.
THE PRC MAINTAINS A DIFFERENT PERCEPTION
The PRC has a different take on the North Korean situation. It wants to avoid applying pressure on the North that could lead to outcomes that cross China’s bottom line on North Korea. The PRC’s top priority is to safeguard the security and stability of northeast China. The northeast is an old heavy industrial center that the government aims to revitalize because it is home to many struggling state-owned enterprises. Part of the leadership’s priority includes ensuring North Korea’s nuclear activities cause no pollution in northeast China. The PRC also wants the U.S. to not pursue unilateral actions against North Korea that lead to an upheaval of a large number of refugees (it most likely could manage the influx given the large number of Koreans already residing in northeast China by establishing a safety zone as some Chinese experts observe). The PRC is against any policy that leads to the installation of a regime hostile to it on the other side of the Yalu River or that pushes the U.S. military to the Yalu River boundary. For the PRC, North Korea serves as a valuable buffer between China and the U.S. and specifically the U.S. military, which has 28,500 forces forwardly deployed in South Korea.
Make no mistake, the U.S. military is one driver of the PRC’s North Korean policy. In interviews with established Chinese experts, they remark that China partly maintains ties with North Korea to keep the U.S. military in check. (The experts contend the same logic applies to China-Iran relations). The experts point to the prominent role played by the U.S. military in U.S. foreign policy, namely its invasions of foreign countries to remove leaders or overthrow regimes. From their viewpoint, PRC’s ties with North Korea could prevent the U.S. military from launching an attack against China, invading China, or removing China’s ruling regime through other means. PRC ties with North Korea also prevent the U.S. military from stationing itself on its northeast border. There is no doubt the U.S. military is a major driver shaping the Chinese threat perception of the Korean peninsula.
This observation leads to how a few Chinese experts describe the relationship between the PRC and North Korea. Some contend their bilateral ties could be defined by the concept of 捆绑 (kunbang). The definition of kunbang is “tied together” while in a nuclear context it means "nuclear bundling". As for the former, the PRC and North Korea are tied together through historical experiences. As for the latter, the theory of "nuclear bundling" refers to how a relatively weaker nuclear force in one country can possess a stronger nuclear capacity by tying itself to another country with a nuclear force. The purpose of “nuclear bundling” is not only to deter a nuclear war initiated by a country possessing a more powerful nuclear force than one's own, but make it difficult for one of the countries in the nuclear bundle to launch its own nuclear attack against a third party. In practice, the PRC could keep the U.S. and its nuclear forces in check through “nuclear bundling” with other states, such as North Korea, and, at the same time, it could lessen the probability of a first strike (initiated by, say, North Korea) against the U.S. because of “nuclear bundling”; further, if a country within the bundle initiates a strike against a third party, the likelihood is high that country would be on its own.
Given Chinese history, the PRC most likely will not completely sever the long-standing relationship with North Korea based on pressure from the U.S. From its viewpoint, the issue of North Korea could relate to Taiwan. Both cases involve the sensitive national issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and, regime and system legitimacy. Severing ties with North Korea (especially in favor of the U.S. and its unilateral policies toward the North) would pose challenges to Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan (as well as in other areas such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea). The PRC's threat perception regarding sovereignty and territorial claims are more intense now than in the past due in part to Taiwan’s DPP government, which is incrementally strengthening its interpretation of the cross-strait “status quo”, which asserts that Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country, though the issue is more complicated than that.
The PRC opposes U.S. policy toward North Korea, specifically the enactment of unilateral sanctions and secondary sanctions that are the products of U.S. nonproliferation policies and practices. For example, when the U.S. and the PRC held high-level security talks, they agreed their “companies should not do business with any UN-designated North Korean entities in accordance with” UN resolutions. Later, the U.S. decided to impose "secondary" sanctions against Chinese enterprises doing business with North Korea. The secondary sanctions were followed by targeted sanctions against Chinese banks. The enactment of secondary sanctions against Chinese entities suggest the sanctions are making progress, particularly because the current U.S. administration is getting to the banks. But, the PRC most likely will not abide by the U.S.’s imposition of unilateral and secondary sanctions because it objects to the “long-arm jurisdiction” of U.S. nonproliferation laws. Although the PRC will continue to cooperate with UN-led sanctions on North Korea, it will continue to oppose unilateral sanctions and secondary sanctions imposed by the U.S. on North Korea and Chinese entities, and, in some cases, even avoid enforcing them or work to counter their effects , particularly if they aim to cripple completely North Korea.
