Sunday, September 10, 2017

Comment on North Korean Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs


In the ‘The Mouse that Roared’ a 1955 novel by Irish writer Leonard Wibberley is about a  tiny country in Europe that feels compelled to declare war against the United States in order to be defeated and get aid.  Instead, through a series of mishappenings, Fenwick acquires a prototype doomsday device—the Q Bomb—and defeats the United States. 
            The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereinafter “North Korea” or “DRPK”) is indeed a modern-day Fenwick, a mouse that roars in the international arena, except that (i) it is very much real; (ii) regime defeat may not be a viable an option; and (iii) its “Q Bomb” arsenal of real nuclear weapons and missiles is not humorous.
            U. S. President George W. Bush came close to drawing a red line on the North Korean nuclear issue in May 2003, when he declared that the United States and South Korea “will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea.”[1]  Three years later President Bush’s tolerance had grown…
            It is the responsibility of U.S. policymakers is to secure the safety of the homeland.  If a nuclear North Korea is seen as a threat to the vital security interests of the United States, it is a problem that must be addressed in earnest.[2]  
Much has been written on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.[3]  I do not offer any comments on the writings; they speak for themselves.  There appears, however, a lack of historical context or comparative framework with which to better assess North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and prospects.  As a firm believer in never reinventing the wheel, it is worthwhile to review the strategic literature of the Cold War to understand North Korea’s capabilities and prospects in a historical context.
Preliminarily, North Korea’s ‘songun’ (military first) ideology and derivative policies are ideal for military development.  “Songun politics is rooted in the military-priority ideology that embodies the Juche idea.”[4]    “The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction.”[5]  In more practical terms this means that “The Korean people value the independence of the country and nation and, under the pressure of imperialists and dominationsts [sic], have thoroughly implemented the principle of independence, self-reliance and self-defence [sic], defending the country’s sovereignty and dignity firmly.”[6]
At the first session of the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK In September 1998, Kim Jong Il declared that the politics of the DPRK is Songun politics “and established full the mode of Songun politics”[7] with the National Defense Commission as its focus.  “It is like this, that the Songun politics of the party is the main political mode of socialism…”[8] 
As I have argued elsewhere, North Korea clearly has chosen to pursue nuclear-based security to prevent itself from being coerced politically and militarily by the United States, and gain political respect and legitimacy as a regional power. The nuclear option is insurance against defeat and/or humiliation at the hands of the United States, South Korea, or anyone else.[9] 
So how does the Songun ideology translate and provide strategic direction and guidance to the DPRK’s leadership?  In order to address this question, it is useful to do a comparative study with respect to Soviet weapons procurement and security policies particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s as the DPRK’s current development is at a similar stage. 
In examining the factors affecting Soviet military procurement and actions in the early 1970s, Carl Jacobsen observed that concern for Chinese (or Japanese) capabilities and prospects did not figure extensively in this calculus because of several considerations.[10]  These same considerations apply to 2017 North Korea:  North Korea’s nuclear warheads are neither sophisticated nor numerous; her missiles are first generational with regard to vulnerability, operational and in-flight control and accuracy—they have a high rate of failure expectancy (degradation factors); it does not possess the technology to either build a protective ballistic missile defense complex, or to penetrate even a limited BMD deployed by an opponent.  North Korea’s technology is at a level of the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1950s.  It is vulnerable to a take-out first strike by the United States.[11]
