With recent threats from ISIL, provocations from Russia, and Chinese island-building in the South China Sea, it is easy to forget about the Korean Peninsula. To forget about North Korea and its nuclear program would be a mistake, however, as two recent developments – increased North Korean rocket testing and the deployment of American THAAD batteries in South Korea – have increased tensions throughout the region.
North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weaponry intermittently since the late 1980s. With the collapse of its primary ally, the Soviet Union, the Hermit Kingdom has sought to develop a nuclear deterrent to ensure its security and continued autonomy. North Korea’s path to nuclearization has been erratic, with a brief hiatus during the Clinton Administration, and a further pause during the Six Party Talks (1). However, recent years have seen an acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as the new leader Kim Jong Un seeks to take the country down a more militaristic path. The past year has witnessed a number of high-profile nuclear tests, as well as a few successful missile tests, raising concerns that North Korea might be developing its nuclear capabilities at a rate far faster than previously anticipated. Indeed, this past April, a South Korean official was quoted as saying that “North Korea is able to place a nuclear warhead on a mid-range missile” (2). Just this past January, the world witnessed an alleged hydrogen bomb test in North Korea. While most analysts agree that this hydrogen bomb was nothing more than an enhanced yield fission bomb, the rapid advancement in North Korean nuclear technology is still concerning (3).
Before proceeding, it is important to review the warhead and missile technology that North Korea possesses. North Korea has conducted at least five nuclear tests and appears unwilling to halt its weapons program (4). If anything, the young Kim seeks to accelerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in an effort to signal to both foreign powers and domestic rivals that he is a serious leader. Not only has North Korea enhanced its nuclear warhead capabilities, but it has also mastered the processes of producing enriched uranium and weapons grade plutonium (5). Thus, North Korea is capable of fully producing nuclear weapons domestically. One area in which North Korea still lags, however, is tritium production. Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen that is crucial in generating nuclear fusion. As Hugh Chalmers explains, tritium and deuterium are the two crucial components of a fusion bomb. “If a deuterium nucleus (consisting of one proton and one neutron) can be made to fuse with a tritium nucleus (consisting of one proton and two neutrons), this ‘DT’ reaction generates a powerful burst of electromagnetic energy” (6). While deuterium is fairly simple to acquire – for example, from sea water – tritium is an exceedingly challenging isotope to make and is almost impossible to find in nature. North Korea would also be hard pressed to acquire tritium through trade, as sanctions and strict nuclear trade control measures ensure that the tritium trade is tightly controlled. North Korea could try to produce tritium at its Yongbyon reactor. However, because Yongbyon is a gas-graphite reactor, it is incapable of utilizing lithium bombardment methods to generate tritium, thus limiting its output to miniscule levels (6). North Korea is therefore likely pursuing pool-based reactor development, as this type of reactor is particularly suited for irradiating material samples. There are still technical barriers to this approach: North Korea must acquire large amounts of lithium, contend with lithium’s energetic reaction with water, and extract the tritium after production, a challenge even for the United States (6). It is, therefore, unlikely that North Korea possesses the requisite technical abilities to generate meaningful quantities of tritium, limiting its fusion-based warhead production. However, North Korea has surprised the U.S. in the past with its rapid nuclear advancements, and North Korea’s IRT pool-based reactor is more than capable of producing sufficient quantities of tritium to build a weapon. Thus, it is not inconceivable that North Korea will move toward fusion warheads in the next 5-10 years.
The other area of rapid advancement in North Korea is missile production. North Korea possesses a significant missile production infrastructure, and its technological prowess regarding rocketry has risen substantially. North Korea operates four major missile variants: Scud derivatives, Nodongs, Musudans, and Taepodongs (7). Most of these variants have limited range, only capable of striking South Korea or, in some cases, Japan. However, U.S. intelligence estimates that at least one missile – the Taepodong-2 – could potentially deliver a limited payload to the western United States (8). Despite these clear successes, North Korea still struggles to build reliable missile systems. It has experienced a number of abject failures, leading many to question North Korea’s ability to consistently and reliably strike targets via missiles.
This proliferation of warhead and delivery technology is troubling for two reasons. The first is the risk of inadvertent escalation due to North Korean posturing. The Kim regime is notorious for utilizing large-scale tests and aggressive provocations to deter possible intervention by the U.S. and South Korea. In other words, North Korea attempts to ratchet up tensions in order to intimidate its adversaries and buy itself more time. Just a few days ago, in fact, North Korea tested three missiles as a response to the American deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries in South Korea (9). These provocations can be highly dangerous, though, as they frequently generate powerful responses from the United States and its allies such as joint military exercises and the deployment of nuclear capable bombers. Thus, while Kim seems to have perfected Nixon’s madman philosophy – attempting to convince adversaries that the North Korean regime is unpredictable and irrational enough to start a nuclear war – it is unclear whether this strategy will prove effective in the long-term (10). By inciting the U.S. and its allies and provoking powerful responses, the Kim regime risks miscalculation and the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.
