North Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Threat of Nuclear War in Korea
By Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce
April 21, 2011
This article was originally published by Pacific Focus in the April 2011 Special Issue: Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in Northeast Asia, which was produced in collaboration with Nautilus Institute staff and associates.
A version of this paper was also presented at the Nautilus Institute Research Workshop “Strong Connections: Australia-Korea Strategic Relations—Past Present and Future” in June of 2010.
Nautilus invites your contributions to this forum, including any responses to this report.
II. Article by Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce
V. Nautilus invites your responses
Peter Hayes, Professor, RMIT University and Nautilus Institute Executive Director, and Scott Bruce, Nautilus Institute Director, write, “We suggest that as of 2009, the DPRK made the ROK the main target of its nuclear strategy rather than the United States as was the case from 1991-2009. The sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan in 2010 provides a mini-case study of the collision of ROK and DPRK historical trajectories, and portends continuing clashes involving nuclear threat that need to be managed to avoid escalation to nuclear next-use. The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island in November 2010 may be the second in what proves to be a series of such risky provocations. We conclude the paper by outlining the advantages of a ROK-Japan only nuclear weapon free zone relative to alternative ROK responses to the threat posed by the DPRK nuclear breakout.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Nautilus Institute. Readers should note that Nautilus seeks a diversity of views and opinions on significant topics in order to identify common ground.
II. Article by Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce
-“North Korean Nuclear Nationalism and the Threat of Nuclear War in Korea” 
By Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce
We suggest that as of 2009, the DPRK shifted its primary goal from 1991-2009 from forcing the United States to change its hostile policy towards the DPRK to a multi-directional and flexible strategy that projects nuclear threat in many directions, but has focused on the ROK since 2009. The sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan in 2010 provides a mini-case study of the collision of ROK and DPRK historical trajectories, and portends continuing clashes involving nuclear threat that need to be managed to avoid escalation to nuclear next-use. The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 may be the second in what proves to be a series of such risky provocations.
…at a time when building of mutual confidence was needed more than at any other time for the successful progress of dialogue, the United States irritated our nerves by colluding with their follower forces and conducting various military exercises and made a racket about inspecting some combined readiness for attacking our Republic, under the pretense of coping with a ‘sudden change in the situation.’ It was time, they said, for “dialogue or war. It is time for the United States to clearly express its position.” With no response from the Obama administration the North Koreans moved toward another long range rocket launch in April. The response from the UNSC and the new US President put took dialogue off of the table for the time being. The KPA noted that it had “never pinned any hope on the six-party talks” and the Party declared that the DPRK would “never set its foot in the venue of the Six-Party Talks” again. The Cabinet had now fallen into line with the other institutions, indicating that there may have been a policy decision from Kim Jong-Il to build toward a second nuclear test. The Cabinet paper noted in April that, “had our Republic not built powerful deterrent … a nuclear war, would have broken out on the Korean peninsula”.  The second nuclear test was conducted on May 25, 2009.In the wake of the second nuclear test North Korea seems to have decoupled the nuclear program from relations with the United States. Rather than attempting to provoke a change in US policy or build the DPRK’s military strength the focus of the program appears to have been oriented toward stabilization at a time of leadership transition. After the test, stated the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was now “impossible… to even think about giving up…nuclear weapons”. Denuclearization was now redefined as negotiable only after a peace treaty between the United States and DPRK. Through Chinese channels in September Kim Jong-Il mentioned Kim Il Sung’s “dying behest” to achieve Korean denuclearization for the first time since 2005.  However, to reach this goal required that the antagonists in Korea first convert “hostile relations between the DPRK and the United States… to peaceful relations through DPRK-US bilateral talks” meaning that any discussions on denuclearization would need to follow a peace treaty. In March the Cabinet issued a final, almost resigned plea for dialogue: “[A]lthough we wish for dialogue and peace, we never beg.”  The KPA, far from settling the stage for further negotiations, expressed a willingness to use the DPRK’s arsenal offensively noting that, “those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army.”  The Party noted that the nuclear deterrent would “guarantee the supreme interests of the country and the defense of its security”.  