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Should you be worried about North Korea?

The omnipresent threat of a thermonuclear exchange presently constitutes perhaps the greatest existential threat confronting humanity. Regrettably, despite meaningful dialogue and coherent disarmament initiatives, the arena of international relations remains plagued by the inescapable risk of inter-state conflict between actors possessing deployable nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the virulently pervasive misperception which characterised Cold War superpower diplomacy has not been categorically eroded, and thus continues to compromise geopolitical discourse.

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has dominated headlines globally with increasingly provocative testing of prototype ballistic missiles and nuclear devices. Considering the profoundly unsuccessful diplomatic record between the DPRK and the international community, as well as the seemingly incoherent and reckless proclamations from the White House, one may indeed feel somewhat unnerved by the deteriorating situation on the Korean Peninsula. However, many remain uninformed regarding the reality of the geostrategic standoff, and many observers wonder if all this paranoia is justified. It is the objective of this brief disquisition to illuminate the technical nature of the situation, specifically in an attempt to moderate the excessive paranoia and misinformation surrounding the crisis. Simply, I shall clarify the reality of North Korea’s present capabilities, their potential for further development, and critically – the countermeasures in place to defend against a North Korean nuclear strike. It is hoped that this brief discussion shall bolster one’s understanding of this geopolitical issue, and counter somewhat the paranoia, misinformation, and negligent inaccuracies that mainstream media have reliably produced. Firstly, to provide some context, it is useful to briefly examine the fundamental basics of nuclear warfare and strategy.

 

Destroyer of Worlds:

Becoming applicable in the late 1950s, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a strategic condition resulting from a perceived equalisation of nuclear capability, which ultimately yielded a coherent theory of nuclear deterrence and enabled the Cold War to conclude without degenerating into a third world war. It is based on the simple yet profound reality of nuclear warfare, where in the event of a thermonuclear exchange, both belligerents would incur unacceptable damage, if not total destruction, irrespective of who initiated the engagement. Should one side preemptively launch a first-strike, the defender would either launch-on-warning or possess a sufficient second-strike capability so as to inflict unacceptable losses on the aggressor. Thus, the application of MAD as a strategic condition should, theoretically, dissuade pre-emptive nuclear strikes – thus maintaining a tense but sustainable peace.

However, MAD, and by extension deterrence theory, may be compromised by a number of contingent factors. Firstly, effective nuclear deterrence relies on the existence of approximate nuclear parity in terms of deliverable warheads. Secondly, the possession of a secure second-strike (retaliatory) ability is essential, and thus counter-force installations are usually hidden, hardened, or mobile. A first strike may become appealing, even seem imperative, if one concludes that the adversary’s counter-force targets are sufficiently vulnerable so as to preclude any meaningful retaliation. Thirdly, MAD may be compromised by the deployment by one side of an effective ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. In any of these scenarios, one power may enjoy a destabilizing advantage which may incentivize a pre-emptive strike. This standoff is energized by the ‘security dilemma’ (an interminable struggle to seek relative advantage and avoid relinquishing vital advantages resulting in a sustained arms race), and is compounded by virulent misperception. Other consequential factors include the nature, scale, and location of both counter-force and counter-value targets, the active deployment of SSBN (nuclear submarines carrying nuclear missiles) assets, and the supposed rationality of the actors involved.

The assumed rationality of the leaders in question meant that confidence in deterrence became a tautology – not being deterred would be inherently irrational. This perspective is undermined when one considers the ideological and personal factors which may lead one to irrational behaviour. Variability in terms of sociological normalities may lead to political misperception, as might the involuntary neglect of pre-existing diplomatic conditions by one side. Should a leader become ‘psychologically compromised’, and should the requisite safeguards and contingencies not exist, it is not unreasonable to assume that irrational action may be taken. Our discussion thus far has revolved around the conventional Cold War bipolar standoff, and while the above isn’t entirely applicable to North Korea (which maintains a negligible nuclear arsenal), it is useful to consider the basic dynamics of nuclear posturing and strategy.

