In his 2017 New Year’s Day Speech, Kim Jong-Un proclaimed that North Korea had entered “the final stage in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket.” Not many would have predicted that the same day, a year later, on January 1, 2018, he would proclaim that the country’s nuclear ambitions were now complete. In the same speech, he called for better relations with South Korea and struck an unusual conciliatory tone. Yet, the speech also carried a warning for the United States, when he quipped that “the launch button was always on the desk in his office.”
Such confidence stems from the fact that 2017 marked a quantum leap in the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes. As Dr. Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of political science at MIT and a member of MIT’s Security Studies Program, put it at a December 20, 2017 talk at Observer Research Foundation, “the pace and the sprint with which North Korea pursued its nuclear weapons program in 2017 is unmatched in human history.” Dr. Narang expressed astonishment to how a country tightened by the strictest sanctions regime in the modern era expanded its missile programme from short range missiles with compact fission devices to intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of a two-stage fusion reaction within a span of months.
Dr. Narang’s talk elucidated details in the North Korean programme and its aftershock on regional security dynamics. The event, chaired by Dr. Harsh V. Pant, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, sought to explain the rationale behind the programme and why an authoritarian regime that was never supposed to have succeeded in its nuclear ambitions ended up producing a missile that could strike metropolitan centres in the continental United States.
Dr. Narang pointed out that “a lot of things clicked at the same time, and this points to growing cooperation and information sharing within different missile teams, and possible competition with each other.” A core objective of North Korean nuclear strategy was to have the ability to strike the US homeland, and the Hwasong family of missiles made that possible. It began in May 2017 with the successful testing of Hwasong-12, giving North Korea the ability to strike US bases in the Western Pacific, including Guam. It then expanded to the lofted Hwasong-14 in the summer, which put the US west coast in range, and then ended with the inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-15 in November. The Hwasong-15 has a purported operational range of 13,000 km, and the ability to target the entire US homeland, notably cities in the eastern seaboard. Other tests involved the Pukkuksong class of submarine launched ballistic missile, which were the first canisterized solid fueled missiles to enter the North Korean inventory marking a move towards second-strike capability.
Dr. Narang termed the aims of North Korea as one of “full-spectrum deterrence,” similar in its strategic orientation to that of Pakistan’s. The 2017 missile tests, according to Dr. Narang, gave the North Korea the ability to deter American military actions on the Korean peninsula – conventional invasion, a disarmament attempt, or an attempted decapitation strike. A North Korean first-use of shorter range nuclear weapons against conventional US forces with an ICBM in reserve would deter the United States from launching a full-scale retaliatory strategic nuclear attack, given the risk to its homeland. This is a cause of worry for American allies like Japan and South Korea, who believe that the US will not come to their aid when its own cities are at risk from a high-yield city-busting device. This logic of ‘decoupling,’ – as it is known in the literature – in addition to Kim’s New Year’s Day outreach to South Korea further wedges America’s alliances in the region.
Washington’s rhetoric on North Korea has seen distinct shifts over the past one year and there is an increased inconsistency among the various branches of the US government on how to deal with the growing crisis. On one hand, there is the group that believes in the employment of ‘coercive diplomacy’ and on the other a hawkish coterie believes in a full-scale military action. Dr. Narang added that forced denuclearisation is a “Western fantasy”. He speculated that devolved command and control of the North Korean nuclear forces under wartime circumstances would meet any eventuality, giving the North Korean regime insurance against a decapitation attempt.
Few options remain available to national-security policymakers in Washington, D.C., who out of their own hubris remain skeptical of the entire programme and keep supporting a counter-force attempt, Dr. Narang claimed. The sceptics who doubt the re-entry capabilities of North Korean missiles only push scientists in Pyongyang to further demonstrate their advances. Dr. Narang expressed apprehension that further American instigation could result in a North Korean atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific, leading to escalation.
In the open discussion, Dr. Narang addressed questions on second-degree nuclear proliferation, the sanctions regime, anti-ballistic missile defence systems, the future of the missile programme, and the various countries that may have shared technical knowledge on nuclear weapons with North Korea. Dr. Narang was specifically distrustful of the empirical reliability of the missile-defence capabilities of the United States in the event of an ICBM attack by Pyongyang. According to him, Donald Trump’s inability to grasp the technicalities of the counter measures is a major issue.
Now, the moment has arrived when US strategy towards North Korea needs to change from denuclearization to deterrence, Dr. Narang opined.
(This report was written by Tuneer Mukherjee, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)