“They want to have a deterrence system that is like a scorpion’s tail,” said Prof. Kim Dong Yup, a former South Korean naval commander. “North Korea’s main purpose is not to attack but to defend themselves.” They want a “diversified deterrent capability,” and who could blame them?
North Korea test-fired seven different missiles in January, US President Joe Biden retaliated with more sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s hermit state, and everybody got their war-horses out for a brisk trot around the track.
The reality, however, is that nobody in a position of authority is in the least excited by this little back-and-forth between Pyongyang and Washington.
The media speculate about whether North Korea’s tests are meant to influence the upcoming South Korean elections or to lure Biden into a Trump-style summit, but the likeliest motive is just what Prof. Kim said it was: a desire to demonstrate the efficiency of North Korea’s missiles. You know, the ones that carry North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang hasn’t tested any nuclear weapons since 2017, but it is believed to have 50-60 warheads by now. Neither has it test-launched its intercontinental ballistic missiles (the ones that can reach anywhere in the United States) since then. The January tests were of ‘hypersonic’ missiles, ‘intermediate-range’ missiles, cruise missiles and similar hardware.
Most of those missiles can probably carry nuclear warheads too, but only as far as South Korea or Japan, America’s local allies. It’s a formidable investment for a small, quite poor country – but it’s not that extravagant when you consider that all these nukes are intended to deter the United States.
No American diplomat or military officer will admit publicly that North Korea’s fear of an American nuclear attack is justified, but the more intelligent ones realise that if your enemy has nuclear weapons, then to be safe you must have them too.
From the perspective of Pyongyang, American nuclear weapons are a mortal threat, and nobody can persuade the North Korean regime that they would never be used against it unless it attacked first.
Americans wouldn’t forego nuclear weapons if China and Russia made such promises, nor would they take America’s word for it. Too much is at stake to take a chance.
This is the universal dilemma of nuclear weapons. North Korea has just as much right to worry about it as the United States, and it will never give its own nukes up so long as the current confrontation in the Korean peninsula persists.
Any meetings or ‘summits’ between US and North Korean diplomats or leaders will be driven by North Korea’s perpetual desire to end UN and US trade sanctions and/or America’s futile quest to get Kim to agree to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Neither is going to happen, but there is no crisis either.
The North Korean regime is vicious, but it is not crazy. A reasonably stable cold peace has prevailed in the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953, guaranteed since the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006 by mutual nuclear deterrence between the US and North Korea. There’s no urgent need to ‘fix it’ or ‘shore it up’ now.
“They very much understand the significance of moving up the ladder on range,” a senior Biden administration official said on Sunday, implicitly recognising that the North Koreans had not tested any new missiles capable of striking the American homeland. There really is a mutual understanding. They just can’t talk about it.