North Korea’s Kim renews his quest for a nuclear life-saver

NASA N Korea
A photo of the Koreas at night taken from the International Space Station January 30, 2014.  The image illustrates the stark difference between North and South Korea: North Korea is almost completely dark compared to neighboring South Korea and China. The darkened land appears as if it were a patch of water joining the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Photo courtesy of NASA.

May 7, 2014

If North Korea’s young and unpredictable leader Kim Jong-un nursed any doubts about his need for nuclear weapons, recent events in Ukraine and Syria will have dismissed them.

With American and other spy satellites showing that North Korea is preparing new tests of a nuclear bomb and an inter-continental ballistic missile, the reality is that Pyongyang’s weapons program can no longer be negotiated away.

Kim, like his father Kim Jong-il before him, has read the lesson of the last decade. That is: if you don’t have or have given up your nuclear capacity, you risk invasion.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein stopped trying to develop weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, and look what happened to him.

Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi figured that cozying up to Washington was the answer, and voluntarily handed over all his nuclear development equipment. But it didn’t help. Gadhafi wound up hiding in a sewer pipe, and being mutilated to death by rebels, who felled his regime with the help of NATO.

Bashar Assad in Syria tried to start a nuclear weapons program, but Israel bombed it before it took even the first steps. Assad is probably going to survive the civil war now under way. But the West and its allies would have been far more reluctant to arm Islamic radicals and dispatch them into Syria if one of the prizes of victory was Damascus’ nuclear weapons facilities.

The same question applies to Ukraine. It is hard to imagine that Vladimir Putin would be quite so aggressive in grabbing Crimea and eastern Ukraine if the Kiev government had not given up all the nuclear weapons in its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Then there’s Iran, which has staved off attack by the U.S., Israel, or both, and continues to work to acquire, at the very least, the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

For public consumption, Iran still insists its nuclear development program is entirely civilian and aimed only at building electricity-generating reactors.

Pyongyang under Kim Jong-un has given up on that fiction and openly brags about being “full-fledged” nuclear weapons state. Indeed, a year ago that status was written into the constitution.

The one consolation about the North Korean program is that Pyongyang is certainly exaggerating its abilities. That’s especially true of its blood-curdling threats last year to rain down nuclear fire on the U.S.

Even so, the test preparations under way could take North Korea a significant step forward. Pyongyang tested nuclear devices in 2006, 2009 and last year.

These used plutonium as the core fuel, with mixed results, but North Korea has the capacity to use centrifuges to enrich uranium to concentrations suitable for bomb-making. This could make more reliable weapons, and put Pyongyang on the path to miniaturizing warheads so they can be delivered by its inter-continental ballistic missiles, something it can’t do at the moment.

Satellite pictures show North Korea preparing for an underground bomb explosion at its Punggye-ri testing site. But the tunnels have not yet been sealed, suggesting the test is still some time off.

And at the Sohae launch site, preparations are underway for the testing of the KN-08 road-mobile inter-continental ballistic missile.

When those tests happen, they will undoubtedly bring condemnation and perhaps added international sanctions from the United Nations. It is no accident that Pyongyang’s preparations come as South Korea has taken over the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of May.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, has already appealed for a strong international response when the North does conduct its test. That response, he said on Monday should be so strong it will “put the kibosh” on Pyongyang’s nuclear program for ever.

Yun’s rather charming use of an obscure early 19th century piece of London street slang, which means to bludgeon to death, can’t disguise the fact that there is no unanimity of view or purpose among the countries most directly interested in North Korea’s nuclear program.

China and Japan are going through a period of dangerous tension in their relations, more intense than they have been for many decades. South Korea and Tokyo are also on decidedly non-fraternal terms. Washington is siding with its Asian allies in the face of China’s increasingly assertive promotion of its territorial claims. And the U.S. and Russia have fallen out over Ukraine, with no resetting of the relationship likely in the near future.

So young Kim can be pretty confident that whatever the international response to his nuclear and missile tests, it won’t be unified and there will be no willpower to seriously inconvenience him.

It was probably in the hope of convincing Kim that there could be serious repercussions for him if the tests go ahead that a story was floated in Japanese newspapers on Monday. The report, however, has the smell of disinformation put out by some elements of the Japanese authorities.

The story was that Beijing has drawn up detailed contingency plans for the take-over of North Korea if Kim’s regime collapses, including the detention of North Korea’s leaders.

Well, it should be no surprise that Beijing, Pyongyang’s only ally, has plans for the take-over of North Korea. The country’s economy is almost non-existent and it has been tottering on the brink of collapse for decades.

The last thing Beijing wants is a chaotic collapse of the regime and a reunification of the peninsular under Seoul’s leadership. This would bring the forces of Seoul’s ally, Washington, right up to China’s border.

Beijing watches Kim carefully, and is doubtless worried by what it sees. Kim, who is about 30 years old and succeeded his father as leader in late 2011, has shown a capacity for psychopathic violence that is unsettling in a man who, quite apart from his quest for nuclear weapons, already possesses conventional forces capable of flattening South Korea and much of Japan.

There was no need to use the take-over story to try to sow mistrust between Beijing and Pyongyang. The mistrust is already there.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


Further reading:
UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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