Further, Jacobsen makes a very important point:  “[C]apabilities do not necessarily mirror intentions.” [12]  The paraphrase Jacobsen, the new power and sophistication of the DPRK might in fact reflect a determination to achieve security and flexibility usually associated with superpowers. [13] Translated into political terms, this equates to regime security and survival.   “It does not justify inferences of aggressive designs, whether based on nationalism or ideology.”[14]  In this regard, as it was for the Soviet Union, it is likely that in the DPRK, “[n]either nationalistic impulses nor ideological aspirations are permitted to obscure strategic realities.”[15]           
Clearly, the North Korean leadership from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un is very much aware of the strategic realities of American power “(political leaders must know the potentialities of strategy…’)”[16] In 2006 the Korean People’s Army General Staff issued statements declaring in no uncertain terms that the DPRK would not suffer the same “miserable fate” of Iraq.[17]   Again in January 2017, the Korean People’s Army General Staff issued statements declaring in no uncertain terms that the DPRK would not suffer the same “miserable fate” of Iraq and other Middle East countries.[18]   The continuity in declaratory policies have been made certain by strategic initiatives that followed:  acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities in 2006 and the acquisition of long-range delivery systems for its nuclear weapons in 2017.[19]  
The evolution of the DPRK’s armed forces similarly parallel to some degree those of the Soviet Union.[20] Upon acquiring nuclear weapons, the DPRK’s capabilities were largely confined to the Korean Peninsula and perhaps Japan. 
Unlike the Soviet Union, however, the DPRK has not sought long-range strike capabilities through bomber forces, for the obvious reason that South Korea is very close and the vulnerability of such a force to US attack.  Rather, the DPRK opted for missile development and particularly long-range missile developments.  Such capability relates “primarily to first-strike calculations.”[21]  Like the USSR in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the DPRK is developing a ‘force de frappe’; it has not attained an assured second-strike force.[22]   Thus, the DPRK’s strategic priority is that of developing an effective first-strike deterrence against what it sees as its most dangerous threat:  the United States.
Interestingly another reason why Khrushchev opted for missile development was the demobilization of particularly the land forces of the Soviet armed forces which took place at that time.[23]  The reasons for such demobilization were largely economic:  the need for manpower and financial resources for economic development.[24]   Such reasons must likewise have been factored into the DPRK’s strategic assessments.  In this regard, one factor that has not been addressed is the impact of the 1990s famines on military manpower pool.  Estimates vary but according to a report issued by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, “Between 1996 and 1999, it is estimated that between 450,000 and 2 million people starved to death.”[25]  Given that DPRK’s estimated population is 25,248,140[26], this means that between 1.8 percent to 7.9 percent of the population of the DPRK perished.  Regardless whether the high or low is correct (the answer is probably somewhere in between) the point is that this must have a significant impact on the availability of military-age manpower vis-à-vis the manpower requirements of the economy. 
Moreover, despite Songun ideology there appear to be indicators that this is precisely what Kim Jong Un is planning; and that in fact he is a good economic manager.   Kim Jong Un reformed agriculture (similar to Lenin’s New Economic Policy with a rise in NEPmen) and has encouraged private markets.[27]  Moreover, despite the closing of the Kaesong Economic Zone by former South Korean President Park Kuen Hae and the ongoing sanctions, last year the gross domestic product (GDP) of the DPRK grew by around 3.9 percent.[28]  What is of particular interest in this area is that the Korean Worker’s Party held its 7th Party Congress from May 6 to May 9, 2016, after a 36-year hiatus.  Frank Ruediger of the University of Vienna most appropriately titled the Congress “A Return to a New Normal.”[29]
Kim Jong Un refrained from following the typical socialist fallacy of promoting producer goods over consumer goods. Rather, he emphasized the need for a balanced development of the sectors of the national economy. In fact, he even sounded slightly critical of past economic policies when he stressed that past investments, which were mainly in the economy’s foundations, need to translate into actual improvements of the people’s lives. Developmental economists will feel reminded of the debate between supporters of balanced and unbalanced growth in the 1960s. Once again, we see that many of North Korea’s problems are far from unique.[30]

