Alphen, Netherlands. 8 February. If North Korea is not stopped Pyongyang will develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned North Korea that the 7 February launch of a ‘communications satellite’ would have “serious consequences”. His remarks were echoed by the foreign ministers of two of the other permanent members of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain and France, and even Russia condemned the launch. In diplo-speak ‘serious consequences’ normally means an increased ‘pressure strategy’, which in turn normally means more economic and other targeted sanctions. However, just after Kerry spoke Beijing simply expressed ‘regret’ at the launch. What are the facts, the strategic implications of the launch, what can be done, and why must if fall to China to act?
First, the facts. In recent years Pyongyang has tested a new generation of short, intermediate, and sea-based missiles. Yesterday, at 0939 hours Japanese time, the North Koreans went one step further and according to US Strategic Command successfully launched a long-range, three-stage rocket into space. According to the US Pyongyang appears to have successfully put a satellite into earth orbit, whilst the main body of the rocket crashed into the South China Sea having travelled some 2000kms down range. The launch represents a significant advance on the part of Pyongyang in its efforts to develop the ‘KN-series’ intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a design range in excess of 6000kms.
North Korea is following two development tracks. Track one is designed to develop, test, and eventually deploy a uranium-based fission atomic warhead, similar to the devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two. If North Korea is to be believed (a big ‘if’ indeed) Pyongyang is also trying to develop a far more destructive plutonium-based fusion device. Track two was evident yesterday with in effect the test of an ICBM that could in time carry a nuclear warhead with the potential to strike anywhere in Asia-Pacific, including the West Coast of the United States.
However, North Korea also has some way to go before it can demonstrably claim to possess such a capability. Indeed, Pyongyang has yet to resolve two major technical difficulties. One difficulty concerns the miniaturisation of the fission-device to enable it to fit atop a missile payload in the form of a nuclear warhead. The North Koreans have now it would appear mastered the the technology that would enable a warhead to successfully separate from the missile ‘bus’ at the appropriate point on a ballistic trajectory. However, it would also appear they have yet to master the technology needed to enable a warhead to successfully re-enter the earth’s upper atmosphere. Equally, North Korea has clearly developed an indigenous programme capable of getting the programme this far. It is thus reasonable to assume that unless halted Pyongyang will indeed at some point in the not-too-distant future overcome the remaining difficulties.
What would be the strategic implications? Last month President Obama said that North Korea would eventually collapse. Since the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) the underlying assumption of all states, be they a party to the treaty or not, has been that all states share a degree of rationality. Indeed, different though they might be all states are all or in some form rational state actors, even if they are implacable enemies such as Iran and Israel. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is most decidedly not a rational state actor. And, if President Obama is right the combination of a state about to collapse, an irrational leadership indifferent to the suffering it creates, and armed with a range of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles poses perhaps the gravest threat to the international order.
Multilateral action has consistently been too little, too late. The so-called Six Party Talks created to deal with Pyongyang following the latter’s 2003 with withdrawal from the NPT are completely stymied. One need only look at the membership to understand why; the US, China, Japan, Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Republic of Korea. Indeed, Pyongyang has successfully driven an ICBM-sized wedge between the already fractious members of the Group, even if Moscow condemned Sunday’s launch.
Why must China act? If Beijing fails to take action a nuclear arms race in China’s backyard beckons. Japan could become a nuclear power relatively quickly, and South Korea has long hinted it would also do so. Given that both India and Pakistan are already nuclear powers the prospect of a nuclear-armed twenty-first century Asia-Pacific, that would look much nineteenth century Europe, simply does not bear thinking about.
Pyongyang also threatens to destroy China’s carefully-crafted strategic calculations. Beijing has stated that China is in some form of strategic competition with the United States. However, it is also reasonable to assume that China still sees that competition from the viewpoint of a rational actor seeking to exert its power and influence over its region by striking a balance between economic, diplomatic and military power in pursuit of what it sees as its own essentially rational interests.
Indeed, if successful North Korea could trigger an arms race in East Asia of which both China and the US would rapidly lose control. Indeed, if there is a ‘strategy’ behind Pyongyang’s thinking beyond regime-survival nuclear blackmail chaos might well be it. Such an arms race would threaten global peace and not just the regional tinderbox that is East Asia. Moreover, if the nuclear genie escapes from the NPT bottle then there is no telling the extent or pace of subsequent nuclear proliferation. The technology is after all at least fifty years old.
Secretary Kerry also said yesterday that the US would uphold its, “…ironclad commitment to the security and defence of its allies,” primarily Japan and South Korea, but also other states in the region. There is every reason to take Kerry at his word. However, reading between the lines of diplo-speak implicit in Kerry’s statement is also a call on China to stop Pyongyang. China certainly is the only power with any real influence over North Korea. Seventy percent of what income Pyongyang generates comes from China and it is fair to say Kim Jung Un’s regime is in effect propped up by China.
Therefore, China must demonstrate its strategic bone fides. Specifically, President Xi Jingping must prove to the world that Beijing will be a responsible world leader in the twenty-first century and move quickly to stop Kim Jung-Un and his nuclear ambitions, or face the terrifying consequences of a failure to act.