The bellicose rhetoric emanating from North Korea recently would have outsiders believe the world is but a step or two away from a military showdown, including the possibility of nuclear war. The threat from North Korea is a serious one if perhaps, for the moment, overstated.
North Korea is long on confrontational commentary but, at this stage, is has not yet developed its nuclear or missile delivery technology sufficiently to be more than a tactical threat. Its conventional military forces are significant relative to its population of about 25 million and its impoverished economy, although less developed than that of South Korea.
North Korea has a proven nuclear capacity, with five underground nuclear tests detected — 2006, 2009, 2013 and two in 2016 at the Punggye-ri Test Site in the country’s north — each of which has been proudly confirmed by North Korea. The latest test, in September last year, marked a major escalation of nuclear yield, from a less than two kilotonne of equivalent TNI capacity (kt) in 2006 to, most recently, a more than 20 kt capacity.
The country’s missile capacity is, however, less developed. North Korea has operationally effective short range Scud-type missiles and, with improved guidance systems, can easily target South Korea and Japan. These missiles have been used as a platform for the country’s longer-range missiles, which can reach as far as the Philippines and mainland south-east Asia.
North Korea’s longest range Musudan’ missile systems can just reach northern Australia and Alaska, but have not yet proven to be reliable, while its true intercontinental ballistic missiles are still in the testing stage. The real threat, therefore, is at this time a local one.
North Korea has long had a bellicose defence posture, in part because the country’s regime was forged in warfare but also because it has been so grossly unable to compete in economic terms with its southern neighbor. North Korea’s external posturing is matched, internally, by an even harsher political system.
Yet under Kim Jong-Il, father of the country’s current ruler Kim Jong-Un, North Korea entered into negotiations over scaling back its nuclear development program in exchange for security guarantees, dropping economic sanctions and extending aid. Although those negotiations were only marginally successful, they did demonstrate a capacity for dealing with North Korea and that country’s willingness to look for non-military solutions.
This was supported by North Korea’s neighbor and economic lifeline, China, which wanted to retain a potentially hostile North Korea as a bargaining chip, as well as having a buffer between itself and South Korea and Japan. However, an economically booming China’s does not want North Korea to become a complication for business.
To that end, China wants to return to the status quo ante, without betraying current relations with its otherwise isolationist neighbor.
The difficulty in this for North Korea is twofold. On one hand, hostile relations with the US and its regional allies have sustained an aggressive military posture, which has produced a cycle of mutual negative reinforcement, which is difficult to step back from. On the other hand, North Korea’s internal political system is rigid to the point of becoming brittle, so that internal control and perceived external capacity become conflated.
When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011, the system he had inherited from his father and, in turn, bequeathed to his son, Kim Jong-un, was centred on the Kim family bloodline, formally enshrined in the constitution in 2013. This system of political inheritance in the face of external threat only works if other key decision-makers, and beneficiaries of, the system, also have their positions protected.
In large part, then, North Korea’s posturing reflects the concerns of a small elite, supported by a strong party system, within the context of a failed “self-sustaining” economy. It refocuses public attention away from local privations and towards the time-honored political distraction of an external enemy.
To remove any hint of internal challenge to this system, the elite cohort has authorised the murder of any relatives around who could form an alternative political narrative; first an uncle, then a half-brother.
Increasingly isolated, failingly “self-reliant” and brittle, the Kim regime presents as a cornered animal in fear of its life. It may, through desperation, lash out and cause considerable damage, but only at the cost of its own destruction.
One response — difficult given that public back-downs are politically humiliating — could be for the US and its regional allies to assuage rather than threaten North Korea. China would be supportive of such a move.
North Korea would unlikely respond immediately but, as benefits began to flow, the Kim regime could translate that into “proof” of its own success, in turn becoming reliant upon such good will. North Korea could, potentially, return to being a political anachronism best known as a subject for satire.
The chances of this happening, however, have to be weighed against a new, internationally assertive US administration and its own political agenda. Given the lack of predictability in that quarter, the situation with North Korea, then, remains very much in the balance.
* Damien Kingsbury is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University