Recap | Asia’s Nuclear Challenge: North Korea, China, & the Role of Extended Deterrence

North Korea has developed nuclear capabilities that the United States assumed was out of reach for the isolated country in such a short period of time. Its advancement has changed the dialogue of policy toward the country for both the United States and China. Ken Jimbo, associate professor at Keio University, visited the SMU Tower Center to discuss Asia’s nuclear challenge in the first event of the semester Jan. 8.

Why is North Korea so Persistent?

asia's nuclear challenge
Professor Ken Jimbo gives a presentation at the Tower Center,
“Asia’s Nuclear Challenge,” Jan. 8.

There are two pathways for North Korea to achieve its ultimate goal of regime stability: assured self-defense or economic development. Both China and Vietnam were able to jump-start their economies by opening them up, at the very least, to foreign direct investment.  Jimbo pointed to the internal struggle in North Korea between fundamentalists, like Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un, and internationalists, who argue for opening up the economy like Kim Jung-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.  Jang was ordered assassinated by Kim in 2014, and Jimbo argues that his internationalist beliefs could have been the reason for his death sentence.

Considering Kim’s violent animosity toward the internationalist mindset, economic development is therefore not an option to secure stability. North Korea then must be able to defend itself for the Kim family to stay in power. Kim Jung-un has determined that becoming a nuclear state and achieving complete deterrence is the only way to do this.

Failed Negotiations

Negotiations with North Korea peaked in 2005 after the Six-Party Talks led to a joint statement promising the United States would not use conventional or nuclear weapons against North Korea if they dismantled their nuclear program. But these negotiations collapsed in 2007. Jimbo argues that negotiations failed because of the trust gap between North Korea and the U.S. North Korea saw Saddam Hussein executed in 2006 even though he was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program like the United States’ intelligence had thought. It also later saw Muammar Gaddafi lose power and die in 2011 after agreeing to give up Libya’s nuclear weapons program.

These examples confirmed to North Korea’s regime that they must become a nuclear state before entering any negotiations, and that there’s nothing to gain strategically from giving up their nuclear weapons.

Jimbo argues their goal is to have three layers of deterrence:

  1. A capability to reach South Korea and the U.S. forces stationed there.
  2. Put Japan and Guam, and the U.S. forces there, in reach.
  3. Be able to reach the U.S. homeland.

Why is the third layer necessary? North Korea doesn’t believe the U.S. is committed to its alliance with South Korea and Japan. According to Jimbo, Kim Jung-un believes Korea and Japan will be abandoned in a crisis — although Jimbo clarified he thought the alliance is sound and that both South Korea and Japan would be defended as promised.

However, North Korea still has a lot of work today before fully satisfying its third layer of deterrence. (To see for yourself, test out its capabilities on NUKEMAP. The Sept. 3 test was estimated to be 250 kilotons.)

Trump Ends Strategy of Patience

The Obama administration adopted “strategic patience” as its policy toward North Korea, which President Trump slammed and loosely translated as “doing nothing.” Since taking office, Trump has made two big changes in policy toward North Korea. First, he is putting pressure on China to do more, and second, he announced that if diplomacy fails, all options, including military options, are on the table.

Jimbo has reservations about the effectiveness of Trump’s policies. Military intervention, while possible, would be extremely difficult and costly, especially when considering the U.S. allies that have everything at stake — South Korea and Japan. Furthermore, China’s pressure has its limits. China doesn’t want to push the regime too far and cause a crisis and subsequent flow of refugees from North Korea into China.

Remaining Policy Options

There are two remaining options for the United States and China to handle this challenge, according to Jimbo. The first, what China and Russia are pushing for, would be a double freeze. This would mean that North Korea stops developing its weapons program and the United States stops its military exercises in the South. However, as Jimbo pointed out, this option is unacceptable for the alliance.

The second option, and the better option, Jimbo argues, is long-term deterrence and containment. This option means entering negotiations with North Korea to end the arms race. North Korea’s goal of 100 percent deterrence is unattainable. No matter how many missiles it develops, the U.S. will improve its capabilities to counteract any advancements. It is essential for the U.S. to make North Korea understand this. North Korea could (possibly) achieve 50 percent deterrence through its nuclear program, but then the other 50 percent of security should come from negotiations with the United States.

Related reading from the blog: The North Korean Missile Crisis