North Korea, the Second Nuclear Age and Nuclear Extortion: It is Not About Deterrence as “Usual”


2017-05-01 By Danny Lam

The US Senate was briefed by Secretary Tillerson, and Mattis, and CJCS Gen. Joseph Dunford, and DNI Dan Coats in an hour long classified briefing last week.

Since then, the silence from Senators and their surrogates have been deafening. Aside from general comments and a few snipes, Senators appeared to have abstained from the normal rough and tumble rhetoric against the Trump Administration.

The briefing covered key issues as the magnitude of threat posed by DPRK developments; including the growth trajectory of DPRK nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities; past and present diplomatic efforts to denuclearize; and parameters for US and Allied policy.

Senators were told that key assumptions behind decades of past Administration policy such as the efficacy of tightening multilateral sanctions and negotiated settlements with DPRK have failed.

Moreover, after the rise of Kim Jong Un in 2013, economic reforms have successfully produced a noticeable and sharp rise in the standard of living and in parallel, a sharp acceleration in DPRK deployable WMD capabilities despite tightening sanctions.

The trajectory of DPRK WMD development documented by the UN: nuclear weapons and delivery vehicle development (land and sea based, liquid vs. solid fuel, etc.) is at a rate that is faster than any other previous regime in history.

For example, DPRK progressed from metal to wound filament missile frames — a major step to increasing throw weight and range, within years.

Much of these developments can be explained away by the post-cold war availability of ex Soviet talent “for hire”; elements of the Khan network; Iranians, Pakistanis, etc.; the proliferation of computational technologies that enable simulations to do in seconds work that formerly required tens of thousands of man hours by skilled engineers and technicians; and the open market availability of many dual use COTS components.

But to take advantage of these require a fertile ground of technical infrastructure, resources, a vision and organizational will(s) to achieve the goals.

In terms of technical goals, there is no doubt that DPRK is developing a WMD capability to strike any nation around the world from Korea.

Yet, we know very little about the perceptions of key players, their calculus of risk and reward, “red lines”, thought processes, and what they intend to (whether knowingly or not) achieve with such a military capability.

Nor do we understand the same issues from the point of view of other non DPRK players.

The Senate briefing by and large glossed over the motives of DPRK and key players like Kim Jong Un and concentrated on documentable facts.  

By doing so, it implicitly assumed that the behavior of DPRK and Kim Jong Un (absent the madman theory) can be understood and managed in terms of traditional arms control models that kept the world safe from nuclear war from 1945 onwards.

From the classical arms control perspective, DPRK is just the latest arrival into the non-NPT “unofficial” nuclear club: India, Israel, South Africa (deproliferated) & Pakistan. Every nuclear power, whether NPT P5 or not, have become cautious, conservative, and by and large, perceived their nuclear arsenal as “last resort”.

Why shouldn’t DPRK fall into this pattern after a time?

Hence the policy of strategic patience.

But what if there is a fundamentally different dynamic at work in the “Second Nuclear Age”?

Professor Paul Bracken observed that the first nuclear age was characterized by “icy rationality and cool logic” and a shared desire to avoid mutual destruction by two dominant nuclear powers. Lesser nuclear powers tended to view their arsenal as “insurance policies” that did more to stabilize the status quo between states as to stoke conflict.

However, the second nuclear age see the rise of nationalism, insecurities, rage, as factors.

But there is more.

Non-Western concepts of international relations that we once though have been banished have reappeared. Beijing China is in the process of establishing a set of relationships that bear striking resemblance to late Ming tributary states system.

The reappearance of behavior banished from the Western psyche, such as war or conflict for profit, have largely gone unnoticed in the foreign policy community dominated by western trained scholars and institutions.

The last time America paid tribute dates from the Barbary Wars in the 18th Century after the newly independent America lost British protection. It was such a humiliating experience to have to ransom American shipping and captives in 1794, Congress created the US Navy.

