Deterrence Or Displacement: A Possible Way To Deal With North Korean Aggression

I   The Issue

Tensions have reached a critical point in the Korean Peninsular this month after a series of ballistic missile tests by North Korea (DPRK)  and the US elected a new president. North Korea and the United States previously had a fraught relationship, the main stressor being North Korea’s development of Weapons of Mass Destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological.  Since the 1960s, North Korea has been trying to develop WMD capabilities (particularly of nuclear) much to the dismay of South Korea and its close ally the USA. North Korea’s leader Kim Jun Un has continuously increased the number of ballistic missiles the country possesses since he came to power after the death of his father in 2011, according to Al Jazeera. The countries nuclear programme was launched in the Soviet era and its first reactor was constructed in 1965. However, the North’s first successful nuclear test was not until 2006. Since controversially withdrawing from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in 2003, NK has gone on to conduct several nuclear tests, most recently in September 2016. Pyongyang has also tested a new ground rocket engine for launching ballistic missiles.

To exacerbate matters further,  the media has been openly reporting that the likelihood of war between the two is upon us, and this has now flowed into the rhetoric of both leaders. The issue climaxed with Donald Trump stating in his United Nations address that he would “totally destroy North Korea” and teased Kim Jun Un by calling him “rocket man” (The Diplomat, 2017). According to Reuters, the statement resulted in North Korea launching a series of mass rallies against Trump and the North’s official news agency reported Trump’s remarks as an “intolerable insult to the Korean people and a declaration of war.”

Internationally, calls for peaceful solutions and a “toning down” of fiery dialogue have been made. China, a nation “stuck in the middle,” has called for all sides in the NK missile crisis to show restraint and to not add fuel to the fire. The fact that China has actively spoken out against the issue is a true sign that tensions are rising. China, until now, has had to stay completely neutral. It must maintain relations with the USA for trade and diplomacy, but it simultaneously does not want North Korea to fail, as it will have to bear the burden of the destabilized nation and on the flow of a mass exodus of refugees.  However, China did not veto the United Nations Security Councils latest sanctions that will ban exports from North Korea worth up to $1 billion. Sending a clear message to North Korea on its stance.


II   Criticism

Although it appears North Korea is solely to blame for the aggression, the United States and Western allies cannot plea completely innocent. Additionally, it appears as though the DPRK’s attainment of nuclear weapons is simply a veil for stirring discontent in the region in an attempt to pursue other political means. This is evident because DPRK’s other WMD actually pose a far greater risk but are consistently overlooked.

As a relatively small and insular state, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is often overlooked and underestimated by the international community. The state has thus developed its chemical (CW) and biological weapons (BW) to compensate for this state of affairs. [i]Despite surviving almost three years of aerial bombing by the United States and its allies during the Korean War, the international community continues to overlook North Korea as a serious international power, according to Kathryn Weathersby’s text “The Enigma of North Korean Regime: Back to the Future?” The state is rendered essentially powerless when it is trying to assert its interests in a globalized society. Based on Jacques E. C. Hymans, it is left behind in terms of negotiations, trade, and bargaining because of its perceived lack of ability and credibility.

Given the lack of respect and consideration for North Korea, the country has had to cultivate attention and respect in other ways. This has led the state to perceive the only way of leveraging power is by developing WMD and targeting larger international players like the United States of America. Historically, the only instances when the western developed world (the largest power in global trade and politics) has taken North Korea seriously and entered into any form of negotiations – is when North Korea has developed WMD, whether chemical or biological.

However, the DPRK considers that most international respect is paid to nuclear powers (NW). At the time of writing, North Korea has only sufficient fuel rods to produce one nuclear bomb and four ballistic missiles that could be used for delivery of such weapons, varying from the short-range Scud to the long Range Taepodong. All four of these missiles are currently fundamentally inaccurate and thus flawed, giving North Korea a limited amount of international credibility, according to the International Crisis Group.

Due to the limited nuclear weapon’s capabilities of the state, the DPRK has had to develop other kinds of WMD to apply political pressure in negotiations and enforce respect. As discussed above, these include both CW and BW. The DPRK has the world’s third largest chemical weapon stockpile in the world. This includes mustard gas, phosgene, Sarin and V-Type chemical agents. In addition, according to the UN Human Rights Council, the DPRK has thousands of artillery systems for effective CW delivery. As per International Crisis Group, the DPRK also stockpiles biological agents such as; smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, yellow fever, yersinia pestis (plague) and anthrax. As well, according to John Chipman, it is capable of equipping 50% of its long-range missiles and 30% of its artillery with BWs.


III   What Should be Done Differently?

A. Proposal

The policy proposed is likely to be hard to swallow, but it does offer a credible and possible solution. Prima facie, it looks to incite violence and armament,  upon further consideration, it provides sufficient checks and balances on power to almost guarantee action would not be pursued.

It is, therefore, posited that North Korea re-centre its attention away from cultivating nuclear weapons potential and instead focus on working on systems capable of delivering long-range Chemical (CW)  and Biological weapons (BW).

