A fool’s errand? Trying to make sense of North Korea

North Korea has been in the news again since the beginning of the year as a result of its nuclear weapon test in January (its fourth since 2006) and ballistic missile test (disguised as a satellite launch) in February, along with continuing reports of purges of senior regime figures. And yesterday, the UN Security Council agreed another round of sanctions against this near-pariah state.

Drawing conclusions about future prospects from these events is not straight-forward; many ‘North Korea experts’ acknowledge that “most of the time we are entirely ignorant, and a very large part of what is reported in the media is based on unreliable hearsay.”

But it is important to try. East Asia has been compared by some commentators with Europe in 1914, with North Korea viewed as the most likely potential trigger for an outbreak of major armed conflict.

How close is North Korea to a deliverable nuclear weapons system?

Following its 6 January nuclear weapon test, the regime claimed that it had detonated a “smaller” Hydrogen bomb for the first time. This claim has been largely discounted by outside experts; it is widely agreed that the explosion was not big enough to be an H-bomb.

Most expert <a href="http://blogs.piie click here to read.com/nk/?p=14803″>assessments of North Korea’s ballistic missile programme suggest that a viable missile delivery system is still some way off. People talk in terms of a five-to-fifteen year timeframe before this will be achieved. One unresolved technological challenge is the miniaturisation of warheads.

Current estimates are that North Korea has about ten nuclear bombs, but that it could have double that and more by the end of the decade.

Are sanctions having an effect on North Korea?

The additional sanctions agreed by UN Security Council yesterday include a partial ban on some mineral exports (eg coal and iron) to North Korea and a complete ban on others (eg gold and rare earth minerals. It is also now mandatory for member states to inspect cargo leaving or entering North Korea by land, sea or air. The Security Council has also called for the resumption of long-stalled ‘Six-Party Talks’ on North Korea’s nuclear programme, which ran between 2003 and 2009.

Meanwhile, South Korea has closed the Kaesong industrial complex, the last remaining inter-Korean joint venture. The US and Japan have also further tightened their own national sanctions regimes against North Korea.

But few believe that sanctions have so far done much damage to the regime. Implementation has been weak and they have not yet significantly changed North Korea’s behaviour. One observer has described them as “punishing a masochist”. So a degree of scepticism may be warranted about the impact of the latest measures.

Might the regime collapse?

The majority of North Korea experts see few signs of this. Most think that Kim Jong-un has consolidated his power and that, while he appears erratic and unpredictable, his conduct overall is not that different from that of his father, Kim Jong-il.

A Congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (the first since 1980) is expected to take place in May 2016. Views differ as to how far Kim Jong-un has reasserted the power of the party over the military, on which his father relied heavily. The Congress may provide further insights.

The Congress may also shed light on whether a quantum shift in economic policy is imminent. Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has tentatively encouraged moves toward more market-oriented economic policies. Some analysts think that he may now feel secure enough to emulate China’s mix of economic ‘opening up’ and political authoritarianism. While there are food shortages again in North Korea, some experts argue that economic conditions within the country have improved over the last few years.

In Western eyes, China – by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner – holds the key. But some argue that, having contemplated pulling the rug from under the regime, China has now decided against it.

Are regional tensions set to increase?

One reason why China may have decided to stick with Kim Jong-un is the strategic balance in the wider region. The US threat to what it perceives as its’ “core interests” in the South and East China Seas limits the potential, in China’s view, for deeper cooperation between them on the Korean peninsula.

Following North Korea’s most recent tests, the US and South Korea have begun formal negotiations on the deployment of US ballistic missile defence assets (under the acronym THAAD) in the South. This worries China – and could reinforce the value of North Korea to China as a ‘buffer state’. But heading off this threat may also have encouraged China to support the latest round of UN sanctions.

The US and its regional allies seem to be actively contemplating a change in approach towards North Korea – away from ‘strategic patience’ and towards greater pressure on the regime. But nothing is likely to be set in stone before there is a new incumbent in the White House in Washington, DC.

Future prospects?

For some observers, driving North Korea into an even tighter corner would be a big mistake, strengthening its determination to complete its nuclear weapons programme; for others, there is no alternative to increasing the pressure on North Korea if it is to be persuaded to give up its nuclear ambitions.

In truth, nobody knows for sure whether there is anything – threats, incentives or policies as yet undreamt of – which will persuade Kim Jong-un to abandon this goal.

It has emerged that, prior to the two recent tests, North Korea proposed talks on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. The US responded by saying that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme would also have to be on the table. North Korea said no.

Andrei Lankov argues: “We seem to be caught in a cul-de-sac – sanctions and resolutions will not stop North Korean engineers from working hard to build bigger and better weapons, but seemingly there’s nothing else that can be done.”

Background reading

The China-North Korea relationship”, CFR Backgrounder, 8 February 2016

North Korea: domestic developments during Kim Jong-Un’s first year in power”, House of Commons Library briefing, 1 March 2013

Picture Credit: North Korea — Pyongyang by Stephen, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)