North Korea recently tested its biggest nuclear warhead to date. While the precise size of the warhead is still being hotly debated, there is unanimous agreement that it was at least ten kilotons, or roughly the size of the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki (1). North Korea has been rapidly accelerating its nuclear program since Kim Jong-un, the young leader of North Korea, assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. It now appears that North Korea is rapidly approaching the status of advanced nuclear state. To be sure, North Korea still possesses a relatively small and technologically unsophisticated arsenal. However, North Korea’s nuclear stockpile is rapidly expanding and evolving in deeply concerning ways. The world must come to terms with the fact that North Korea has become, for all intents and purposes, an effective nuclear weapons state. Unless radical new policies are implemented to halt the Hermit Kingdom’s march toward advanced nuclear systems, the world might be forced to contend with a newly aggressive Korea armed with a devastating and highly capable nuclear arsenal.
Jeffrey Lewis, a prominent nuclear analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, argues that one of the more concerning aspects of this recent nuclear test is that North Korean officials claim that they have developed a standardized warhead. In other words, it seems likely that North Korean scientists have settled on a standard warhead configuration to be fitted on their missile systems. Lewis argues that this “test isn’t just a political statement. It has a technical purpose. And that purpose is demonstrating the reliability of that ‘standardized’ nuclear warhead to arm the missile force.” Lewis also contends that the language used by North Korea is meaningful: “The fact that the warheads are ‘standardized’ is… intended to convey that they are being produced in quantity” (1). In a sense, this is North Korea’s coming out moment. After over a decade of concerted effort, North Korea can now claim to be a nuclear weapons state capable of mass producing nuclear devices. It is, of course, still unclear that North Korea is in fact able to produce large quantities of nuclear weapons. We are relying on North Korean statements and propaganda after all. However, trends certainly seem to suggest that Kim’s regime has made great strides in nuclear warhead production.
It is also important not to focus solely on Pyongyang’s nuclear warhead production. North Korea’s development of potent and reliable missile systems is sometimes ignored, but effective missile delivery systems represent an integral component of an effective nuclear deterrent. Thus, it is concerning to see North Korean missile technology developing so briskly (2). As rapidly as North Korea has been improving and refining its nuclear warhead technology, it seems to be improving its missile delivery systems at an even faster rate. Indeed, North Korea tested a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) only a few weeks ago. This represents a significant improvement in North Korean missile technology and puts North Korea on the path toward developing a secure second strike capability. The development of a North Korean SLBM is also worrisome because it potentially gives Kim the ability to bypass missile defense systems designed to target weapons launched from land (3).
What is perhaps most fascinating and concerning about Kim Jong-un’s seemingly unrelenting quest to acquire a secure nuclear arsenal, however, is that it is occurring in spite of incredibly severe sanctions (4). Recently, even China – North Korea’s de facto patron – agreed to increase sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom, and Chinese officials and media organizations have become increasingly vocal in their denunciations of North Korean provocations. While there is some debate as to China’s willingness to enforce sanctions, the fact that China was even willing to publicly support measures aimed at constraining the Kim regime is still significant in and of itself. That North Korea has been willing and able to persevere through ever more stringent sanctions indicates that the regime is unlikely to halt nuclear weapons production regardless of the actions of outside powers (5).
Of course, the new, even harsher sanctions agreed upon by the P-5 might alter Pyongyang’s calculations. However, there are two compelling reasons to believe that punitive economic measures will continue to prove ineffective against the North Korean regime despite this recent multinational cooperation regarding North Korean sanctions. The primary reason is that sanctions have already reached maximum effectiveness, and thus further economic tightening will likely have no meaningful impact on North Korea’s economic situation. The Hermit Kingdom has been effectively bankrupt for a number of years now, but the regime simply doesn’t care. Because regime leaders are largely shielded from the impacts of North Korea’s dire economic situation and know that China will always backstop them in the event of a catastrophic economic calamity, sanctions possess only limited effectiveness (6). The second reason for Kim’s willingness to endure such severe sanctions is that he views nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee North Korean security (7). Absent nuclear weapons, it becomes far easier for countries like South Korea or the United States to try to depose Kim or otherwise precipitate regime change. Thus, Pyongyang is willing to endure almost anything to acquire an effective nuclear arsenal and, by extension, a secure hold on power.
The ineffectiveness of sanctions is incredibly concerning because it means that there is very little the West can do to halt North Korean nuclear weapons production. The U.S. could attempt to launch targeted airstrikes against North Korean nuclear facilities, but this would risk massive escalation on the peninsula, placing Seoul and Tokyo in Pyongyang’s crosshairs and potentially leading to conflict with China. In other words, if the United States chooses to do nothing, it may end up with a North Korean arsenal that is “likely to keep growing. If [the U.S. does] nothing… it will grow in number, grow to threaten the continental United States, and eventually grow to include very powerful staged-thermonuclear weapons” (1). However, if the United States chooses to use military power to destroy North Korea’s arsenal, it risks sparking a major regional war that could draw in a number of great powers. There are no easy solutions, and the question of how best to deal with North Korea is only made more complex by the competing interests of external powers like China. However, the United States and its regional allies can no longer afford to simply wait out the Kim regime. More decisive action is required.
(1) Lewis, Jeffrey. “North Korea’s Nuke Program Is Way More Sophisticated Than You Think.” Foreign Policy. September 9, 2016. Web.
(2) “North Korea: Missile.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. September 2016. Web.
(3) Park, Ju-min and Jack Kim. “North Korea fires submarine-launched ballistic missile towards Japan.” Reuters. August 24, 2016. Web.
(4) Pollack, Jonathan D. “What makes this North Korean nuclear test different.” Brookings. September 9, 2016. Web.
(5) Hudson, John and David Francis. “Why Did Sanctions Fail Against North Korea?” Foreign Policy. September 9, 2016. Web.
(6) For a case study of regime shielding, see Ashford, Emma. “Not So Smart Sanctions: The Failure of Western Restrictions Against Russia.” Foreign Affairs. January/February 2016. Web; for China’s role in backstopping the North Korean economy, see Kuhn, Anthony. “Why China Wants To Squeeze North Korea A Little, But Not Too Much.” NPR. September 9, 2016. Web.
(7) Taewoo, Tim. “Combating North Korea’s Nuclear Blackmail: Proactive Deterrence and the Triad System.” Korean Institute for Defense Analysis. 2012. Web.
Image: © Gordeev20 | Dreamstime.com - North Korean soldier
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.