Home North Korea on the Nuclear Brink: Is it for Real or just Posturing?

North Korea on the Nuclear Brink: Is it for Real or just Posturing?

With the situation in the Korean peninsula fast escalating that could probably aggravate into a possible nuclear conflagrationbeing launched by North Korea against the United States and its immediate neighbours, Japan and South Korea, what are its possibilities given the strategic and operational capabilities of North Korea at the present time.

Assuming that North Korea is using the nuclear card on the efficacy of deterrence, there are two major ways in which deterrence operates as per international relations discourse. Deterrence by denial, according to Glenn Snyder, is premised on the failure of deterrence and the preparedness by the other party to this eventuality. Under this version, deterrence by denial, which is essentially, a first strike, is by denying the adversary the specific military advantage it might want to respond through an overwhelming force of its own. The other option could be deterrence by punishment. As Michael Howard explains, it is to seek to persuade an adversary, through the actual threat of military retaliation, that the costs of using military force to resolve a political conflict will far outweigh the benefits derived from it. It is just a matter of speculation as to which of the two options North Korea might take recourse to in a crunch situation, or, is it that North Korea will deliberately maintain an ambiguous stand, by relying on both the components: deterrence by denial as well as deterrence by punishment.

It is also possible that North Korea is using the nuclear bait as Offensive Defencemeaning the limited number of nuclear weapons North Korea possesses are meant for both offence and defence. In that case, nuclear bombs can be used as a tool for total defence where it is used against conventional and nuclear weapons of the other side while it can also be used as a counterforce and countervalue weapon to neutralize the strategic superiority of the opposing party.

Under what circumstances could North Korea go in for a first strike? If one uses the templates of the well-known scholar, Stephen Cohen, he argues for first use of nuclear weapons, as an "Option enhancing policy" whereas General Khalid Kidwai of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, spells out four distinct thresholds for nuclear weapons use: loss of large parts of territory (space threshold); destruction of large part of land or air forces (military threshold); economic strangulation (economic threshold); and political destabilization or large scale internal subversion (domestic destabilization threshold). Will these thresholds work and be replicated in the case of North Korea? Will North Korea resort to first use of nuclear weapons if these redlines are violated or will North Korea use the spectreof first strike as a better bargaining leverage for a later stage.

With the situation in the Korean peninsula fast escalating that could probably aggravate into a possible nuclear conflagrationbeing launched by North Korea against the United States and its immediate neighbours, Japan and South Korea, what are its possibilities given the strategic and operational capabilities of North Korea at the present time.

Assuming that North Korea is using the nuclear card on the efficacy of deterrence, there are two major ways in which deterrence operates as per international relations discourse. Deterrence by denial, according to Glenn Snyder, is premised on the failure of deterrence and the preparedness by the other party to this eventuality. Under this version, deterrence by denial, which is essentially, a first strike, is by denying the adversary the specific military advantage it might want to respond through an overwhelming force of its own. The other option could be deterrence by punishment. As Michael Howard explains, it is to seek to persuade an adversary, through the actual threat of military retaliation, that the costs of using military force to resolve a political conflict will far outweigh the benefits derived from it. It is just a matter of speculation as to which of the two options North Korea might take recourse to in a crunch situation, or, is it that North Korea will deliberately maintain an ambiguous stand, by relying on both the components: deterrence by denial as well as deterrence by punishment.

It is also possible that North Korea is using the nuclear bait as Offensive Defence meaning the limited number of nuclear weapons North Korea possesses are meant for both offence and defence. In that case, nuclear bombs can be used as a tool for total defence where it is used against conventional and nuclear weapons of the other side while it can also be used as a counterforce and counter  value weapon to neutralize the strategic superiority of the opposing party.

Under what circumstances could North Korea go in for a first strike? If one uses the templates of the well-known scholar, Stephen Cohen, he argues for first use of nuclear weapons, as an "Option enhancing policy" whereas General Khalid Kidwai of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, spells out four distinct thresholds for nuclear weapons use: loss of large parts of territory (space threshold); destruction of large part of land or air forces (military threshold); economic strangulation (economic threshold); and political destabilization or large scale internal subversion (domestic destabilization threshold). Will these thresholds work and be replicated in the case of North Korea? Will North Korea resort to first use of nuclear weapons if these redlines are violated or will North Korea use the specter of first strike as a better bargaining leverage for a later stage.

In terms of North Korea’s inception and existing stock of missilesthat could be fitted with nuclear weapons, North Korea's own missile programme began with Scuds, with its first batch reportedly coming via Egyptway back in 1976. Scuds was used during Iraq war with mixed results. By 1984, North Korea was building its own versions called Hwasongs and Pukguksong with 1,000 km range. These missiles including Nodong and Musudan have an estimated maximum range of about 1,300km, to 3,500 kmrespectively and can carry conventional, chemical and possibly biological warheads. According to an April 2016 analysisby the International Institute for Strategic Studies, these missiles were a "proven system which can hit all of South Korea and much of Japan".North Korea's latest efforts in the last few years have been focused on building reliable and robust long-range missiles, which may have the potential to reach the mainland United States particularly its west coast including populated cities such as Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.Two types of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the KN-08 and KN-14, have been observed at various military parades since 2012.Carried and launched from the back of a modified truck, the three-stage KN-08 is believed to have a range of about 11,500km whereas The KN-14 appears to be a two-stage missile, with a possible range of around 10,000km.At the huge military paradethat North Korea conducted on April 15, 2017, its armed forces displayed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, believed to be “Pukguksong-2,” These missiles use solid fuel, making them easier to load and harder to detect than liquid fuel rockets.

Perhaps, the best strategy that could be employed in the present context is to dissuade North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and insist on him on not embarking on brinkmanship by offering him carrots in terms of massive economic aid and energy requirements his country so desperately seeks. Along with ushering in viable confidence-building measures both at military as well as at non-military levels, perhaps, a path to diplomatic table such as resumption of Six-party talkswith some tangible deliverables along with a clear road map in the short term could be a real game changer.  

Perhaps, the best strategy that could be employed in the present context is to dissuade North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and insist on him on not embarking on brinkmanship by offering him carrots in terms of massive economic aid and energy requirements his country so desperately seeks. Along with ushering in viable confidence-building measures both at military as well as at non-military levels, perhaps, a path to diplomatic table such as resumption of Six-party talkswith some tangible deliverables along with a clear road map in the short term could be a real game changer. 

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Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam is Professor, Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi.  

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Dr Mohammed Badrul Alam
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