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North Korea: Playing Russian Roulette of the Nuclear Variety?

Justin Dargin, a geopolitics expert from the University of Oxford, speaks to Fair Observer's Nishtha Chugh about the implications of North Korea’s nuclear program and why its latest test is essentially a show of strength by its young leader.

Nishtha Chugh: What is your evaluation of North Korea’s nuclear program compared to other nuclear states and industry technical know-how? Where do you think it stands?

Justin Dargin: North Korea is a very recent nuclear state. It has conducted three nuclear tests so far, with the latest one conducted in February this year. When it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, which was conducted underground, it did not produce the desired results and was widely perceived to be a “failure.” However, North Korea has made enormous progresses since then. With each successive nuclear test, the country has made substantial inroads into developing its nuclear technical know-how. Test yield is a significant indicator of that. The first test, it is believed, produced less than one kiloton in yield, which was a bit insubstantial. But the next test in 2009 was about 2.45 kilotons. The latest device tested earlier this year has drawn in a mix of estimates, but the consensus is that it was between 6 to 7 kilotons. It means that North Korea nearly indigenously has improved its nuclear know-how and technical skills immensely and without much outside help. Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist from Stanford University, has visited North Korea about seven times and has had access to the Yongbyon facility. The last time he was allowed into the country was in 2010 and he was quite surprised by the level of sophistication of Yongbyon, perhaps even shocking. He said that their nuclear facility had the latest technology and would not have looked out of place in the US.

Chugh: How much of North Korea’s latest success do you think can be attributed to the clandestine help it received from Pakistan’s infamous nuclear scientist AQ Khan?

Dargin: North Korea has had a secret nuclear program since 1980s but it became part of AQ Khan’s network sometime in the 1990s. It is believed that North Korea obtained Chinese origin blueprints for nuclear bomb development. Combining that with the knowhow it received from Khan pushed it in the right direction. Khan, who was a nuclear proliferator, and was caught later, did provide the impetus to North Korea’s nuclear program. However, help came from another vital repository of skills. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were a lot of out-of-work Russian scientists who were willing to apply their skills in exchange for monetary inducements. We do not know for certain, but it is quite possible that former Soviet nuclear scientists could have assisted them. But beyond that it’s mostly due to their indigenous skills. The fact that they have ‘military first’ policy means they were able to funnel the majority of their revenues into developing the program, and nuclear weapons have been a priority.

Chugh: Is the level of worry in international community commensurate with the threat North Korea poses?

Dargin: There are several dimensions to the threat the country poses currently. On one hand you have the more immediate threat of North Korea being a somewhat unstable and somewhat radical nuclear powered, and we do not know what exactly it is going to do. And that is a direct threat to its neighbors and to the world, indeed. But then there’s also another threat. If we want to stop nuclear proliferation globally, then North Korea represents a wild card. I would say that North Korea is not the last step, but its actions encourage other states to try to set up their own nuclear weapons programs. This would either be, as is likely the case with Iran, nuclear weapons as an “insurance policy” against foreign intervention. Or it is due to the fact that its neighbors feel threatened and may seek nuclear weapons of their own for deterrence purposes. Nonetheless, if Iran succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, then it is likely that the dream of non-proliferation will die and governments across the world would will-nilly attempt to develop their own nuclear weapons programs.

But in my view North Korea is representative of certain countries that are afraid of what they perceive as Western domination. This reflects the lessons we learned from the Iraq war. Of course, Iraq was, to a certain degree, supposed to serve as a clear demonstration of what would happen if a country attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction. But in contrast to what the neoconservatives intended, what many countries are taking from the Iraq lesson is that if you have nuclear weapons then you will not be invaded. Actually, what the example of Iraq has served to do in my view is to encourage these countries to consider nuclear weapons development. Therefore, North Korea represents that type of wild card where the philosophy is: we have nuclear weapons, we are not afraid, and the US and the international community can do nothing about it. And this feeds into another dimension of this threat. For example, if South Korea and Japan feel that US security guarantees are not going to be viable in the future, they will then start thinking about building up their own nuclear weapons just for defense and deterrence purposes.

Chugh: It is often said about North Korea that it’s a nuclear state with a begging bowl. What strategic or tactical purpose is North Korea looking to achieve by making nuclear threats against South Korea, the US and the international community, especially when it depends on them to feed its people?

Dargin: Historically, whenever North Korea has made bold threats it has received substantial concessions from the US and from the international community. We can, therefore, say that North Korea is a rentier state in that it uses intimidation to get what it wants. Its past practices tell us that the country leverages threats to obtain more concessions from the international community.

