6-3: On the Credibility of Kim Jong-Un’s Threats

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

7 thoughts on “6-3: On the Credibility of Kim Jong-Un’s Threats

  1. Jonathan raises an important point – that it will likely take North Korea many years to develop a weapon with the capability of striking the US mainland. Still, upon hearing the news of North Korea’s threat, I began considering the strategic “war games” implications of this scenario. Our understanding of “war games” is largely based on the Cold War, where two nations had sizable arsenals, capable of wiping one another out; attacking was a risk because a counterattack could be devastating, and it was this fear of a counterattack that, in theory, lead to stability.

    In the case of North Korea, is there any stability? In our current geopolitical climate, it certainly doesn’t seem that the United States is under any serious threat of falling victim to a devastating preemptive nuclear strike from a major nuclear superpower. If a nuclear, or even perhaps biological weapon were to be used against the United States, it seems more likely it would come from a country or group with a small weapons capability (North Korea, Iran, terrorists in possession of a weapon). If North Korea were to bomb the US, we would probably be safe to assume that they would not retain any additional counterstrike capability – they would not be saving weapons to deter a counterattack. The US, then, would not need to rush to deploy its counterattack because there would be no real risk of our nuclear triad being crippled. However, if the US has time to respond and its enemy has no more offensive capability, would we use a nuclear weapon? Does it do any good for our nuclear arsenal to be capable of attacking quickly in response to a preemptive strike in the case of these enemies? Will our understanding of nuclear strategy change as the kind of enemy we fear changes? North Korea must know that we will strike back if they attack us; we don’t need a full triad for this – our conventional military forces could serve the same purpose.

    I am not proposing that we no longer need the ability to counterattack in the case of an all-out preemptive strike, but it is interesting to think about how these new “rogue” nuclear powers change the dynamics of our nuclear strategy.

  2. I agree with Jonathan’s observation that while North Korea’s nuclear program may not pose a direct threat to the US mainland, North Korea’s ability to harass American allies today poses an immediate problem for the United States.
    With China’s support it is likely that the sanctions will be more effective than they have been in the past. However, precedent suggests that the sanctions may only be partially enforced by China; last year the UN reported that illegal exports had reached North Korea via the Chinese port of Dalian. Resolutions to curb North Korea’s nuclear program have repeatedly failed. North Korea has successfully leveraged its nuclear program to extract concessions from the U.S., without ever holding up its end of the bargain. Some ingenuity on the part of the US and the UN Security Council will be required to break this cycle. An additional problem is that the repeated failure of US- North Korea nuclear dialogue sends the message to other nuclear aspiring nations that they can pursue the bomb with minimal or indirect consequences.
    One issue that is often overlooked is the relationship between nuclear arms control and humanitarian aid. It is unclear whether or not North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear program can be linked to food aid, especially considering the fact that North Korea has let its citizens face starvation for decades. It may not be appropriate to make this aid conditional.
    Finally,North Korea’s authoritarian regime will look to protect its domestic power through identification of an external threat. Ultimately it may be that North Korea’s rogue ambitions can only be tamed through a change in leadership. Thus, as the U.S. considers its tools at address North Korea’s aggression it must also focus on spreading information to North Korea’s citizens who are fed propaganda by the regime. Change in North Korea will likely come from the bottom up. Efforts to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program will need to approach the issue from several angles to create the conditions for change.

  3. Jonathan, this is a really interesting post. Like Dan, I am initially struck by the different strategic scenarios. In a world where both states and non-state actors (eg: terrorists) can gain access to nuclear weapons, but perhaps not entire arsenals, then what is the value of deterrence theory if states aren’t equally matched? And in the event that North Korea used their one nuclear weapon on the U.S., then aren’t the scenarios that (1) either the U.S. retaliates with another nuclear weapon, to which the North Koreans cannot retaliate because of limited weapons, or (2) that the U.S. uses other military means to end the NK regime? Surely NK doesn’t have enough allies (let alone nuclear-armed allies) who will step in to defend them militarily. So as the Obama administration stated on Thursday, isn’t North Korea just making “suicidal” threats?