ROLES OF PRC, RUSSIA IN NORTH KOREA
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the PRC's uneven cooperation on North Korea is also due in part to its limited influence with North Korea. North Korea wants to be independent from the PRC (and from any country). It wants to avoid falling totally in to a Chinese sphere of influence or being absorbed by the PRC. Furthermore, if the PRC pulls out completely from North Korea, Russia will step in to fill the void. For years North Korea has played off Russia and the PRC against each other, so Russia can fill a vacuum if the PRC pulls out, particularly if the PRC squeezes the North’s energy supply. During a trip to North Korea, some people there indicated that Russia, not the PRC, is the major supplier of energy to the North. This all means the PRC is not the only key to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, as Russia has filled and will continue to fill the void.
OTHER TARGETS: CORPORATIONS AND AFRICA
Other countries and even corporations also play a powerful role in reining in North Korea’s increasingly active pursuit of nuclear and missile capabilities. Some countries and corporation try to bust North Korean sanctions, particularly if a country is sympathetic to North Korea’s situation and particularly if a corporation sees a profit to be made there. During my trip to North Korea, businesspeople from Africa were active on the ground. Furthermore, according to interviews conducted in the PRC with several European businesspeople, some European companies doing business in China would like to enter in to or expand their presence in North Korea. In one interview, a European businessperson stated some European companies approached Chinese companies to help them circumvent the previously imposed sanctions against North Korea, but the Chinese companies refused to cooperate. Again, China is not the only key to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue; more exactly, other countries and even corporations play important roles in solving the problem. The Trump administration could lean on other countries and corporate entities to bring them in line with current U.S. North Korean policies.
MORE UN SANCTIONS, MORE CONCERNS ABOUT REGIME CHANGE
In more recent times, the UN Security Council passed another round of sanctions, indicating the U.S.-led effort to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile program through multilateral institutions might be working. Both Russia and China supported a diluted version of the U.S.’s initial resolution. Their support for a watered down version of the original sanctions resolution is not a setback for the Trump administration because the PRC and Russia might have vetoed the original version or complied with it at a minimal level, which would have undercut U.S. efforts.
The PRC and Russia are concerned the current U.S. administration wants to pursue regime change in North Korea, so both the PRC's and Russia's representatives made statements against regime change at the most recent UNSC meeting. The PRC’s representative expressed hoped “the United States would not seek to change the Pyongyang regime, collapse it, pursue an accelerated reunification of the Korean Peninsula, or dispatch military forces north of the thirty-eighth parallel”. In exactly the same vein, the Russian Federation’s representative affirmed its opposition to regime change and reaffirmed its support for the “four nos”. The four nos consist of no “regime change, regime collapse, accelerated reunification, and military deployment north of the thirty-eighth parallel”. The representative also stated that “it would be a “big mistake” to underestimate the joint initiative of the Russian Federation and China”, insisting that it be taken into consideration.
JOINT INITIATIVE TO HALT U.S.-SOUTH KOREA EXCERCISES
The PRC-Russia joint initiative expresses the intent of the two governments to promote a solution to the Korean peninsula problems, specifically the nuclear issue, “for the sake of achieving a lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia”. Both governments emphasize the importance of “dialogue and consultations” and support the Chinese proposal of a “double-freezing”. “Double-freezing” means North Korea freezes missile and nuclear activities while the U.S. and South Korea freeze large-scale joint exercises. At the same time, all sides make “parallel advancement” towards the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as well as “the creation of peace mechanisms on the peninsula”. Russia also proposes a “stage-by-stage Korean settlement plan”.
