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Interview: Nuclear North Korea
#37: With Ankit Panda
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Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. An expert on the Asia-Pacific region, his research interests encompass nuclear strategy, arms control, missile defense, nonproliferation, emerging technologies, and U.S. extended deterrence. He is the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea. Our questions are in bold, his answers in quotation marks.
Why did the North Korean regime decide to get nuclear weapons?
“The short answer is that they’ve sought nuclear weapons to offset their massive conventional inferiority against a territorially contiguous U.S.-South Korea alliance, and pursued intercontinental-range capabilities to further deter the United States from accepting the risk of pursuing a full-scale war of regime change against the country. Nuclear weapons are a source of existential insurance for the regime; this is their primary purpose. As North Korea’s capabilities grow and evolve, there are persistent concerns that the Kim regime could explore whether nuclear weapons can serve compellent ends. This remains to be seen in the Kim Jong Un era, but plenty of evidence from the Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung eras points to a broader risk-acceptant strategic culture within North Korea that could reemerge as its nuclear capabilities expand. The North Koreans, for decades, have cited an ambiguous basket of U.S. policies they consider “hostile” to their regime as a further justification for nuclear weapons.”
When was the last point at which North Korea could have been prevented from developing nuclear weapons?
“This is an interesting counterfactual question that I’ve given some thought to recently. We might ask what could have happened in the final months of 2002 had the Bush administration chosen to sustain the Agreed Framework while addressing North Korea’s pursuit of a covert uranium enrichment program through a supplementary agreement. The invasion of Iraq a few months later would probably still have caused Kim Jong Il to zero in on the value of nuclear weapons in that case, but the collapse of the Agreed Framework still does strike me as an error that had long-lasting negative implications for the broader nonproliferation approach to North Korea that we pursued since the early 1990s.
A second counterfactual concerns the October 2006 nuclear test, which was a fizzle. In theory, this should have been a terrible fumble by the North Koreans: they left the NPT, detonated a nuclear device, and it didn’t perform as desired. Had the United States not already been mired in two wars overseas at that point, we might imagine a conceivable debate around preventive war against North Korea to stay its nuclear ambitions, which had been more clearly demonstrated with the move to testing than ever before. Of course, there would be considerable incentive not to pursue preventive war given North Korea’s substantial ability even in 2006 to inflict conventional pain on South Korea and U.S. forces in Korea, but looking back with the benefit of hindsight, that threat pales in comparison to the substantially more robust nuclear threat Pyongyang poses today. My general sense is that North Korea’s willingness to endure whatever costs necessary to seek robust, credible nuclear deterrence had largely ossified under Kim Jong Il by mid-2003 or so, however.”
How do North Korean nuclear weapons compare to those of other states?
“Quantitatively, the North Korean arsenal of deployed nuclear delivery systems and warheads remains smaller than that of any other nuclear state. Qualitatively, matters are a bit more nuanced. The yield of their sixth nuclear test in September 2017 surpasses that of any test conducted by India and Pakistan. They’ve claimed to have developed a fully staged thermonuclear weapon. With regard to delivery systems, the North Koreans are notable for having demonstrated the largest liquid-fueled, road-mobile missile (Hwasong-17) ever developed anywhere; there are tremendous downsides to such a large liquid-propellant, road-mobile missile, which is why even during the Cold War we never saw the U.S. or the Soviet Union deploy such systems. We’re anticipating a seventh nuclear test from the North Koreans at some point in the near future; that would put them sixth in line after the five NPT Nuclear Weapon States for the total number of nuclear devices detonated (India and Pakistan each have detonated six nuclear devices across their tests, and Israel is rumored possibly to have detonated a device in the southern Pacific in 1979).”
What is the purpose of North Korean missile tests?
“The simplest purpose that’s almost always at play is developmental or operational. In the case of newer missiles, they test to see if the system operates as desired. With deployed missiles, they test to give specific missile units operational experience with these systems. Journalists often ask if missile tests are meant to send a message to the United States or South Korea, or somehow “test” their leaders, but this is often not the case. Of course, there are moments when the North Koreans do seek to hammer home a political message. The fact that they conducted their inaugural intercontinental-range ballistic missile test on the Fourth of July (U.S. independence day) in 2017 wasn’t an accident.