Now a peace treaty was the goal, forced by nuclear threat, rather than denuclearization a pathway to resolving US-DPRK hostility. The nuclear card was off the table and no longer up for discussion.If indeed the DPRK has given up compelling the United States to change its policy as a lost cause—especially now that Obama is flanked by a radical republican majority in the US congress, then the DPRK leadership also free to focus its nuclear threat on whatever target generates the most return, whether it be economic, dealing with the United States, or reunification.Thus, with this radical change announced publicly, the question becomes: what is the primary target of the DPRK’s nuclear threat projection since 2009 and will it remain the same?4. What is the Primary Target?The single most critical fact about the March attack was that it was on a ROK, not an American warship. We infer that the attack on the Cheonan (and the subsequent artillery attack in November 2010) had two strategic goals. The first was to bring North Korean nuclear compellence to bear directly on the ROK and its reunification goal; the second was to force China to choose decisively to back the DPRK against the United States.By conducting these attacks, the DPRK induced the United States to respond in ways that activated Chinese concern about US forces in its sensitive coastal waters, and forced it to choose between backing the DPRK or face further instability in the Peninsula. When the first attack did not bring the desired US presence in the western ocean to a sufficiently threatening level, the DPRK attacked again, this time scoring the jack pot prize, that is, an aircraft carrier task force within easy flying distance of China. China responded sharply to these risks, refusing to condemn the DPRK, increasing its economic support, and pushing back against US naval deployments and ROK anti-Chinese rhetoric. In effect, the DPRK used its conventional forces combined with nuclear threat to force China to back it, and thereby ensure that its security patron was committed to keeping the United States at bay. This contrasted with the proliferation-breakout period (1989-2006) wherein the DPRK’s primary target was changing the United States’ relationship with the DPRK.This shift does not mean that the DPRK will desist at further efforts to compel the United States or other states to change their policies by projecting nuclear threat at them. Nor does it mean that the DPRK won’t continue to strive to extract some measure of deterrence against US nuclear or conventional attack or retaliation from its own nuclear capacities.  Rather, it means that the DPRK is using its nuclear weapons to leverage the threat posed by the great powers to each other to the DPRK’s advantage—not a game that the Nuclear Weapons States are used to playing with a small state. In a sense, the DPRK had adopted a Gaullist “touts azimut” or all points-of-the-compass nuclear strategy that will select targets of opportunity as they become evident, and will flexibly reshape its strategy in an improvised way on each occasion.In addition to manipulating great power relations to its own advantage, we suggested above that the DPRK may also be applying nuclear compellence as part of a renewed political-ideological push for reunification on North Korean terms. In this regard, being a “nuclear armed state” is the only dimension in which the DPRK can match or surpass the ROK’s overwhelmingly superior power capacities. The attack highlighted the ROK’s dependency on the United States for nuclear US-ROK response in conventional military terms (including the eventual postponement for months of anti-submarine warfare exercises in the area where the Cheonan was struck) underscored the perception of many influential South Korean leaders that the US nuclear deterrent is vacuous, when it is self-evident that the DPRK exploited an enduring conventional vulnerability in ROK military defence with great political effect, and paid no price. As we noted earlier, statements from the DPRK’s National Defense Commission that stands above the three primary agencies of the party, military and Cabinet deserve special attention. The May 28, 2010, statement by Pak Rim-su, Policy Department Director of the Commission, was such an extraordinary statement. On that date, Pak explained on North Korean television that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons were acquired to deal with the ROK’s anti-DPRK “confrontation” of which the Cheonan incident was merely one instance.  Stated Pak:As has been clearly confirmed today again, the recent incident of ship Chonan’s sinking is the shameless fabricated act and smear act that the South side conceived of thoroughly for the confrontation with the fellow countrymen. The fact that [South Korea] is going berserk in the anti-Republic confrontation in the entire region while picking on the incident of ship Chonan is a blatant declaration of war against us and a specially gross criminal act of driving North-South relations into a state of war, and thus, is the act of self-destruction of them digging up their own graves.
It was none other than to become prepared for an acute situation like today that we have devoted all our energy into strengthening the nuclear deterrent under the military-first banner. We firmly believe once again that it is perfectly just to have consolidated powerful military strength, including the nuclear deterrent, under the military-first banner.