The joint initiative proposed by the PRC and Russia deserves consideration, particularly the diplomatic angle. But the initiative, specifically the PRC’s proposal of a “double-freezing” that includes halting U.S.-South Korea joint exercises, fails to consider U.S. history in the region and on the peninsula. According to Monte Bullard,
The U.S. has been acutely aware of the potential of a North Korean attack into South Korea as they did in the Korean War. Although the Chinese and North Korea claim South Korea started the war, today many do not dispute the facts. Since the U.S. went through that war with North Korea and China, the war remains a key factor in South Korean security. The “Team Spirit” exercises (and subsequent exercises) – an annual event reaching as far back as the early 1960s – are meant to reassure South Korea as well as North Korea that the U.S. is a reliable ally. When North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006 the belief was that North Korea was more threatening than with just conventional weapons. The key psychological aspect to deterrence and showing the U.S. as a reliable partner in the security relationship included keeping troops close to the DMZ, operating a Joint Headquarters in Seoul and using the exercises to make clear that the U.S. was reliable. Otherwise, it was believed that South Korea, based on some nuclear proliferation models, had the technological capability and could and would develop nuclear weapons if they perceived the U.S. was withdrawing in any way. Stopping of the military exercises would cause serious questioning by North Korea and South Korea that the U.S. would respond to a North Korean attack.
As Bullard points out, historical considerations as well as the U.S. commitment to the region are major drivers of the rationale for continued exercises, though it is probably much more complicated than this. The China-Russia joint initiative has considerable merit but requires modifications that factor in the long-standing ties between the U.S. and South Korea and their shared history on the peninsula, as well as the U.S. regional alliance network.
RECONCILING DIFFERENCES: THE U.S., PRC, and RUSSIA
The U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump discussed the administration’s North Korea policy. In line with the statements given by the PRC and Russia at the UNSC meeting, Secretary of State Tillerson in an interview with John Dickerson of CBS’s Face the Nation outlined the current administration’s North Korea policy of the “four nos”. “Four nos” mean the U.S. does not seek regime change; it does not seek regime collapse; it does not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; and it does not seek a reason to send our forces north of the Demilitarized zone. On a slightly different tack, President Trump in a speech given to the UN Assembly stated that “the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do”. Furthermore, President Trump stressed that, “it is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future”. For the U.S., PRC, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, the common denominator is denuclearization, but getting to denuclearization requires a phased settlement plan.
Past and present U.S. administrations tried to use sanctions, as well as the threat of military force to compel the North Korean regime to forfeit its weapons program. But this approach has fallen and continues to fall short. The sanction approach is not entirely successful in part because the PRC, Russia, Africa, and Europe bust sanctions to varying degrees, particularly unilaterally imposed ones. Sanctions alone cannot solve the North Korean issue. They require a diplomatic strategy to engage North Korea in political talks, which the North seeks direct talks with the U.S. in order to win the legitimacy war. The talks must address adequately and simultaneously the national security and political legitimacy concerns of North Korea, which should include its threat perception of Japan. The previous and current threats of military force ring hollow because any type of war on the Korean peninsula would result in mass causalities for all sides, and, more importantly, they exacerbate the North Korean regime’s siege mentality that drives its nuclear program. President Trump's administration needs to deal with North Korea as a nuclear power (like the U.S. did with Pakistan, Israel, and India) that requires certain levels of national security and political recognition in order to establish the foundation to move toward denuclearization. Getting to denuclearization by relying on sanctions (particularly without addressing the sanction busters) and military threats (that exacerbate the North’s siege mentality and the unaddressed issue of Japan) will lead to a cycle of escalation (and proliferation) in the absence of formal dialogue and consultation.
Citation: Norton, Judith and Monte R. Bullard "The North Korean Nuclear Challenge." East Asia Peace and Security Initiative. October 2017.
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