Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, September 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: North Korea's Latest Nuclear Test

Below is a conversation between CWCP President Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Yohanes Sulaiman on the North Korea’s recent nuclear test. It took place via email over the last week.

Brad Nelson: As you know, North Korea has conducted its 5th nuclear test, and this one is supposedly the most powerful one yet. And not only that, North Korea claims that it now has the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. So, in other words, North Korea is ostensibly mastering all parts of its military nuclear program, from start-up to weaponization. What are your thoughts on these latest developments?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Einstein once supposedly defined insanity as, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

While that may be true, one thing for sure is that these nuclear tests are getting boring. Yes, it is the ultimate weapon of destruction. Yes, Japan will be ticked, and so will South Korea and the rest of the world. These tests are mostly for domestic consumption, to signal that the regime is in control as well to placate the military top brass. Sure, China won’t be happy and might tighten the economic blockade, though just a little, because it too worries about the survival of the Kim regime.

So what else is new?

Basically, everyone is satisfied the status quo, excluding the North Koreans of course, and that's why they are rattling their cage once in a while, like spoiled kids. Frankly, at this point, no matter if Pyongyang detonates its sixth, seventh, or tenth nuclear test, I don't expect the structural situation will change.

These nuclear tests are provocative. But as we saw in the Cheonan sinking and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, South Korea managed to stay unprovoked. And I doubt that North Korea could launch a serious military invasion to South Korea or Japan, considering that North Korea's weaponry is stuck at Cold War technology and its troops' morale is abysmally low.

Moreover, it is doubtful if North Korea could actually invade or launch terrorist attacks on South Korea or Japan without China finally deciding to cut the regime loose and replace it with something far less belligerent, because, unlike China's own low-cost provocations in South China Seas, East Asia is a far more serious matter for China. But, of course, regime change in North Korea is a risky matter for China too.

BN: I agree that the structural elements haven't changed much, if at all. What is most new, at least to me, is the US angle. No, I don't mean that the Obama administration will jump to action, or at least any action that differs from what it's sought and done in the past. So that means condemnation from American officials, expressions of restraint, a push for a UN rebuke and potentially more sanctions, and hope that China can bail the US out. In short, more of the same. But at this point, that means kicking the can down the road to Obama's successor, which he hopes, of course, is Clinton. So we'll see just enough effort to ensure Korea isn't on fire by election time in November, but no movement beyond that. There too little time for anything bigger.

Moreover, that this nuclear test occurred during a presidential campaign means they'll become a political football between Clinton and Trump for the next two months. We'll hear heated rhetoric from not only Clinton and Trump, and their surrogates, with each side arguing who will be the toughest on the Kim government. Will those sharp words bait North Korea into doing more dumb things?

YS: Well, right on cue, have you checked out this Politico news item? Obama got hit from both the Clinton and Trump camps, though Trump is also hitting Clinton over North Korea.

But back to North Korea: I doubt Kim really cares about what Clinton or Trump think about him or the state itself. Yes, North Korea wants global recognition; but unlike terrorist groups, which derive legitimacy from them actually being talked about, I think North Korea has a different reward structure—extracting concessions from testing, weaponizing and threatening to use nuclear weapons. In essence, I think Pyongyang does hope to blackmail other nations: “See, now that we have a bigger bomb, you need to give us more!”

BN: Let's turn to the next steps. I touched on this issue a bit already and am curious to hear your thoughts. What do you think happens going forward--both in terms over the very short-term, over the next few weeks and months, as well as over the next year or two? To me, to a certain extent, all sides--except North Korea--want to keep the status quo intact, but that doesn't seem particularly sustainable over time, for manifold reasons. 

YS: Okay, what will happen in near future? I don't think there will be anything new or novel in the short-term. We’ll see the usual condemnations through the United Nations -- as long as China does not want to do something. This all changes, undoubtedly, if South Korea suddenly goes through with its implicit threat to level Pyongyang, or at least seems on the brink of doing that -- which is very, very unlikely; or if North Korea, probably really late in the game, actually weaponizes its arsenal and prepares to launch.