Including nuclear weapons, our mighty physical means — our physical means — which the world is not yet able to even imagine or predict, are by no means an exhibit or an article in custody. In other words, it is not something to merely exhibit in a display case to look at, nor is it an article in custody to store, and store, in storage.
Indeed, now is the time to fully explode our military potential and to demonstrate the mettle of our revolutionary armed forces.The DPRK has been no less explicit in its external statements. On April 21, 2010, the DPRK issues its first in-depth statement of nuclear doctrine, including an explanation of its no first-use position first announced in 2006.  “The mission of the nuclear forces of the DPRK,” the statement reads, “is to deter and repel aggression and attack against the country and the nation until the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the world is realized. The DPRK is invariably maintaining the policy not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or threaten them with nuclear weapons as long as they do not join the act of invading or attacking us in conspiracy with nuclear weapons states.” This qualification is clearly targeted at the ROK and Japan, both of whom are in alliance with a nuclear weapon state (United States). Obviously, there is no objective way to determine what the DPRK perceives to be an invasion, an attack, or conspiratorial attack with a nuclear state. Consequently, there is no way to know when the DPRK no first-use commitment is operative, if ever. Thus, the ferocity and immediacy of the threats projected in the DPRK’s extraordinarily statement issued on March 26th –the same day as the Cheonan was sunk—are remarkable: “Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army and the just war to be waged by all the infuriated service personnel and people.” This extreme, exterminist rhetoric was reiterated a month later in the chilling, more formal language of the authoritative April 21st statement.  The ROK is no longer protected by DPRK nuclear weapons, as was declared in 2005. Now, it is a nuclear target so long as it is allied with the United States. The DPRK began to hammer on this theme in 2009, but then, it was aimed primarily at compelling the United States to change its negotiating stance.”  This time, the meaning is much clearer. In Pyongyang’s view, the ROK and its policies towards the DPRK, as well as its alliance with the United States, make it fair game for a DPRK nuclear first strike.Moreover, the DPRK denigrates the ROK for relying upon the United States to match the DPRK threats with countervailing nuclear threat, rather than either ignoring the DPRK threats, or matching them by developing a ROK nuclear force. To this end, North Korean writers portray the ROK leadership as seeking to confront the DPRK in a confrontation of “northward aggression” backed by “outside forces” (especially the United States).As one North Korean commentator wrote on April 19, 2010: “The conservative gang is willing to unhesitatingly light the fuse of a nuclear war in the land of the fatherland in cahoots and collaboration with the aggressors to realize its wild ambition for confrontation. It has now become clear beyond doubt that their harping on “cooperation over the nuclear issue” is a prelude to a nuclear war.” In short, the DPRK equates ROK reliance on US nuclear extended deterrence as “a racket of asking for a nuclear pre-emptive attack on us,”  and thereby characterizes the ROK leadership as traitorous and disregarding “the national soul.” This psychological warfare links the nuclear strategy back to the underlying, fundamental conflict between the ROK and the DPRK, which is indeed competition as to which Korea will inherit the mantle of Korean nationalism in the struggle to claim its place as the rightful guardian of the Korean “soul.” Domestically, nuclear armament justifies the arduous years of North Korean struggle and starvation. In one move, it devalues the overwhelming superiority of the ROK in economic status. How, after all, is one to measure who has legitimate claim to the “national soul?”
