Responding to North Korea's Nuclear Conundrum By Jun Kwon
Does North Korea have true intentions to strike the United States whether it is the Mainland or the U.S. overseas interests? I believe the answer is NO. North Korea understands that going to war with the U.S. does not serve its interests at all. And it clearly realizes that it would be a suicidal act if it planned or launched a first strike against the U.S.
Despite its bellicose words and the recent escalation, North Korea has never veered from its position that its ICBMs and nuclear weapons are motivated for only defensive purposes. North Korea’s intention is to deter the United States from initiating possible attacks toward North Korea. North Korea wants to deliver the message through its missile and nuclear tests that the U.S. would face horrible consequences, including possible nuclear retaliation, if North Korea was militarily attacked.
This intention was evident in an interview by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at the ARF meeting this week. “Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force,” Ri Yong Ho said.
Why does the U.S. worry about the North Korea’s missiles and nuclear warheads? Is the U.S. overreacting to the threats of North Korea? Can the U.S. just let North Korea obtain these weapons in a way that the U.S. did to India and Pakistan? The U.S. has no shortage of reasons to worry and prevent North Korea from obtaining long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
First, even though North Korea seems to have no intention or interests to attack the U.S., Washington still fears that North Korea would lunch nuclear strikes at the U.S. territories and its allies like Japan and South Korea.
Second, Pyongyang would be emboldened by the possession of a nuclear deterrent force and its foreign policy would be more aggressive.
Third, if North Korea possessed nuclear weapons and was recognized as a nuclear state, it could trigger regional nuclear arms race causing regional instability. There are some discussions and debates taking place in Japan and South Korea about arming themselves with nuclear weapons. It surely will provoke criticism and strong objection from China.
Fourth, North Korea’s nuclear weapons further damage the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime which is the backbone of the international regime to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and Israel have never signed the NPT while North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003.
Finally, North Korea could give or sell nuclear weapons to non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations, as its economy has been crippled by various economic sanctions.
How are both the United States and North Korea able to flee from the escalating tensions and the North Korea nuclear conundrum? Under no circumstances should the military options be considered by either side. Military conflicts will surely bring about grave consequences turning the Korean peninsula and the East Asia into a blazing inferno.
There is no doubt that the only way to solve the North Korea issue is the negotiation through diplomatic dialogues. However, dialogues for the sake of dialogues are meaningless. In order to avoid a head-on collision of “two accelerating trains, coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way,” it is time for meaningful and practicable actions. Both the U.S. and North Korea need to show “actions of political willingness” to abandon hostile policy and behaviors against each other.
In this regard, the U.S. should take “suspension for suspension” proposals by China more seriously which would see North Korea suspend nuclear and missile tests and activities and the United States and South Korea halt their annual joint military exercises around the Korean Peninsula. This would create the foundations for the resumptions of the meaningful talks.
Jun Kwon is Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College