Given North Korea’s general restiveness lately, Korea-watchers have been on edge lately, especially as it seems that there may be another long-range missile test in the offing—or even a nuclear test.
The fact that April 15 marks the birthday of Kim Il-sung—sort of the country’s George Washington—only heightens the tension. Much like what used to happen in Red Square on May Day, North Korea’s leaders seem to use this national holiday as an occasion to display their country’s military might. So this weekend would seem to be a particularly likely time for a test or a military display of some kind, as Science and Security Board member Sharon Squassoni noted in a popular magazine, in “What you should know about North Korea and their nuclear weapons threats.” Indeed, the BBC reported from Pyongyang that during the traditional parade in the city, there were what appeared to be Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 600 miles, and which were displayed for the first time. “Weapons analysts said there also appeared to be two new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in canister launchers, but it remains unclear whether they have been tested and Pyongyang has yet to announce it has an operational ICBM,” said the BBC News report.
This spotlight on Pyongyang means that this is a good time to take another look at some Bulletin stories that delve into what has been happening lately in the so-called “Hermit Kingdom.” And to discredit some common tropes in the media, such as the idea that “North Korea is about to collapse,” “China has a lot of influence over North Korea,” “North Korea can credibly threaten the United States right now,” “North Korea has no reason to feel threatened,” or “The North can be completely denuclearized.”
North Korea is about to collapse? For decades, pundits have been saying that North Korea is in imminent danger of collapse from within—and for decades, the regime has stubbornly stayed in place, observes noted Asia scholar Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago’s history department. Cumings wrote a history of the Korean War, was the principal consultant on a six-hour-long Korean War PBS documentary, and has been interested in the region ever since he served in South Korea in the Peace Corps in 1967. In this essay for the Bulletin’s Journal (normally behind a paywall but now free) titled Getting North Korea wrong, Cumings foresees no coming collapse: “[North Korea] has survived in part because it has diverged so fundamentally from Marxism-Leninism. It revived a political tradition that harks back to the ancient neo-Confucian ideology that was the ruling doctrine of Korea’s old Choson Dynasty for centuries (1392–1910). This traditional Asian school of thought said that the state had its model in the family, with the leader serving as father of the people and his main function being to educate and transform his subjects by personal rule and moral example, thereby standing Marx on his head.”
“Among other things, neo-Confucian ideology emphasized clearly defined hierarchies, centralized bureaucracy, obedience to the state, and social stability—elements that would prove to be of great use to today’s regime. North Korea has evolved into a modern form of monarchy that, along with the fourth-largest military in the world, provides the glue that has kept the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea calls itself] politically stable while everything else collapsed …”
China has a lot of influence over North Korea? Another piece of commonly held wisdom is that China can readily pull strings in North Korea. And as Cumings (again) noted over a year ago in our pages in The North Korea that can say no, this is not the case, citing the time when Chinese president Xi Jinping openly stated that Pyongyang’s actions threatened world peace—and in a fit of pique, Pyongyang responded by blowing off several short- and medium-range missiles on the eve of Xi’s visit to Seoul in July 2014. “North Korea’s obstreperous behavior, so exasperating to foreign powers, might also be seen as a Game Theory 101 strategy by a small country surrounded by bigger powers who, when all is said and done, really don’t like their smaller neighbor. Roar loudly, beat your chest, threaten all manner of mayhem, and recall Muhammad Ali’s maxim: ‘I don’t have to be who you want me to be.’ ”
North Korea can credibly threaten the United States right now? Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has been to North Korea seven times, and even set foot in the country’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. As he notes in an interview in January 2016 titled Hecker assesses North Korean hydrogen bomb claims, while the country has been very aggressively pursuing weaponry that is larger and capable of traveling great distances, they still face hurdles in striking the US mainland. “North Korea wants to demonstrate it has a deterrent. To do so, it needs to be able to credibly threaten the US mainland or our overseas assets. For that, you have to make the bomb (more correctly, the warhead) small enough to mount on a missile,” he wrote. “North Korea is still a long way off from being able to strike the US mainland. It has only had one successful space launch. It needs a lot more, but it has a large effort in that direction.”
North Korea has no reason to feel threatened? It takes two to tango, as the old saying goes, and North Korea’s fears don’t come out of a complete vacuum. The Korean peninsula has a long history of attacks by outside forces, stretching back centuries. It was invaded by China several times, and was even an outright colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945. During the Korean War, the North was bombed to bits, and even subject to mock nuclear attacks with dud conventional bombs. Consequently, Pyongyang views just about any of today’s nuclear-capable aircraft as a threat. This can be seen in an Associated Press interview with North Korean Vice President Han Song Ryoi in Pyongyang that was conducted on April 14 and titled N. Korean official: Ready for war if Trump wants it. The story notes that “The annual US-South Korea military exercises have consistently infuriated the North, which views them as rehearsals for invasion. Washington and Seoul deny that, but reports that exercises have included ‘decapitation strikes’ aimed at the North’s leadership that have fanned Pyongyang’s anger.”
“Han said Trump’s tweets have also added fuel to the flames.”
And Pyongyang feels that when it comes to negotiations, it was led down the garden path: By its logic, while the North admittedly stretched the limits of what was allowed under the 1994 Agreed Framework, from its point of view the George W. Bush administration was responsible for actually killing the Agreed Framework outright.
(But to be fair, as Hecker noted in 2015 in The real threat from North Korea is the nuclear arsenal built over the last decade, this was not a failure of US policy alone—South Korea’s policies vacillated greatly during this time, none of them proving successful. “China placed peace and stability ahead of denuclearization, along with the United Nations.”)
The North can be completely denuclearized? For all of the above reasons, it may well be that when it comes to North Korea, there will never be a complete denuclearization, wrote Andrei Lankov in one of the Bulletin’s Roundtables on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, titled The Korean compromise to come. (The entire series of expert commentaries in this Roundtable was extremely illuminating, and we strongly urge readers to look at them all.) Lankov writes: “Sure, proponents of sanctions and pressure will peddle their arguments for years and even decades to come. Believers in an ‘Iranian-style’ diplomatic solution will do the same. But one can be fairly certain by now that no degree of economic pressure, no economic reward, will persuade North Korean decision makers to surrender their nuclear weapons—which they see as their only security guarantee …”
“Beyond sanctions, the best and most realistic approach—or rather, the ‘least bad’ approach—is to negotiate a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Such a deal would in some sense be a new version of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which succeeded in slowing the North’s nuclear program. Under the framework, North Korea agreed to freeze operations and then dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors. In exchange, it was to receive regular shipments of crude oil and two light water reactors for electricity generation.”
“Under an updated version of the agreement, North Korea would impose a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. It would give inspectors access to its nuclear facilities. In exchange, Pyongyang would receive food, humanitarian and development aid on a regular basis, along with political concessions—perhaps including some form of diplomatic relations or recognition. The agreement would explicitly state or implicitly accept that North Korea could keep its existing nuclear devices.”