Over the last 72 hours, the threat of a weapon-oriented nuclear incident has worsened as North Korea escalated its pronouncements of aggression, specifically towards the United States. The official North Korean foreign ministry released a statement indicating North Korea’s intention to “exercise the right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country,” in response to the UN Security Council’s vote to impose tougher sanctions on activity that aims to affect the highest socioeconomic and political strata who have thus far been able to resist most of the UN’s economic coercion. Unique from previous sanction attempts, the newest round of UN-approved sanctions target large financial transactions and luxury goods.
Critical to North Korea’s ability to carry out their threats against the United States is the development of a reliable ICBM vehicle and warheads small enough to fit on the tip of that missile. Fortunately for us, this seems to be pretty far off: as Daryl Kimball from the Arms Control Association was recently quoted by Bloomberg news following Thursday’s announcement by Kim Jong-Un’s administration, “[North Korea] is likely to be years away from fielding an ICBM which could deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. Mainland.” Estimates have ranged from five to seven years for North Korea to develop that capability.
North Korea, has however, demonstrated reliable short-range missiles capable of reaching South Korea and Japan. This may be the most likely short-term worry. Given the tension between North and South Korea and fairly frequent military encounters, it is plausible that as military force escalates on both sides, North Korea may come close to using a nuclear weapon on its southern neighbor, or more likely, leverage the threat of a weapon against South Korea.
This makes the geopolitics in the region even more difficult. Since Kim Jong-Un has taken office following his father’s death in 2011, he has reinforced North Korea’s military-first policy. South Korea’s new president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee (who unseated the former dictator, Princeton-graduate Syngman Rhee) has come back strong indicated South Korea’s commitment to strengthen its cooperation with Japan and China to disarm North Korea and respond to any military threat. In many ways, President Park’s administration will be defined by her ability to handle the increasingly militaristic North Korea.
Following last month’s nuclear test, China condemned North Korea’s nuclear program, but did not substantially reduce aid, but promised to in the event of more testing. Now, China has agreed to the UN-imposed sanctions and has agreed to participate. China is Kim’s biggest trading partner, and North Korea’s dependence has deepened as exports of coals and minerals to its ally has increased. About two-thirds of North Korea’s 24 million people suffer from food insecurity or malnutrition, according to the UN. For the latest round of sanctions prove effective, China will have to fully invest commit, something we will have to wait to see.
Curiously, a UN test ban treaty was negotiated in the 90’s, but has yet to be ratified by China and the United States. The ban enjoys wide support around the world, but has yet to gain traction because of the lack of support from two of the five (officially recognized) nuclear weapon states. — Jonathan