The US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University has suggested that North Korea has carried out at least two rocket tests since its failed launch in April of what many believe was a prototype long-range ballistic missile. Observers interested to see whether relatively new leader Kim Jong Un would abandon his father’s policy of nuclearisation are sure to be disappointed although likely unsurprised. After the test in April was seen as an expression of strength from the new “Dear Leader”, these latest unpublicised tests seem to reflect business as usual.
Since being introduced to nuclear secrets by their Soviet patrons in the 1950s, the North Koreans have long desired to possess weapons of mass destruction. This for a number of reasons. Firstly, the US formerly maintained a nuclear arsenal in South Korea as part of its balancing against the Soviet Union in the Asia-Pacific region. These nuclear warheads were supposedly withdrawn in 1991, although the North Koreans are convinced they still exist and that Seoul could use them at a moment’s notice. Secondly, there is the prestige possession of such weapons would bring to a country of fierce isolationism, which is absent and muted in many of the globe’s major international institutions. Linked to this, and perhaps the main reason the North Koreans will continue with their nuclear policy, is for political bargaining power.
The pattern of North Korean nuclearisation has been characterised by an act of provocation, such as a rocket test, followed by sincere promises that the nuclear programme will be abandoned and international observers will be permitted entry to the heavily-guarded state. In this way, the North Koreans double their chances of drawing political concessions. Rocket tests, promises to launch missile attacks against neighbouring South Korea and Japan, and the assignment of the majority of the country’s GDP to the nuclear programme, bring nervous diplomats to the negotiating table. Here, the North Korean military leadership renounces its nuclear programme in return energy and food aid.
Similarly, when an energy or food crisis arises in North Korea, as is so often the case given the propensity for natural disasters and the horrendous infrastructure in much of the country, its leaders promise to abandon nuclearisation altogether in return for much-needed aid.
Both these ploys are successful in drawing concessions and will continue to be. For, who can trust the North Koreans with nuclear weapons? Who can risk Kim Jong Un and his military sponsors having the power to wipe out large swaths of its East Asian rivals’ territories? Who is to say that Iran, that other nuclear wannabe, isn’t aiding the North Koreans’ attempts?
Quite simply, the developed world cannot take such gross risks as to ignore North Korea’s threats and promises, even if, as many analysts suggest, its scientists are a long way from perfecting weapons of mass destruction. As such, the North Koreans will use the nuclear deterrent (even if in theory they do not possess one) when they see fit. Through carefully-managed propaganda stunts and the occasional promise of reform, the world’s biggest pariah state will never stray far from the headlines and the thoughts of world leaders.