Chugh: So it’s essentially rewarding bad behavior? Do you think the international committee can continue supplying aid to feed the North Koreans despite its regime’s aggressive posturing?

Dargin: Yes. If we look at what happened historically, I think this is still valid because the international community does not want war. No one really has the appetite to go to war with North Korea because it would be extremely bloody. North Korea is not Libya, nor Iraq. It is a well-organized state with massive amounts of weaponry. The international community would attempt nearly anything in order to get North Korea to at least halt proliferation on one hand, and also try to rein in its nuclear development. Therefore, yes, to achieve those ends, I conclude that the international community will continue giving concessions to North Korea. Also because there’s really nothing else they can do. North Korea has shown it has the ability to indigenously develop its own nuclear weapons, and it will continue to do so and make pretty significant advancements with that.

Chugh: Yongbyon reactor was mothballed in 2007. And now North Korea has announced that it is going to restart it. How significant is this decision in the current situation?

Dargin: This reactor became functional in 1985 and was more or less a plutonium-reprocessing unit. Yongbyon provided fissile material for at least two of North Korea’s nuclear tests and is considered to be a central node in its nuclear program. According to observations made by Siegfried Hecker, the plutonium program at Yongbyon has taken a back seat and now the regime is focusing on developing uranium enrichment technology. If we look at Yongbyon currently, it does not have a nuclear weapons focus whatsoever. It has a fuel-processing unit as well as a light water reactor. Yongbyon is more or less for civilian power generation and there is not too much doubt about that. Currently, the reactor produces about two tons of low-enriched uranium, which is only viable for power generation. However, Yongbyon can be reconfigured quite easily in about 6 to 9 months, allowing North Korea to develop nuclear bombs based on highly enriched uranium. There is still some ambiguity about the latest test it carried out in February, with it appearing to be uranium-based. And this I think is significant. Plutonium-based facilities are very large and very difficult to hide, whereas uranium-based facilities are much smaller and you can construct one underground. They are much more difficult to spot by spy satellites. When North Korea said it was going to re-adjust and restart Yongbyon, what I take that to mean is that it’s going to transition to producing highly enriched uranium, which means it is going to be for weaponization purposes.

Chugh: Has North Korea pushed the international community too far this time?

Dargin: I personally don’t think so, although North Korea has gone quite far as of late. In the beginning, most policy makers viewed this as “normal” North Korean rhetoric. North Korea always objects to the annual war games between South Korea and the US, so there was nothing new in its animosity in that regard. However, it is the shrillness of its rhetoric that was a bit unusual. Additionally, enhanced sanctions that followed North Korea’s February nuclear test also left the government extremely upset. So there are several factors surrounding the current situation —some are international, others are domestic. Kim Jong-un, who came to power after his father died, is still very young — he is really a lad — and had been promoted up the ranks very rapidly.

What I assess is the reason for his recent actions — although I don’t know for certain — is a type of consolidation of power. Even in 2009, when North Korea conducted its second test, Kim Jong-il was ill and I took that to mean that it was a demonstration of strength and power even while its leader was quite infirm. It seems to be meant to convey that even though Kim Jong-il may have been ill, the country was not weak and would not collapse. It appears to be a similar situation now; this young man wants to show that he can stand up to the West, if it attempts to conduct war games on the Korean Peninsula. And he wants to show that he can intimidate South Korea and Japan.

Chugh: What do you anticipate will happen next?

Dargin: That’s anyone’s guess. But what I think is that we are at a great critical phase at the moment. There is a lot of military hardware that is jostling around due to the military exercises. Also, North Korea readied its combat and artillery forces. So I mean, we have a very volatile situation where, due to the war games, there are so many military forces on the Korean Peninsula. And the chance for there to be a miscalculation, I think, is much greater now than it would be in any other period. This is due to the fact that there is currently so much hardware on the peninsula. Also, we must consider the fact that Kim Jong-un is so young as well as new in his role. At the same time, President Park of South Korea is a freshly minted president who has to make a show of strength.

I think some type of limited border skirmish leading to an uncontrollable slide to a general war is the greatest fear. I can’t say for certain what is going to happen, but I can outline some scenarios: if there is military provocation from North Korea against South Korea, then there will be a definite response. The US and South Korea will not sit by idly and allow that to happen. I think they believe they will have to strike North Korea — not strike it in terms of all-out war, but just enough to show that if it does something then it will be punished. This policy can also lead to escalation.  Therefore, if there is some type of military provocation from North Korea, or if North Korea misinterprets some aspect of the war games or a military maneuverfrom the Unites States, the risk is quite high for both sides to then engage in brinkmanship.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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