They also like to conduct off-azimuth missile shots to ranges demonstrating an ability to strike at U.S. assets near South Korea. They did this earlier this fall with short-range ballistic missiles that were launched into the Sea of Japan when the USS Ronald Reagan supercarrier visited the South Korean port of Busan. Had that missile been fired on a southerly trajectory toward Busan to the same range, it would have struck the vicinity of the U.S. carrier near Busan. The North Koreans do this to indicate that they have a capability to deliver nuclear warheads against South Korean ports and airfields in wartime; they’ve long studied how the U.S. conducts expeditionary warfare and understand the potency of disrupting logistics.”
Are there any circumstances under which Beijing would withdraw its support for Pyongyang?
“We lived through a period of tepid Chinese support for North Korea during the first few years of Kim Jong Un’s reign; in 2017, China didn’t obstruct unprecedently capacious sanctions against the North Korean economy at the UN Security Council. In recent years—particularly since the March 2018 inaugural summit between Kim and Xi Jinping—this has changed. North Korea is very much seen as an asset by Beijing rather than a liability. China has mooted sanctions relief for North Korea at the UN since late-2019, along with Russia.
The great power realignments that are playing out in the Indo-Pacific have driven Beijing and Pyongyang closer together. If North Korea were to deliberately initiate a massive conflict and employ nuclear weapons in the process, it’s possible that China would withdraw support to stabilize the situation, but broadly speaking, Beijing is willing to tolerate substantial misbehavior from North Korea right now, including a return to nuclear testing. Chinese official statements in recent months haven’t suggested tremendous concern about the anticipated return to nuclear testing.”
What’s South Korea’s plan to deter North Korea from using nuclear weapons?
“Over the last decade, South Korea has been making substantial investments in a broad strategy of conventional counterforce as North Korea develops an increasingly survivable and diversified nuclear arsenal. This has included investments in precise conventionally armed missiles capable of striking any targets in North Korea, improved intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and missile defenses, among other capabilities. Through these investments, South Korea has sought to communicate that it could deny North Korea the benefits that it might perceive from resorting to offensive nuclear use, thereby deterring Pyongyang from attacking or resorting to nuclear weapons.
Tactical nuclear weapons and the rapid quantitative growth in North Korea’s missile arsenal have raised questions about this approach. Seoul also communicates that it would punish the North Korean leadership, including Kim Jong Un personally, by conducting retaliatory strikes against them should nuclear weapons ever be used. The cornerstone of South Korea’s broader deterrence approach to North Korea, however, remains its alliance with the United States. Successive U.S. administrations, including the Biden administration, have affirmed that the U.S. would use the full range of its military capabilities—including nuclear weapons if needed—to retaliate against North Korean attacks.”
What could go wrong?
“A big concern on the Peninsula right now is that both North and South Korea adopt preemptive strategies, which is hugely destabilizing. Both of them have strong incentives to shoot first given that they’d each also anticipate that the other might shoot first, thereby blunting their own strike capability. Spiraling escalation incentives are a serious problem. A second concern is South Korea’s parallel pursuit of “decapitation” capabilities, which are being loudly emphasized under the current government.
It’s generally never a good idea to threaten to decapitate a nuclear-armed adversary; doing so can deprive them of any incentive to hold back in a crisis. With a personalistic dictatorship like North Korea, the stakes can effectively be rendered unlimited, giving Kim all the reason he might need to use nuclear weapons massively. I’ve counseled that South Korea should stop signaling that it intends to kill the North Korean leadership and actually offer Pyongyang assurances to this end.”
Is there any scenario in which Seoul decides to try to get its own nuclear weapons?
“South Korea tried to go nuclear once before in the 1970s and debates in Seoul to this end are growing louder. This is understandable on some level as South Korea’s security environment measurably worsens as North Korea pursues advanced nuclear capabilities, but I strongly believe nuclear weapons aren’t the solution to Seoul’s problems. If Seoul acquired nuclear weapons, the security problems it currently faces would either remain unchanged or become worse in some cases (I’m thinking of China in particular).”
What is a question you wish you were asked and what is your answer to it?
“Well, the question might be “What aren’t we talking about enough with regard to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities that we should be?” My answer here is nuclear command and control. Missile capabilities and nuclear weapons development are interesting and important, but North Korea is making important changes to its command and control practices and procedures that have implications for escalation management in a nuclear war. U.S. and South Korean analysts and officials need to pay close attention to this issue.”
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