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North Korea's Nuclear Poker Game
[Analysis] Such launches allow one of the world's poorest states to punch above its weight
Senan James Fox (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2009-04-27 09:27 (KST)   
In early March, the hermit dictatorship of North Korea under the leadership of its ailing "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il informed the international community of its intention to launch a "communications satellite" at any time between April 4 and April 8. This announcement bore fruit on April 5 when the rogue state's rocket shot towards the upper atmosphere, discharged its first stage over and into the East Sea/Sea of Japan, flew precariously over Honshu and then returned to earth to crash in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Japan and Hawaii. As satellite launches go; it was an abject failure, which saw the remainder of the rocket and its payload sink into the deep ocean rather than stay in orbit.

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Under normal circumstances among normal states, the launch of a communications satellite would not necessarily invoke much of a response from the international community. There is, however, nothing normal about North Korea. A brief reminder of recent history exemplifies the reasons why Japan and her ally the US are so concerned about the ramifications of such a launch. For Tokyo and Washington, the proclaimed communications satellite launch was a mere smoke screen aimed at sidestepping UN resolution 1718 - banning any ballistic activity by North Korea, and just another move in the reclusive state's ongoing nuclear poker game with the outside world. As this nuclear gamble goes, the launch was a success for the simple reason that it highlighted the potential of the impoverished state to fit a nuclear warhead to such a rocket and fire it over long distances with the possibility of striking areas of the United States including Hawaii and Alaska. The North Koreans publicly reject this claim, and the Chinese and the Russians accept Pyongyang's explanation for the launch. The US and Japan however remain unconvinced for sound reasons.

1994 was the year when the first hands were dealt in this nuclear poker game with the signing of an agreement between the Clinton administration and the North Koreans in which Pyongyang agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for assistance with the construction of non-military related nuclear power reactors that could address North Korea's crippling energy shortage. Some four years later however, the North Koreans launched the Taepodong-1 missile in August 1998 which flew directly over Japan and landed in the Pacific. In the following year, Pyongyang promised to halt its missile tests only to threaten to resume its nuclear weapons program and tests following frustration surrounding the progress of the earlier agreement on the nuclear reactors. By 2002, the regime publicly admitted its nuclear weapons program in violation of the 1994 agreement. Not for the first time, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty a year later and announced that it had reactivated its nuclear power facilities.

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July 2006 also witnessed the unannounced launching of Taepodong-2 and half a dozen other missiles. In October of the same year, the region was rocked by the announcement that the impoverished state had carried out a test explosion of a nuclear device; and it was clear that North Korea was proceeding to develop rockets that could carry a nuclear payload over longer distances, even extending as far as the west coast of mainland USA. The response by the international community was to adopt a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution threatening harsh sanctions against Pyongyang should it decide to proceed with its nuclear activities.

While the stakes are not as yet as high for the wider world, recent days have seen developments reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold in North-east Asia. Both publics in South Korea and Japan held their breath as their political leaders sought to prevent panic and alarm and yet at the same time appear tough and resolute. US and Japanese destroyers at sea, and patriot missiles on land were positioned to deal with any contingency following the launch. March also witnessed large scale air and sea exercises by the US, Japan and South Korea aimed at deterring the launch. Spying missions likewise increased. Commercial flights were redirected, military forces put on high alert, and citizens beneath the missile's flight path kept on tenterhooks in the moments before, during and after the launch. The sense of alarm amongst the Japanese public was exacerbated by a number of false alarms prior to the launch. The predicted speed of the rocket meant grave decisions on how to react were expected to be made literally within a few minutes.

Given the number of what might have beens that fortunately did not come to pass, it is not surprising to see the US, Japan and South Korea express disgust at the willingness of Pyongyang to seriously risk a war in the pursuit of its political objectives. What might have been had the rocket or debris landed on Japanese soil or injured or killed Japanese citizens? This was a real possibility given the proven unworthiness of the Taepodong class missile, the launch of a similar rocket over Japan in 1998, and the failed test launch in 2006 that saw the projectile crash into the Sea of Japan in a matter of minutes after launch. What might have been if the rocket or debris began to fall on Japanese territory, and the Japanese (or their American allies) had fired at it as they (the Japanese) had warned should such a scenario unfold? How would the North Koreans have reacted to such an action which they had declared recently as "an act of war" should it have happened? Who would envy the position of the US and China as they grappled in such a scenario to prevent an outbreak in hostilities while soothing the heated demands for decisive action, particularly from Japan. All this, Kim Jong-Il and his cadres were willing to risk for their domestic and foreign policy ends.