I think the fear in Beijing is that if it squeezes Pyongyang too hard, the regime will collapse. And China doesn’t want that to happen, so it will do nothing simply because Beijing does not have any palatable option left. Both Seoul and Washington, I think, prefer to let the regime just collapse on its own.

So what's the solution? Fred Kaplan, I think, gets it right, in that the only way to squeeze Pyongyang is by squeezing China, regardless of its fear of regime collapse. At the same time, I simply don't think Obama has the guts or political willingness to do that so late in his term, and he is a safe player anyway. Hillary, I think, will be willing to take more risks. Trump is a wild card. I am not sure if he really thinks North Korea is that important. But at the same time, that might be the exact approach that we need.

BN: I do agree that Kaplan is on to something, though I disagree with the US putting direct pressure on China--his notion of using sticks and carrots. China will resist it, complain about it, and relations will only worsen at a time in which the US can ill afford more global headaches. That said, I find this idea by Kaplan a bit compelling: "So the United States should rally the same sort of campaign that revved up the pressure against Iran before those nuclear talks got underway." Maybe the power of numbers can indirectly move China. Worth a shot, in my view. But such an effort shouldn't only include East Asian nations impacted by a nuclear North Korea, but also include countries--as many as possible, big and small, friend and foe of Washington--from all parts of the world. The US should put together, in short, a true global coalition motivated to contain if not roll back the nuclear progress that North Korea has achieved over the last decade.

The main obstacle here isn't whether such an initiative would work, though of course it's debatable whether it would, nor is it about the lack of time left in Obama's tenure, though that matters too. Instead, it's that Obama isn't interested in doing the dirty work of coalition building. His political modus operandi is to delegate, whether on health care, the Iran nuclear deal or Syria. He wants others to come together on their own and sort out the details. He was saved on health care and Iran by the Democrats and John Kerry and his team (Wendy Sherman, Bill Burns, most notably), respectively; on Syria, there's been no savior. The great myth is that Obama has lead from behind in foreign policy; I see little leadership on important issues like the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine, Brexit, world populism, global economic growth, and so on. Indeed, on several of the aforementioned issues the US has been surpassed, at least in terms of leadership, by China and Russia. More often than not, Obama's delegated from the front and then went golfing. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only by a little bit.

Hence, the mess is left to the next administration, and that, quite frankly, isn't reassuring. For at this point, the potential successors to Obama are a scandal-ridden Nixonian figure and a possibly racist and xenophobic political neophyte who knows almost nothing about world politics.

YS: I think a comparison with Iran is instructive. The main distinction between the cases of Iran and North Korea is that the major powers, really, wouldn’t be completely inconvenienced with the collapse of the regime in Iran. The geographic puzzle in the case of North Korea significantly differs.

Russia and China and Japan are there, India, an aspiring power is not too far away, and there are thousands of US forces stationed within a heartbeat of a North Korean nuclear launch. Additionally, should the Kim dynasty collapse, it is in everyone's playbook that it be followed by reunification, and "unification" is the raison d'etre of both North and South Korea. If China decides to cobble together another Beijing-friendly regime, that regime will have zero credibility in Seoul, and even among Koreans themselves, and I think this freaks China out.

That's why it is difficult to use "Iran" playbook -- the only path to Pyongyang is through Beijing.

On Obama, I agree wholeheartedly with your view. He is not a leader that is willing to do the dirty work. He will give platitudes and leave the mess for everyone to fix. So, like you, I have no hope that the current US administration will do much any anything here.

It would be interesting if Trump wins in November. He might do better than expected simply because he has such a low bar to cross, so to speak. Plus, he has a clean slate with the region’s major players. Hillary might be far more politically competent, but her baggage vis-à-vis Russia and China could make the existing North Korean dilemma an intractable one for her.