From that time onwards, the United States established a longstanding policy of refusing to pay tribute on principle and where necessary, use military power to defeat the extortionists.

Contrast this with the Northeast Asian institutional memory of war.  

Beijing China’s storytelling begins with the “Century of humiliation” that began with the Opium wars by Western powers. But what it neglects is in the interim period between the ending of the Opium war and the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894, the Ching recovered and built a modern navy around two German built pre-Dreadnoughts that was on paper the most powerful in Asia.

Japan, as the inferior naval power, was able to defeat the stronger Beiyang fleet.The economic consequence of this victory on Japan was largely forgotten.

Japan’s victory in the first Sino-Japanese war resulted in about 40m pounds sterling in indemnity paid by the Ching.   That amounted to roughly four times the budget of Imperial Japan and well exceeded their war expenditures.   It resulted in a major economic boom in Japan and facilitated financing their modernization — particularly in the building of a modern Navy and Army capable of challenging the west.

An indemnity of this size against the Chinese was not unusual or out of character in the tradition of European international relations.  Prussia demanded 5 billion francs from France after the 1871 armistice and occupied France until it was paid in 1873.

Next came World War I, a war that no one really wanted.

World War I ended with devastation on an industrial scale so much that the term “indemnity” became converted to “reparations” for all parties recognized any reasonable sum of indemnities can never be paid.   That signified the ending of profit as a legitimate motive for war in the European theater.   It was only much later, after World War II, that acknowledged that reparations too, can be so large and burdensome that it can lead to more war.

Hence, reparations paid by Germany, Japan and other belligerents are notable for their modest size.

The ending of profit as a motive for war (or for that matter, reasonable reparations for the victor) is an alien concept new to Asians.    

War is, and can be a profitable venture for the winner is deeply embedded in the psyche in the memories of statesmen in East Asia outside of Japan.

The pausing of the Korean war with an armistice with no clear loser and consequences for the North Koreans set the stage for a revival of these regional international relations norms. During the negotiations leading to the 1994 Agreed Framework DPRD demanded substantial economic incentives (e.g. two light water nuclear power plant built for them and $6 billion) as their price.

Separately, DPRK demanded $500m to halt their missile exports in 1998.

Subsequent negotiations for the “disablement” of three nuclear facilities in 2007 produced demands including US$400m in fuel oil (2 million tons) and aid.

Western trained diplomats by and large viewed these demands by DPRK as moves by a desperate regime starving off collapse in the years before Kim Jong Un.

But extortion was not seen as a modus operandi except by a few observers.

What if it is now that DPRK is in no immediate danger of collapse or famine?

Looking at the historical pattern in DPRK behavior from the 1990s, it is clear that the regime have just about broken every international norm including having their diplomats engaging in narcotics trafficking.   Proliferation of nuclear technology, WMDs, weapons, missiles, to virtually anyone with cash is their way.   And expected to be paid well, or bribed, (in equivalent to foregone revenues) to stop.

Would DPRK behave any differently with nuclear weapons, sensitive materials, or ICBMs?

Should we be asking about the consequences of DPRK acquiring a gene splicing based biowarfare capability?

North Korea’s pattern of behavior show that it is improbable that they will abandon their modus operandi and become “respectable” nuclear powers. Nuclear weapons is not just about an insurance policy for them.

It is about making money for the regime in quantity.

DPRK is doing too well with their nuclear and missile programs and it is almost certain that they will find ready customers worldwide willing to pay cash for their weapons and knowhow. Beyond this source of revenue, there is the question of whether East Asian states, including longtime US allies, will consider it expedient to simply pay off DPRK unless the US confront and defeat DPRK when negotiations fail unless the US act expeditiously to end this threat.

The challenge that DPRK and Kim Jong Un pose is not just about them.

It is a fundamental challenge to the system of international relations by a nuclear armed extortionist.

If DPRK succeeds, they will not be the last.

Nor will they just be nuclear armed.