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North Korea’s Nuclear Mindset: Why Nukes Still Matter

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North Korea has evolved from a weakened country to one seen as a legitimate global military power due to its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Although, strength is a key factor behind its establishment of a nuclear program, there are other reasons that expand beyond the typical perception surrounding North Korea. There are four main reasons that North Korea immersed itself into the acquisition of a nuclear program.

The first was the desire to bring the US back to the negotiating table. “Pyongyang was effectively sending the message that the DPRK wanted finally to achieve results in its relations with the US. More specifically, North Korea has sought bilateral negotiations with the US, stipulating that progress on denuclearization would be contingent upon improved relations with the US – including economic aid, the end of sanctions, diplomatic relations with the US, and a peace treaty to end the Korean War” (Kim, 2011, 348). The benefits of super powers supporting and providing aid to North Korea would only be obtainable by recreating dialogue. However, North Korea would not eliminate its new position of military strength first in order to obtain it.

The second reason is the perception by North Korea of open hostility toward it by the United States. The belief is that the United States is trying to tear down the North Korean government and impact its internal decisions by causing disruption and chaos within the regime. The challenges implemented by the US government via sanctions and propaganda have the potential to not just undermine the planned regional dominance of North Korea but may even threaten the ultimate survival of the governing regime. It was believed that the acquisition of nuclear weapons had the potential to negate this American manipulation and bring it more humbly back to the negotiating table.

The third reason was to create an image to the world that North Korea is a strong and powerful nation that is not to be overlooked or summarily dismissed. Since the signing of the armistice, North Korea has been trying to rebuild its power and prestige standing in the region. Due to its weakened economic status and poor governmental performance, it has been labeled a third world country, far less significant than countries such as the United States, Russia, or China. The actions of the government to establish a nuclear program would begin the changes needed to elevate this status in the eyes of the world, gaining itself respect as a potentially dominant force across Southeast Asia at least.

Finally, the fourth reason is for economic sustenance and rebuilding. With the growth of a nuclear program, North Korea is able to sell nuclear products to countries, such as Pakistan. At this point, North Korea’s ailing economy cannot provide care to its own people. The nuclear program has provided them access to international resources and funds that it was not able to acquire by other means, including aid from other countries which North Korea always say as coming with strings attached and external interference.

For many years North Korea worked to establish a treaty with the United States without the involvement of South Korea. “Pyongyang has always demanded that the United States hold bilateral talks on various issues such as its nuclear program and conclude a peace treaty or non-aggression pact to replace the current armistice agreement, one that excludes the South” (Koh, 2004, 439). From an outside perspective, the actions of North Korea with its nuclear testing program have been to create concern if not outright fear amongst many countries across the Southeast Asian region and beyond, including the United States.

The results and motivation behind the missile test were also a strategic move to bring the United States back to the diplomatic table but with less hubris and more equanimity. By this time, the United States had ceased the talks with North Korea regarding the 1999 U.S.-North Korea moratorium on missile tests. “The 1999 agreement had been worked out under the assumption that the two countries would conduct further talks on the proposal to ban the testing and production of missiles, but the U.S. had indefinitely suspended the talks since 2001, making the moratorium moribund. The missile tests were another display of Pyongyang’s tried-and-true strategy to grab attention for itself and coax Washington into direct diplomacy” (Cho & Woo, 2007, 96). 

Thus, the nuclear actions of North Korea overall are done in order to obtain “U.S. recognition and consequent benefits: acknowledgment of its legitimacy and security interests; Japanese recognition; and substantial economic aid from Japan, multilateral lenders such as the World Bank, and the U.S. itself” (Gurtov, 2002, 405). This allows North Korea access to aid, technology, and many other necessities for survival and growth. North Korea’s focus to reconnect with the United States on its own terms is driven by its perception that the US has willingly opposed agreed-upon treaty and international negotiation frameworks. The North Korean fear is that America does this because it is adamantly opposed to the existence of North Korea as it is currently formulated and governed. “During 2001, senior administration officials had acknowledged that North Korea had upheld its obligations under the Agreed Framework. But the United States now confronted the possibility of a covert fissile material program not covered by the 1994 agreement, thereby enabling Pyongyang to circumvent its declared nonproliferation commitments” (Pollack, 2003, 14). As North Korea has professed, the United States is not willing to create a dialogue between the two countries, but instead find loopholes to disavow any established agreements and then declare it was North Korea’s fault with random accusations.