The Sword and the Shield:

For one to accurately evaluate the geostrategic conditions developing in East Asia, one must examine the geopolitical objectives of nations including Japan, Vietnam, and of course the People’s Republic of China (PRC). One should also consider the diplomatic history between the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and its northern neighbour. All that to one side however, this article wishes to simply clarify the present situation. Ultimately, the question remains – should you be worried? Well, it depends. Pyongyang claims to have successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb), and that these devices may soon be sufficiently miniaturised so as to be deployable on a ballistic missile. Additionally, North Korea is believed to have successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with sufficient range to strike the west coast of the United States. Recently, North Korea flew a ballistic missile over Japan, and threatened briefly to strike the American territory of Guam in the Western Pacific. Meanwhile, under intense diplomatic pressure, Beijing agreed to support the sanctions regime imposed against North Korea. Joint US-ROK military exercises constituted the overt response to successive North Korean tests and provocations. So, should you be worried? Should someone living in Seoul, Japan, Guam, Hawaii, or California be worried?

Well, despite claims to the contrary, many commentators have observed that Kim Jong-un is not some irrational lunatic leading his country into oblivion, but rather, is adhering to a rational, self-interested policy revolving around the establishment of credible nuclear deterrence. Lacking such a deterrent, he likely fears foreign intervention. Granted, his actions have resembled reckless brinksmanship, but much of the recent scholarly discourse on North Korea concludes that all this belligerence hides the realist objectives of a leader striving to secure the survival of his regime and his country. Of course, the autocratic state lacks reliable allies, significant trade, and is terribly impoverished. Furthermore, it is diplomatically isolated, and technologically backwards. While it lies outside the purview of this discussion, it is reasonable to assume that the survival of the existing regime will not coincide with any meaningfully positive change within North Korea.

 

Finally, there is the issue of ballistic missile defence (BMD) – the reason I originally sat down to write this article. The media’s account of North Korean capabilities neglects to factor BMD, which thus yields an inaccurate narrative. There are presently four active components to the US BMD architecture which are operationally applicable to the standoff with North Korea. Firstly, there are Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) batteries deployed in South Korea, Guam, and Hawaii, and additional units are deployed on the US mainland. US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers are equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defence system. Upgraded PAC-3 launchers are deployed in the US and are air-mobile. Finally, the US Ground-Based Midcourse Defence (GMD) is based on the US mainland. Collectively, the operational spectrum of these platforms encompasses the entire envelope of a ballistic missile’s trajectory – from launch, through the post-boost, midcourse, and terminal phases of flight. These systems vary greatly in their relative effectiveness and utility, and there is a lack of consensus concerning the reliability of these defences. Regardless, Beijing has voiced vehement opposition towards the US THAAD installation in South Korea. The US ballistic missile defence architecture orientated towards North Korea might, notably, provide a sufficient degree of invulnerability for the US in order for Washington to consider military intervention. Trump publicly abandoned his predecessor’s’ policy of ‘strategic patience’, and clarified that military options were being considered. It is difficult to ascertain the views of Mattis, McMasters, or Kelly on the subject, but the cabinet-level military experts are presumably considering all potential courses. Finally, it is worth remembering that the South Korean capital of Seoul would regardless be subjected to merciless artillery barrages in the opening moments of any engagement – though in line with existing contingencies and protocols, these artillery batteries could be eliminated tremendously quickly by US/ROK aerial interdiction. Presuming any North Korean ballistic missiles are intercepted, other troubling variables include the securing of all fissile material, and the prevention of a humanitarian crisis on the Chinese border.

Presently, North Korean nuclear weapons and delivery systems are relatively rudimentary, even primitive, but they have made monumental progress in the development of both thermonuclear (fusion) devices and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Most troublingly however, is their energetic attempt to field submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), as it is tremendously difficult to track and interdict nuclear submarines. In conclusion, we must be cognizant of the tangible risk this crisis poses to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Policymakers and strategists must proceed with caution and restraint, for one misstep could plunge the region into chaos. A sustainable solution to the North Korea dilemma remains profoundly elusive.