The other concern is domestic instability within North Korea and what this might portend for North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Regime collapse or domestic unrest offer at least two scenarios for conflict. The first is the employment of a diversionary war by the Kim regime. Faced with domestic opposition and civil unrest, Kim Jong Un might try to engineer a small war to generate patriotic nationalism and a “rally around the flag effect.” In other words, Kim might intentionally initiate a war to give the people an enemy other than himself (11). For diversionary wars to be effective, of course, they need to be small and winnable. After all, the only thing worse than domestic strife is a full-scale U.S. invasion and routing of the North Korean army. There will therefore be significant pressures on Kim to limit his war goals, making diversionary war potentially containable. Unfortunately, warfare is very rarely so easily contained, and it is exceedingly likely that South Korea would use even a small scale war as a justification for reunification. If this were to happen, the war would quickly become a massive conflict involving both Koreas, the United States, China, and possibly even Japan. North Korea, facing an unstoppable onslaught of enemy forces, might be tempted to utilize its small nuclear arsenal to raise the costs of war in an attempt to cling to power (12). With nothing to lose, the Kim regime would likely be willing to utilize every potential resource at its disposal to forestall its dissolution.
The other potential conflict scenario involves the collapse of the Kim regime before the U.S. or China were able to intervene. Were this to occur, the entire region would be destabilized due to massive refugee flows and “loose nukes” – missing North Korean weapons lost during the collapse of the regime. With the U.S. and China both racing to secure North Korean WMDs and chaos reigning throughout North Korea, the risk of conflict or miscalculation would be very real (13). Indeed, we are already witnessing tensions between the U.S. and China over the deployment of U.S. THAAD missile defense batteries. China views them as a threat to its strategic deterrent, while South Korea and the U.S. view them as crucial to defending against North Korean missiles (14). With tensions rising over peacetime deployment of missile defense, it is easy to imagine tensions escalating to dangerous levels during the stress and confusion of a full scale North Korean state collapse.
In short, North Korea continues to remain a long-term challenge for the United States and its East Asian allies. Despite its economic backwardness and corrupt regime, it has been able to generate significant progress in both nuclear and rocket technology. With its mercurial foreign policy and unstable regime, it is highly likely that conflict will occur on the peninsula in the near future. If this were to happen, North Korea’s nukes will become a serious issue requiring rapid response from the U.S. and effective coordination between China, South Korea, and the United States. It is thus crucial that policymakers and commanders effectively consider every contingency regarding the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. cannot afford to be caught flat-footed.
(1) Bajoria, Jayshree and Beina Xu. “The Six Party Talks on North Korean Nuclear Program.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 20, 2013. Web.
(2) Power, John. “North Korea's Nuclear Missiles: Now With Increased Range.” The Diplomat. April 8, 2016. Web.
(3) Lewis, Jeffrey. “Did Somebody Say H-bomb?” 38 North. December 14, 2015. Web.
(4) Cronin, Patrick. “North Korea’s Nuclear Insecurity Summit.” War on the Rocks. April 21, 2016. Web.
(5) “North Korea.” Nuclear Threat Initiatives Project. May 2016. Web.
(6) Chalmers, Hugh. “Producing Tritium in North Korea.” Trust & Verify 153(1) (2016): 2.
(7) “North Korea: Missiles.” Nuclear Threat Initiatives Project. May 2016. Web.
(8) Lewis, Jeffrey. “JACOBY CLAIMS NORTH KOREA CAN ARM TAEPO DONG 2 WITH NUKE.” Arms Control Wonk. April 29, 2005. Web.
(9) Kim, Jack and James Pearson. “North Korea fires three ballistic missiles in new show of force.” Reuters. July 19, 2016. Web.
(10) Burr, William and Jeffrey P. Kimball. “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Madman Strategy during Vietnam War.” George Washington University National Security Archive. May 29, 2015. Web.
(11) For an analysis of diversionary conflict, see Oakes, Amy. Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. Print.
(12) McLennan, Garth. “Needle in a Haystack: How North Korea Could Fight a Nuclear War.” 38 North. June 13, 2016. Web.
(13) “IF THE NORTH KOREAN REGIME COLLAPSED.” The Economist. May 16, 2016. Web.
(14) Soon-do, Hong. “Anti-Korea Sentiment Growing in China Due to THAAD.” Huffington Post. July 10, 2016. Web.
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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.