There are two main issues with the current supply of compensatory WMD. The first is that it is not in the DPRK’s own interests to stockpile said weapons. While BW and CW are threatening to the international community, the DPRK’s geographic location means that storing CW and BW is inherently dangerous to its own population. There is also a significant risk that any deployment of those weapons on South Korea would inevitably drift/ spread into North Korea. Secondly, it is unknown whether the DPRK has the capability to deliver such systems effectively. Warheads suffer extreme mechanical loads, vibrations, accelerations, as well as temperature and pressure ranges, all of which biological specimens are extremely sensitive to, according to John Chipman.  The only way to know if the BW would survive until delivery is by a flight test – none have successfully taken place.  Consequently, extending the supply of nuclear weapons and ensuring effective delivery systems for those weapons would be preferable for achieving North Korea’s political goals.

B. Other Relevant Actors

The proposed policy would benefit other relevant nuclear states, buying time while they worked on other deterrence methods for North Korea. For example, China, Russia and the United States could work together to install effective anti-missile weaponry in the immediate region, limiting the DPRK’s abilities to mount a nuclear attack. In this way, one threat would be dealt with at a time. Food aid could then be used as a bargaining chip to get the DPRK to reduce its CW and BW stockpile (which is the 3rd largest in the world) while allowing it to maintain its delivery systems. Not only does this secure the Korean peninsula, but it would award the DPRK some international legitimacy and stop its search for power. This proposal would mostly benefit China, as it would no longer be put in the position where it had to choose between tough embargoes/a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, or regime collapse and an influx of refugees.

Although alarming to other international players, it is in their interests to allow the DPRK to develop such technologies and take a step back from working on nuclear weapons.  In today’s globalized society, deploying a CW or BW is something that requires greater consideration than deploying a nuclear weapon. With international travel and trade, the spread of disease or chemical substance is exponentially faster than it used to be. Consequently, by deploying such a weapon, there is nothing the DPRK could do to prevent the spread of the agent reaching home and affecting its own state.

More consideration would be required before taking action. This is critical in an authoritarian state, where total power lies in the hands of one person.

C. Alignment with DPRK Capabilities

The policy aligns with DPRK capabilities because it plays on its already existing strengths, its large CW and smaller BW arsenal and potentially capable delivery systems, without requiring much international support and co-operation. It would be a fairly self-sufficient method of gaining international political prestige while working with the strengths it already has.

D. Alignment with DPRK Limitations

The policy proposal seeks to maximize the DPRK’s strengths and enhance its weaknesses at the smallest cost possible. The DPRK is not a wealthy state and, therefore, does not have the money to spend on brand new technologies and equipment required for its minimal nuclear weapons program.  Additionally, because the delivery systems are the flaw in most of the WMD programs employed by the DPRK, working to eliminate this shortcoming will only help to legitimize the DPRK’s claims of WMD power and thus political prestige and respect. It will enhance the DPRK’s leveraging power and ability to act as an international actor.

E. Alignment with DPRK Interests

  1. Food Security

North Korea, Japan, China, America, Russia and South Korea entered the Six-Party Talks which resulted in an international treaty stating that the DPRK would receive international humanitarian support, especially in terms of food, if it halted its nuclear weapons program. The DPRK did so for a while, but breached the terms of the agreement when it began recultivating HUE. If it ceased to work on its nuclear program, it is possible the terms of the agreement could be reinstated, providing a great deal of assistance to the people of the state, according to the US Department of State.

2. Maximizes Strengths & Enhances Weaknesses

As noted above, by focusing on increasing its CW and BW capabilities, the DPRK enhances its strengths in terms of the arsenal. This would make it a real threat that could have very real consequences for the rest of the world, thus demanding attention, respect and leverage. The main reason the DPRK’s impressive CW supply is consistently overlooked in terms of danger is because it is not perceived as a real threat due to the lack of delivery systems. Given it seems unlikely, the DPRK could even deploy a short-range CW. The chances of it deploying over greater distances are minimal. Because none of the major powers are threatened, it is forced to take a back bench. Focusing on closing the gap between threatening chemical or biological warfare and being capable of doing so would greatly enhance the DPRK’s abilities to push its interests in the international arena.

3.  Reduces the Risk of Pre-emptive Attack

Current events have proven that the United States at least, is beginning to seriously consider a pre-emptive attack on North Korea to deter it from its nuclear weapons program. This has become the focus of much international news and attention. But such an attack would clearly not be in the best interests of North Korea. Therefore, by stepping down from its nuclear power program, North Korea would be allowing the United States and other big players to focus their attention on other issues, like those in the South China Sea. While the spotlight is removed, the DPRK could work on its delivery systems and re-enter the spotlight when it is capable of realistically deploying a CW/ BW. Thus, it would have credibility and little risk of pre-emptive attack. Furthermore, if said attack were to happen, the DPRK could retaliate effectively.


IV   Conclusion

Although a controversial proposition, the policy put forward in this report is one that should be considered and discussed. It is realistic but also idealistic and it has a genuine chance of enabling peace and stability in the Korean Peninsular for the foreseeable future while tensions settle.

Megan Fraser