In any case, if historical parallel is a guide, it will be interesting to see whether the DPRK begins to demobilize its large land forces.  On the other hand, given the proximity of South Korea with its own large forces, demobilization of DPRK’s land forces may not necessarily be a foregone conclusion.  It is hoped that the intelligence collection agencies of the United States, Republic of Korea, and other interested parties are closely monitoring the annual military service conscription calls as well as individual units status.
Another benefit of the DPRK’s ‘force de frappe’ is perhaps an aura of ‘superpower’ status, a political benefit sought by a regime who lacks a sense of security.  What can be said is that at the very least, it adds credibility to the DPRK’s partly illusory strength assertions, with the intentions of bolstering its deterrent image.
Concluding thought:  At this stage, the problem we face with a nuclear-armed North Korea is the possibility that in a confrontation, a weaker North Korea may opt for the grave risk of mutual devastation to unilateral defeat.   Furthermore, if Soviet strategic history is a guide, the ‘what can be expected next’ is the development of the DPRK’s true counter-force capabilities.

[1] David E. Sanger, “For U.S., a Strategic Jolt After North Korea’s Test”, The New York Times, October 11, 2006 (accessed on December 26, 2016)
[2] Other views contend that after the fall of the Soviet Union, we are in search of enemies.  If North Koreans did not exist, we would have invented them. For purposes of this paper, I assume North Korea nuclear weapons to be a vital security threat to the United States.

[3] For example, North Korea's nuclear weapons: What now? “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”, accessed September 7, 2017;

Arms Control Association, Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy,, accessed September 7, 2017;  Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea’s Nuclear Year In Review—And What’s Next (December 20. 2016),, accessed September 7, 2017;  Office of the Secretary of Defense,  Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2015,, accessed September 7, 2017; Joel S. Wit, The Way Ahead: North Korea Policy Recommendations for the Trump Administration, December 2016, Korea Institute SAIS.  See also Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, The New Era of Counterforce Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence, International Security, (Spring 2017) Vol. 41 No. 4.
[4] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Official Webpage of the DPR of Korea, Songun Politics, accessed September 10, 2017.
[5] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Official Webpage of the DPR of Korea, Juche Ideology, accessed September 10, 2017.
[6] Id.
[7] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Official Webpage of the DPR of Korea, Songun Politics, accessed September 10, 2017.
[8] Id/
[9] “North Korea's Nuclear Security: The Third Alternative in Nuclear Confrontation”, in National Security and Strategy Blog (October 14, 2012)

[10] Carl G. Jacobsen, Soviet Strategy—Soviet Foreign Policy:  Military Considerations Affecting Soviet Policy-Making (Glascow: Robert McLehose & Co. Ltd. The University Press, 1972), p. 9.
[11] Soviet Strategy, at 9.
[12] Soviet Strategy, at 24.
[13] Soviet Strategy, at 24.
[14] Soviet Strategy, at 24.
[15] Soviet Strategy, at 25.
[16] Военная мысль (Military Thought), March 1955, p. 6; cited in Soviet Strategy, at 38.
[17] Citation _____
[18] Citation _____
[19] Citation _____
[20] Soviet Strategy, at 25.
[21] Soviet Strategy, at 25.
[22] Soviet Strategy, at 25.
[23] Soviet Strategy, at 40.
[24] Soviet Strategy, at 40, 45, 57, 66-67.
[25] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, A/HRC/25/CRP.1 (7 February 2014) ¶ 140, at 39,, accessed on September 9, 2017. 
[26] CIA World Factbook, North Korea,, accessed on September 9, 2017.
[27] Andrei Lankov, Kim Jong-un's recipe for success: private enterprise and public executions, The Guardian, (October 7, 2015), accessed on September 10, 2017; Andrei Lankov, Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman, Foreign Policy (April 26, 2017) accessed on September 10, 2017.
[28] North Korea's economic growth climbs to 17-year high in 2016 despite sanctions targeting nuclear program, Reuters, July 20, 2017 accessed on September 10, 2017; Voice of America News,   In North Korea, Rise of Consumer Culture is the Real Revolution (August 18, 2017) accessed on September 10, 2017.
[29] Frank Ruediger, The 7th Party Congress in North Korea: A Return to a New Normal,  38 North (May 20, 2016) accessed on September 10, 2016.
[30] Reudiger, Id.