North Korea finally test fired what they claimed to be an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on the United States’ Independence Day. Instead of sending congratulatory messages to the US, North Korea set off its own fireworks celebrating an independent development of a preliminary deterrent against the US.
North Korea’s Official News Agency (KCNA) said the missile was launched to reach a maximum altitude of 2802 km before impacting in the sea after flying 933 km. The flight time was 39 minutes. If that claim is true, the newly developed North Korean delivery system can reach targets in the continental US, and pose a direct threat to US citizens.
Of course, we cannot trust their numbers. The range may be shorter and the missile is still not reliable as a weapon that can be promptly fired under real wartime conditions. However, two things are clear at the moment:
1. North Korea dares to develop ICBMs targeting the US homeland openly and officially.
2. North Korea’s speed of progress in its nuclear arsenal is a lot faster than we had expected.
Becoming a de facto nuclear power is within reaching distance for the bizarre regime located in the North of the Korean peninsula. The finishing line is almost there for North Korea, and even the strongest military power in the world, the US, has not been able or willing to do anything serious to stop it from going (almost) intercontinental.
When North Korea appears to have a nuclear second strike capability, as well as conventional retaliatory capability to strike back toward US military bases and civilians in South Korea and Japan, military solutions, including preventive surgical strikes against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, are extremely risky.
North Korea is increasingly confident that US-ROK (Republic of Korea, or South Korea) military options are on the table only verbally, and the only guarantor of its regime survival is nuclear deterrence against the US, not a negotiated peace deal that can be immediately overturned like the US-Cuba deal after the 2016 US presidential election. Therefore, it is very likely that the North will go all the way to become a nuclear power possessing ICBMs.
So what happens when North Korea becomes a de facto nuclear power in a few years? And how should we deal with nuclear North Korea?
Answers to these questions may be counter-intuitive. Firstly, a few more missile and nuclear tests will make it clearer that North Korea will have a nuclear capability to deter any country’s military attack.
The ranges of missiles will get longer and diversified, fuel efficiency will get better, re-entry technology will be improved, MIRVs (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) will be added, more mobile launching vehicles will be introduced, nuclear warheads will get smaller and mass-produced.
As North Korea has almost always beaten our expectations of the level and speed of its technological development, so it will again in the future. Therefore, at some point, when North Korea becomes satisfied that it has showed enough to the world (in particular the US), it may not want to spend more of its precious resources to show further strength. In other words, there will no more be open unilateral missile or nuclear provocations.
Furthermore, even if North Korea is militarily challenged by US-Korea joint military exercises, North Korea may not respond with missile launches but by verbal intimidation such as the threats of a “sea of fire” in 1994 by a North Korean representative, Park Young Soo.
The South will take such verbal intimidation very seriously when North Korea has nuclear capabilities. Here we may have to face an “intriguing” challenge: if military solutions to the de-nuclearization of North Korea are not available, then we will have a temporary period of “awkward peaceful coexistence” with the North, as either side will take no more serious exchanges of provocative actions.
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Almost all thinkable and possible sanctions have already been imposed except some sanctions that may send signals of ultimatum. Furthermore, without serious provocations, it would be very difficult to come up with another sanction. North Korea will survive and be a nuclear power about which we cannot do much.
Second, what should we do if a de facto nuclear North Korea suddenly makes proposals such as the gradual opening and economic reform like Glasnost and Perestroika of the USSR? Is it better to isolate North Korea further or to economically engage with the nuclear North?
Is economically reforming nuclear North Korea a better scenario to an isolated nuclear North Korea? Sooner or later, the time will come to seriously consider which path the international community should take. Diplomatic wars may take place between dovish and hawkish allies.
My take on ultimate solutions to the North Korean nuclear program is what I call an exchange of CVID with CVIG.
The US has consistently demanded a Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme (CVID). North Korea will not, however, accept such a demand without comparable rewards by the US and the international community.
If North Korea can and will exchange their CVID for anything, it would have to be a Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Guarantee of their regime survival (CVIG). What will constitute CVIG? A piece of paper that can be torn up after a new government arrives in a democratic country will not do. CVIG needs to be something structural and consistent that can last for some time. North Korea will not trust any proposals now that they have the most trustworthy guarantor of their regime survival.
Exchange of CVID with CVIG of a rogue state may look politically incorrect, but we cannot find a strategically and theoretically more correct solution now. In that regard, if the nuclear North is indeed serious about its own version of Glasnost and Perestroika, we need to take that seriously as well.