CONCLUSION: DPRK NUCLEAR NATIONALISM AND MILITARY ESCALATION
In developing its own path to security, there is no reason to believe that the North Koreans will be “strategically patient” as counselled by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  In fact, the United States does not have a meaningful policy towards the DPRK except for “containment” and is merely improvising its response today. Relying on additional nuclear threat will simply result in escalation of DPRK nuclear threat rhetoric and action. The obvious riposte to American-led action at the UN Security Council or interdicting DPRK ships is to complete its uranium enrichment plant, complete its pilot light water reactor, create its own nuclear alliance with another state, and/or stage a third nuclear test. Overall, the DPRK and American nuclear forces are involved in inter-Korean compellence games, not deterrence. This is a very dangerous situation that needs to be curtailed immediately—first and foremost by the North Koreans “advised” by China and Russia; and secondly, by the United States working with the South Koreans on the current conflict over the sinking of the Cheonan and the aftermath of the artillery exchange.The current cycle of escalation can spin out of control rapidly and result in an open conflict that would be very costly to all the states in the region. It is urgent that the United States find a new way to enter into a dialogue with the DPRK. The situation is urgent and demands US pro-active diplomacy far beyond the passive stance of patiently waiting for the two Koreas to sort out the latest imbroglio on the Peninsula and tightening sanctions against the DPRK. The Six Party Talks are a tired formula that events have rendered empty of meaning.The United States needs to find a new strategic framework for regional security management that is consistent with security imperatives on the one hand, and Obama’s Global Abolition agenda on the other. More of the same, including more nuclear threat projection as pressed by many strategists in Korea and Japan, will redound to the DPRK’s benefit and will not work.The essence of this strategy is not military, although the conventional military component is as or more important than ever. There is no military strategy to stop the risk of DPRK first or retaliatory use of nuclear weapons in Korea or against external targets. As has always been the case, conventional deterrence is what keeps the peace in Korea, to the extent that either side intends to attack the other today. If anything, nuclear threat is as likely to make people crazy and prone to do dangerous things as it is to concentrate the mind on the need to avoid and resolve conflicts—as demonstrated by historical accounts of nuclear crises. The DPRK’s nuclear narrative is based on one asset, and is brittle and weak. Its weaponized plutonium remains more of a psychological threat device than a deployed nuclear force at this stage. In particular, the DPRK has no way to field a secure retaliatory force against the United States, which in turn extends nuclear deterrence to the ROK and Japan. From a purely military perspective, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons are a strategic liability that complicate conventional operations for the KPA and divert command attention and forces that would be more usefully spent on conventional forces, already in a parlous state. In short, the DPRK’s nuclear weapon capacities mostly work at the psychological and political rather than the military level.If we are correct, then we would anticipate more low-level conventional attacks to exploit the DPRK’s new-found ability to threaten its neighbours behind its nuclear shield, and provocative actions designed to create alliance stress, to divide the great powers on the UN Security Council, and to demonstrate that the DPRK cannot be forgotten or ignored.In line with its resurgent anti-American strategy, this stance would include doing whatever it can to accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world to reduce the relative power of the American nuclear force;  and, as the DPRK media stated on July 5, 2010, “to further reinforce our nuclear deterrent as needed in a new developed method” —presumably a reference to the uranium enrichment at Yongbyon that was revealed to the world in November 2010. The attack on Yeonpyeong Island suggests that more provocations may be in store and we should indeed buckle up our seat belts.The only circumstance that we can imagine the DPRK entering into genuine negotiations with regard to denuclearization is one in which its leaders believe that the United States has irrevocably removed nuclear threat from targeting the DPRK should it become non-nuclear, and is willing to shift from a hostile to at least neutral stance with respect to the continued existence of the DPRK state, as it currently exists.We suggest that an effective strategy to devalue the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and to neutralize its nuclear aggression is not to rely on nuclear deterrence or war-fighting, but a far more compelling non-nuclear political strategy buttressed by credible conventional deterrence, and premised on unrelenting engagement—the dimension of greatest relative North Korean weakness and vulnerability.In our view, this strategy could be realized in this region by proposing a ROK-Japan Nuclear Weapon Free Zone on a treaty basis, leaving the door open for later accession to the treaty by the DPRK (once denuclearized, by whatever pathway).  Alternatively, the DPRK might be invited to join such a Zone at the outset by committing to its normative framework, but delaying its substantive compliance as occurred with Argentina and Brazil and the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Such a Zone would reduce pressure on the United States to serve as the nuclear hegemon by bringing the negative security assurances of all three nuclear weapon states into play in the region. It would be consistent either with a recessed nuclear deterrent that is fully “over-the-horizon” and never referred to; or to the elimination of traditional nuclear extended deterrence in bilateral alliances and its replacement by nuclear existential deterrence—the caution induced in crisis decision-making by the mere existence of nuclear weapons.  