North Korea feels it must be able to react to the threats posed by the United States. The establishment of a nuclear weapons program provides it with the protection needed. North Korea understands that their military personnel cannot compete with the strength of the United States military without the assistance of nuclear weapons. Before the late 1990s and into the 2000s, North Korea began to reinvent its image and stance within the global arena. In the mid-1970s, “North Korea was now recognized by more than 80 countries; it has also sought and gained acceptance into several international organizations including the World Health Organization and the International Parliamentary Union, and it has gained observer status at the United Nations” (Zagoria & Kim, 1975, 1022). Over the years, however, its economy and political acknowledgement would dwindle, thus forcing it to find a new avenue of acceptance as a global power. It desperately sought a recognition from others that it a weak and failing country but a state of relevance, impact, and high status.

The nuclear tests that began in 2006 established North Korea as a nuclear threat to surrounding nations. Analysis by the North Korean government on retaliation from adversaries produced “the likelihood of an all-out invasion by the U.S. to bring down the regime in Pyongyang as minimal because of the possibility of North Korean retaliation against U.S. allies, the burden on the U.S. military, and the global costs of war in an economically vibrant region” (Song, 2011, 1140-1141). The NK government, therefore, felt pursuit of global power through nuclear acquisition was an obvious winning strategy with only minor costs, despite high rhetoric from the United States. The nuclear program’s benefits extend beyond the assertion of being a respected global power. “North Korea’s reinvigorated nuclear program gives it the potential to export fissile materials, nuclear weapons development technologies and expertise, or even completed operational weapons” (Huntley, 2006, 725). The ability to sell uranium to other countries will arguably help North Korea stabilize its fractured economy regardless of how other countries like the US feel.

The development of the nuclear program has given North Korea the ability to impact the world’s economy in a significant way. “North Korea also has the ability to threaten the global economy. Japan and South Korea, the second and 11th largest economies in the world, respectively, as well as major U.S. trading partners, are both vulnerable to any DPRK attack” (Howard, 2004, 810). The continued perseverance to create this nuclear program has put NK ahead of countries, such as Japan and South Korea, who do not have nuclear weapons and are not formally pursuing them. This extant potential threat of a nuclear NK also drives its need for greater international respect, let alone having a nuclear program increases the chances of North Korea being successful in any future military actions taken against it. North Korea has demonstrated that it is willing to use these weapons if needed to protect its country.

Although NK actions over the last several decades have been portrayed as “proof” of an aggressive and irrational North Korea, these calculated moves clearly have rational purpose to the NK government. If North Korea was focused on truly expanding its territory and taking control over South Korea, rather than just using the nuclear threat to solidify its own place in the global community and at the international table, its military actions would be far more invasive and chaotic. There have been instances since the armistice agreement in 1953, but they have been minimal and did not develop further into another war.

The overall purpose of the NK nuclear program is to reestablish dialogue with the United States on a more equal footing and create economic stability for its country. North Korea’s nuclear program established itself (at least in NK’s mind) as a significant military power and one that cannot be taken lightly. The fear of being undermined, disrespected, and dismissed was minimized. If the rest of the world wants North Korea to voluntarily walk away from its nuclear status, then it needs to find a compelling strategy that shows North Korea is considered seriously, taken as an equal partner, and legitimately respected in the global arena. Otherwise, the world better get used to a nuclearized North on the Korean peninsula.

Leann Maloney is originally from East Bridgewater, MA but currently resides in Florida. She has a bachelor's degree in History and Criminal Justice from the University of Central Florida and a master's degree in Business Continuity, Security, and Risk Management from Boston University. She is currently enrolled in the American Military University’s Doctorate of Strategic Intelligence program.

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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