Pyongyang’s announcement on Tuesday that it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) should not have come as a huge surprise. It is true that their jurisdiction of attack has increased markedly, but what has always been less clear is their motive for persevering in this tiresome game of nuclear brinkmanship.
If, as our media and politicians constantly suggest, Pyongyang was irrationally hostile and intent on nuclear destruction, it would surely have acted in decisive fashion by now. But this is not the case. In fact, the historical record (rarely examined for ideological reasons) sheds light on an altogether more rational, if not coercive, pattern of behaviour. Mostly, North Korean bravado has been a beckoning call to major powers; an attempt at gaining political concessions, like a child crying for sweets.
What shocks me most is that large numbers of people fail to realise that none of this is even remotely new. The North Koreans were prepping and posturing with (then non-nuclear) missiles back in 1993, before spurning the Clinton administration into signing a Framework Agreement which sought after a reboot of diplomatic ties and deeper consideration of national interests.
The deal represented progress, but was not adhered to perfectly on either side. It symbolised the ongoing nature of US-DPRK relations: hesitant, half-willing and mistrustful. Washington’s promise to provide supplementary oil supplies was made impossible to honour by persistent blocking in Congress. Pyongyang responded by engaging in weapons trading with Iran, swapping missiles for the oil it needed to address its deepening energy crisis.
In his authoritative State of Paranoia, Paul French notes:
“By the end of the 1990s it had become clear to Pyongyang that the US was not going to live up to its side of the Agreed Framework without some form of coercion. Pyongyang saw no other way to enforce the agreement except to restart its nuclear program and continue to develop medium-range missiles with potentially long-range upgrade capabilities.”
In other words, North Korea has in the past relied upon nuclear maneuvering and the issuing of outlandish promises or threats to force foreign states into negotiation. It should be noted that Pyongyang has always viewed with immense importance the ability to craft missiles that reach the United States; the very state it relies on for much of its aid and most important diplomacy. Any suggestion that Kim Jong-Un’s government plans to bite the hands it feeds from does not hold up to any logic.
Of course, it is not just Washington with a vested interest in North Korea’s nuclear portfolio. Both Russia and China desperately want to avoid a nuclear arms race in Asia, particularly if Japan is forced to ditch its non-nuclear status. Pyongyang’s missiles have on more than one occasion been tested in Japanese territory, making their apprehension entirely reasonable. A domino effect of this kind would ultimately disrupt the balance of power in the Far East. Japan has no current motive to embark upon a nuclear weapons program, in part due to China’s ‘no first use’ policy designed to ease her neighbours and in part due to American defence obligations.
North Korea is a pitiful irrelevance on the international stage, unable to match most other countries by all reasonable political measures. It has stuck rigidly to an economic system exposed by the global withering of Marxist-Leninist ideology and appears to be ineffectually trying to fight its way out of a corner it pretends is worth sitting in. Pyongyang accepts that the danger of complete collapse looms menacingly in the distance. The party state’s primary concern has always been national security, maintaining doggedly its existing societal order, and seeking external military assurances that its territory and interests will be respected by foreign powers.
It seeks financial and humanitarian aid from the United States, as well as fundamental security assurances, such as those agreed in 1994 and re-discussed eleven years later. American policy towards North Korea has always been reactive rather than proactive. John Swenson-Wright, a senior lecturer in Modern Japanese Politics and International Relations, has noted that Washington lacks a clear strategy for dealing with Pyongyang.
This is probably captured quite accurately by the unnecessary hysteria which still meets North Korean nuclear brinkmanship. The endgame is concession extraction, not any kind of devastating military conflict. North Korea is not strong enough to finance such a war. It can certainly inflict sizeable damage upon the Republic of Korea to the south, but its Armed Forces are depleted and equipped unimpressively, and the regime knows it will be wiped out in the event of major conflict. Nor is a military attack upon the DPRK wise from an American, or indeed Chinese, perspective.
China recognises that further instability across the border will see a torrent of refugees spill helplessly into its country, and the United States has calculated that due to North Korea’s porcupine strategy, the human cost of a North Korean bombing campaign would be domestically unacceptable, as well as there being the small issue of much of the DPRK’s heavy artillery sitting ticklishly close to the DMZ. Former CIA chief James Woolsey once estimated that in order to completely destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear program, 4,000 daily airstrikes would have to be carried out for a period lasting at least two months.
So what does North Korea want this time around? The lack of transparency makes this difficult to deduce. Given that the purpose of their nuclear muscle flexing is to draw the United States (and perhaps its neighbours) into negotiations, I suspect North Korea will be seeking relief from economic sanctions outlined in Executive Order 13722, as well as economic aid to help tackle food and energy shortages. Jong-Un may even want a peace treaty with Washington, establishing itself as a nuclear state to be left alone, and looser ties between South Korea and the United States. Certainly, he would prefer (with some scepticism) for the special relationship with China to continue.
This from Isaac Chotiner, for the publication Slate, is particularly insightful:
“North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960.”
This, I would bet, is the real reason for the significance of yesterday’s announcement. We should probably stop pretending that we are on the cusp of nuclear conflict, and that we must scurry about like headless chickens desperately trying to solve a problem that we barely understand. It’s not a very good look for us.