  4. Jonathon the points you and dfeinberg raised are quite interesting and highlights the significant difficult with applying Cold War deterrence theory when neither side is on equal playing field. I agree that a nuclear strike from North Korea would be suicidal since any strike will lead to significant public support for a counter nuclear strike and only other factors would lead to the US exploring other military options. Because of this irrational justification for a nuclear strike, I believe modern deterrence theory will need to rely more heavily on covert and diplomatic relations. However an interesting question is how strict can such measures be before they become harmful to innocent civilians; the fact that North Korea’s leadership continues to ignore its population’s hunger needs suggests that the sanctions are not effective and are harming the citizens. I am not suggesting the US abandon these sanctions for humanitarian reasons, but attempts should be made to convey to China the implications of a nuclear North Korea and how a regional strike will also harm them. Ultimately, I agree with hopewell that an administration change is required. This change must come from grassroots efforts and not be a US orchestrated coup or otherwise we risk repeating previous conflict.

  5. Like you said, I think that the situation that we encounter now with nuclear capable or almost nuclear capable countries such as N. Korea is very different from that of mutually assured destruction. In some ways, this current situation is like one of the scenarios in the worksheet that we did in class on Thursday where one side, with a preemptive strike, has a near 100% chance of successfully preventing the other side from launching a strike. From this perspective, I think there are two possible scenarios. The first and more logical one is that N. Korea does not attack or threaten the US since it is assured that they will not come out on top. The other and perhaps more interesting scenario is one where N. Korea does threaten the US. In this case, if the US were to actually believe that N. Korea would use its nuclear weapons on the US, the logical step would be for the US to take preemptive action since this would assure the safety of US citizens. Currently, the threats of N. Korea are not considered seriously because of the fact that they lack the capability to send a nuclear weapon to the US mainland. However, if they do get this capability, it would be a matter of whether the US believes that they will execute their threats. Thus I think that the most pressing question now would be what actions are necessary to prevent N. Korea from acquiring the capability to strike at the US.

  6. Jonathan makes some great points in the article and I like the way follow-up
    has focused on strategy. However, one thing that is currently missed by the
    commenters is the conversation on South Korea’s strategic options. I am mainly
    concerned by recent talk of South Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons (see
    the New York Times article below). While the United States does not have to
    fear a nuclear strike at its mainland for the time being, South Korea is under
    a direct threat. The widely publicized sequestration cuts have led some in South
    Korea to question the American military’s willingness/ability to cover Korea
    with our nuclear umbrella (despite our greater than 25,000 troops on the peninsula).
    As Jonathan mentioned, President Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park
    Chung-hee. It is important to further note that under Chung-hee, South Korea
    maintained its own nuclear weapons program. Recent opinion polls indicate that approximately
    2/3 of the population of South Korea supports developing its own nuclear arsenal.
    In her presidency so far, Geun-hye appears to have taken a more hardline
    stance, vowing retaliation for North Korean actions. While a nuclear South
    Korea seems unlikely, Park Geun-hye may be the one to pursue that option.
    Should South Korea choose this over US objections, the peninsula may become a
    whole lot more dangerous, with a limited skirmish all the more likely to become


  7. I think that a lot of attention has been given to the fact that North Kora is several years away from being able to hit the US mainland with an ICBM, but to me this is not really a comforting thought with regard to their nuclear capability. On the one hand, estimates are currently 5 to 7 years, which is really not very long. And we should keep in mind that these are estimates that are made public, so we have very little idea as to how accurate they actually are. On the current trajectory, North Korea could develop the ability to hit the continental US with an ICBM before the next presidential election. Additionally, they likely already have the ability to hit the non-continental US, namely Hawaii. I think that this is a concern that has been largely overlooked, although I also believe that North Korea is more likely to direct an attack on Seoul than on Honolulu or Pearl Harbor. In either event, I think it will be very interesting to discuss the potential next course of action from the US, South Korea, and the larger global community with regards to this new and very unstable nuclear force.

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