Containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

On January 25, a senior North Korean official told NBC News in an exclusive interview that North Korea is ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “at any time, at any place.” Choe Kang II, deputy director for North American affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, said the launch of the ICBM could be a major step toward North Korea’s goal of being able to target the US mainland.

The North Korean nuclear threat is an immediate security challenge for US President Donald Trump’s new administration. Pyongyang claims to have conducted five successful nuclear tests—in 200620092013, and twice in 2016. Plutonium was used in the first two tests. It is unclear whether uranium was used in later tests. If North Korea overcomes the challenge of miniaturizing a warhead and fitting it onto a delivery system, it will be able to launch a nuclear attack as and when it wishes. North Korea has warned that it will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons first if threatened. Any progress by North Korea toward developing a delivery system like the ICBM is, therefore, extremely concerning.

Besides deterring possible attacks from the United States and US allies, three additional factors motivate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions.

First, a nuclear weapons capability feeds Kim’s egoistic pursuit of a strong image in front of the North Korean people. Second, the nuclear program has helped Kim attract global attention. Third, it grants Kim strong leverage in any negotiation. Kim relies on his nuclear project to deliver a message to his people and the world: under his leadership, North Korea matters.

The United States recognizes the danger North Korea poses to US national security interests and those of its allies in the region—Japan and South Korea. The United States has imposed  sanctions on North Korea to convince Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions. It has also promised to continue to provide military assistance and nuclear protection to Japan and South Korea. However, Trump’s radical statements on the campaign trail about withdrawing US military assistance and encouraging allies to develop their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves has made it hard to predict US commitment to its allies.

South Korea and the United States agreed in July 2016 to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea to counter the threat from North Korea. US Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed to South Korea during a February 2 visit that the United States is committed to proceeding with the deployment of the THAAD and countering threats from North Korea.

China, however, opposes the THAAD, which it sees as part of a US strategy to contain its rise. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on November 16, 2016, that China would take necessary measures to protect its security interests. South Korea expressed its disapproval toward Chinese intervention. A recent poll shows that a majority of South Koreans support developing nuclear weapons.

In Japan, after the 2016 upper house election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has the power to revise the constitution, which forbids the development of offensive military forces. Haunted by the past, Beijing will try to discourage Japanese militarization. Japan was one of the stops on Mattis’ trip to Asia. Abe, meanwhile, has accepted an invitation to meet Trump at the White House in February.  These interactions should provide more clarity about the US commitment to countering the threat from North Korea.

Though seen as an ally of North Korea, Beijing has publicly condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests. However, this did not deter Kim from conducting a fifth nuclear test, suggesting that Beijing might be losing some of its influence over its unpredictable neighbor. China joined the United States in imposing sanctions on North Korea after its fifth nuclear test in 2016. These sanctions could result in a cut of about $700 million worth of North Korean coal exports to China.

China has since been reluctant to impose more sanctions on North Korea raising questions about its willingness to press Pyongyang to the point that it risks the regime’s stability.

Beijing agrees with Washington that North Korea’s nuclear ambition is an urgent Pacific security threat. However, the US presence in Japan and South Korea is viewed by China as part of a containment strategy directed toward it. US engagement in ongoing disputes in the South China Sea has further confirmed these suspicions. Therefore, Beijing will not risk pressuring North Korea to the point of collapse, and losing it to a possible reunification with South Korea and entrance into the US camp.

On January 25, a high-ranking North Korean defector predicted that the end of Kim dynasty is imminent. If the information is correct, Kim, obsessed with power, might expedite the nuclear program in order to bolster his position. This would leave China and the United States even less time to react.

It is, therefore, advisable for the United States to initiate multiparty talks with or without North Korea to devise a peaceful resolution on the lines of the Iran nuclear deal. Kim’s fundamental motive is regime survival and he understands that as long as China and the United States are divided on the issue of regime change, his kingdom will not be destroyed by an external power.

Kim has made it clear that North Korea is a nuclear nation, and will not give up on nuclear weapons. Thus, multilateral talks that include North Korea will not be about persuading Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons, but about preventing him from using them by providing him the means to restore his image. Talks that do not include North Korea, on the other hand, would be aimed at persuading China about the necessity and the defensive nature of the US military alliance with Japan and South Korea.

This solution can achieve four goals. First, with enough protection, Japan and South Korea might limit the development of their own military forces. Second, Beijing can feel reassured that US military action in the region is intended to counter North Korea and not contain China. Third, since the goal of this effort is to stabilize rather than destabilize North Korea, China will be more willing to cooperate. And fourth, a united US-China front may convince North Korea to negotiate.

Ivy Yang is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un guided the winter river-crossing attack tactical drill of the reinforced tank and armored infantry regiment in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on January 28. (KCNA via Reuters)