Moreover, in reality the reformed US nuclear posture has already transformed the military basis of traditional nuclear extended deterrence but the political and institutional bilateral and multilateral realities have yet to adjust to and catch up with this strategic reality.It would also deepen Japan’s existing commitment to remaining a non-nuclear weapon state—of profound concern to China–and reduce the nuclear threat posed to Japan and the ROK by Chinese nuclear forces. A Zone would also anchor American conventional forces in Korea for a long time, thereby establishing a buffer between China and Japan, and over time, becoming a pivotal rather than a partisan deterrent in Korea itself, so long as the division into two states remains.It could take years for such a Zone to finally bring about the denuclearization of the DPRK. Moreover, reciprocal steps, each contingent on the other moving forward simultaneously or in defined sequences, would need to be taken by the DPRK and the United States before the DPRK fully denuclearized, and the United States fully implements its negative security assurance to the DPRK as a party to a Zone. In the case of Argentina and Brazil, this phase of accepting and implementing all the non-nuclear requirements of the Tlatolelco Treaty took eighteen years. Hopefully, it would take less in the case of the DPRK in a Northeast Asian Zone. But a Zone is consistent and even designed to make a gradual approach more likely to work for the United States and the DPRK than the current, free-wheeling standoff. It is much more likely to bring about a reduction in DPRK threat perceptions, and to induce it to implement a no-first use commitment against non-nuclear states—that is, against the ROK and Japan—and to enable the United States and the DPRK to find ways to synchronize their positions in ways that serve each other’s interest in avoiding war and eliminating nuclear weapons from Korea.Finally, it must be emphasized, a Zone is the only way that the DPRK can obtain a legally binding, sovereign negative security assurance that the United States will not attack it with nuclear weapons should it revert to non-nuclear status. For this reason alone, it is imperative that the United States explore whether the DPRK might find a Zone interesting as a back-door re-entry to the NPT-IAEA system.It is urgent that the ROK develop such a countervailing strategy. It needs it to counter the DPRK’s nuclear threat, to reconstitute the nuclear component of its alliance with the United States, and to articulate a distinctively ROK middle power strategy at important global events which it will host over the coming years such as the second Global Nuclear Summit in 2012.
EPILOGUE: PEERING INTO THE BLACK HOLEIn writing this essay, we encountered methodological issues that we believe we should draw to the attention of the reader.In most nuclear weapon states, a researcher has access to official statements of policy or fact, open source media reports, unclassified primary (especially historical) and secondary literature, sometimes leaked or declassified official documents, and perhaps most important, the opportunity to interview officials and decision-makers who are retired or still in active duty.In the case of the DPRK, almost none of this material is accessible to the researcher except for official or officially approved public statements released via state-controlled media. Some have interviewed defectors or refugees to obtain first-hand information, but although such information may be useful, it is also biased and notoriously problematic. Occasionally, researchers talk “privately” with DPRK officials, and often the insight gained is highly illuminating. However, the basic research technique of cross-cutting and extensive interviews combined with a diverse array of unclassified and declassified contemporary and historical documentation is simply not feasible when analysing the “DPRK perspective” on any important topic, especially one like nuclear weapons.Thus, we declare loudly that this essay is provisional, even speculative, and may overstate the case that the DPRK has shifted from viewing the United States as its primary target of nuclear deterrence. Likewise, our related thesis–that its nuclear capacities gave the DPRK leadership the confidence to attack the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island—its first major military actions in violation of the Armistice in Korea for nearly four decades and the first under Kim Jong Il’s leadership—is also tentative. Many of the DPRK’s statements to which we referred may have competing interpretations based on context and timing.An alternative “reading” of the overall ebb and flow of events and DPRK actions and statements may be plausible. In fact, we encourage other researchers to challenge the selection and interpretation that we have made in assembling our own argument. We have also referred to specific objections made by reviewers of this essay in the text, in order to make the reader aware that when it comes to North Korea, one is dealing with a Black Hole research problem, that is, one in which light (information) goes in but does not come out; and what is visible is distorted by gravitational forces emanating from the Black Hole.Nonetheless, we assert that it is critically important to read what the leaders of a de facto nuclear weapons state like the DPRK are declaring, to themselves, their own population, and to the world—especially those statements that are aimed at the ROK and the United States. We also hold that when the domestic and international versions of key statements about nuclear weapons capacity and intention are closely aligned, and when all three core agencies—the party, the military, and the cabinet—speak with one voice, then there is a high probability that the leadership is expressing its actual perceptions and views rather than simply spewing vitriolic rhetoric aimed at achieving tactical effects in a negotiation or to distract attention from some other action.
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