From the foreign policy perspective, such launches allow one of the world's poorest states to punch above its weight and wave the nuclear stick in order to extract carrots in the form aid and energy concessions. Domestically, the state's propaganda machine paints missile launches as evidence of their state's prestige and prowess in the face of their "imperialist" adversaries - the US and its "lackeys" Japan and South Korea. It also serves as a useful distraction from the dire economic circumstances that the state and its citizens live in. As Brian Myers, a North Korean expert at Dongseo University in South Korea observes: "When you are unable to feed your people, if you cannot give them food, you have to at least give them pride. If he is unable to do that, then he does face a legitimation crisis." Such launches likewise conveniently serve to undermine claims that the sixty-seven year old "Dear Leader" is losing his grip on power in the months following a suspected stroke in August last year while easing the way towards an eventual but unconfirmed transition in power to the dictator's youngest son, Kim Jong-un.


This recent launch is arguably just another high risk play in a nuclear poker game through which the one man, one party Stalinist state led by its "Dear Leader" aims at squeezing economic concessions from the US, Japan and South Korea, cutting down on a crippling defence budget, and ensuring a deadly deterrent against invasion from the so called "imperialist warmongers" of the West that has yet to materialize.

Force or the threat of force remains North Korea's most effective bargaining chip. The post Sept. 11 political climate and events in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the over-stretching of the American military global commitment to its allies and thus has provided North Korea with an opportunity to exert pressure. It has also resulted in what writer David Ignatius terms - the development of a "Baghdad or Islamabad" mentality in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il having convinced himself that the possession of nuclear arms in pre-occupation Iraq would have prevented Saddam Hussein's removal from power. The geo-political realities of North Korea have also caused the untested Obama administration to opt for tough diplomacy rather than force or the threat of it to coax Kim Jong-Il to the negotiating table. Deterrents to military force include the geographical location of North Korea within the Chinese sphere of influence where China (and Russia) have been reluctant to put greater pressure on the crippled hermit state. There is also the immense firepower and manpower of the North Korean military, the fifth largest army in the world, relative to its size and population. This reality and the likelihood of a devastating war on the peninsula make US military action very unlikely. Pyongyang, while often stating the threat of a US-led invasion, is aware of these realities and knows that it can push this very risky nuclear issue.

Nowhere are these realities more apparent than in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) - a two hundred and forty-one kilometer long, four kilometer wide corridor that separates Korea, north and south. In order to fully understand the potential for a serious conflict, one must appreciate the military build-up on both sides. At any given time, there is a trip-wire force of more than 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, mostly along the DMZ. These are backed up by a combined force of more than 700,000 South Korean military personnel. Even when compared with the more technologically advanced US and South Korean armed forces, the north's military capabilities are still immense. The North Korean deterrent includes active forces totaling 1.14 million men, seventy percent of whom are positioned within 160 kilometers of the DMZ, with a reserve of 7.45 million and special forces personnel that reaches the 100,000 mark. Its missile capability ranges from 600 and 750 ballistic missiles with a capability of hitting targets in South Korea, Japan and even as far away as Alaska and Guam. In terms of artillery, the communist state has an estimated 13,000 well-concealed light to heavy artillery sites including 4,000 near the DMZ and between 200 to 300 within range of Seoul, 64 kilometers south of the DMZ.

North Korea also has one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenals, including mustard, sarin and V-agents which can be fitted if need be to warheads aimed at its adversaries. Biological weaponry includes anthrax, typhoid and yellow fever agents. US military reports on the consequences of a military option against North Korea concluded that even a non-nuclear war would require at least four months of very high intensity combat with a necessary half a million US troops and more than 600,000 South Korean troops engaged in the fighting. A military attack from the north would almost certainly result in the leveling of Seoul, a city of over ten million people. Indeed, when asked in 1994 about the likely outcome of a war on the peninsula, the former chief of US forces in Korea, General Gary Luck, foresaw a million casualties, including 52,000 American dead or wounded within the first 90 days, more than $100 billion in costs to the US, and a trillion dollars in economic damage. It is not surprising then that the US has shied away from threatening military force in its dealings with North Korea despite the significant threat that it poses to its ally, Japan, and to its own territory.

Kim Jong-Il's growing economic problems, worsened by excessive defence spending, and the diplomatic deadlock and tensions of recent years also explains why the dictator has pulled the nuclear card from the deck. Intent on showing its willingness to defend itself against the US and its allies, and anxious about an economic collapse from within, worsened by exorbitant defence spending; Kim Jong-Il, has decided to use the threat of nuclear capability to solve his economic and security problems. He has, it seems, taken the morose Cold War nuclear weapons maxim "Low Cost, High Yield," to heart. Pyongyang's nuclear card forces the region's powers to prioritise negotiations with North Korea. Without a solid and unified diplomatic solution between the Six-Party regional powers, the crisis may, in the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei's words, "open 'a Pandora's box'" with "disastrous political repercussions." Experts are unanimous in their view that Kim Jong-Il's primary concern is not his starving people but rather his and his family's grip on power. Under current circumstances, it is likely that the North Korean regime will hold the region to ransom with the precarious nuclear card up their sleeves for years to come.
Senan James Fox is a Ph.D. research candidate in northeast Asian affairs at the University of Saint Andrews, UK.
©2009 OhmyNews

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