The North Korea Miscalculation: An Assessment
Disclaimer: This article does not represent the official views of Refuse to Cooperate, who continues to support the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s ongoing fight against Amerikkkan imperialism. We at RTC will be writing a response piece to this article giving a correct anti-imperialist position regarding the DPRK.
Credit: William Bregnard, RTC Correspondent
There is little doubt that the situation on the Korean peninsula is more tense and volatile than it has been since the 1990’s. With a recent assessment of a 25% change of armed conflict between North Korea and the US, there is hard truth that has emerged (besides Trump is simply awful), that the North Korean government has badly miscalculated their situation and has recently been quoted as saying that possessing nuclear weapons is “a matter of life and death.” This claim is backed up by the devotion of the nation, to the tune of 25% of their GDP, to folding whatever is needed into their nuclear weapons program (for some comparison, the Apollo Program was 14% of US GDP and the Manhattan Project was 5%). This mishandling of their own nuclear policy along with it’s stonewalling emotional position of these WMD has placed the hermit kingdom into its most fragile state since the 1950’s. Given my anxiety about the situation in the Korean peninsula and the mishandling by the White House, I wrote this entry to explore the situation for myself and to serve as a cathartic experience. It is my hope to shed some light on how North Korea is its own worst enemy.
The Background on the North’s Nuclear Ambulations
When you read the history of the North Korean nuclear program, it is clear that it has been a long road of broken promises, mistrust, and missed opportunities by all sides. During the Korean War, the North founded its own atomic energy research agency and education program in 1952 with aims towards civilian and military applications. The military application was clearer due to the United States considering the tactical use of atomic weapons during the war. However, it would be only after a signed agreement with the old USSR in 1956 that had the North’s scientists being trained in the Soviet Union that the dream of nuclear power and weaponry became more of an achievable reality. An actual nuclear research facility was founded in 1959 at Yongbyon, which would be the hub for the DPRK’s nuclear effort to this very day.
The first nuclear reactor was a Soviet-made IRT-2000 “research” reactor provided by the USSR for the peaceful use of the technology for power generation. This is similar to the “atoms for peace” program. The first real hint of the military application of the nascent nuclear power program came after the first Chinese atomic test in October 1964. Given the relationship between the North Koreans and the Red Chinese government, Pyongyang asked for the PRC to share their nuclear weapons technology, but Chairman Mao refused. This was also the first crack in the relationship between North Korea and China.
By the 1960’s, there were two nuclear programs being undertaken at the same time: civilian and military and all roads led to Yongbyon. With expansion of the IRT-2000 reactor and Soviet plutonium reprocessing technology, there was an agreement forged between the IAEA, the USSR, and the DPRK. Domestic development, including an 5mW nuclear reactor and fuel road production plant, were reached as well as the high explosive trigger for the future nuclear device. By the end of the 1980’s, there was a 50mW nuclear reactor online in Yongbyon. In 1985, the DPRK signed the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in exchange for Soviet help in building several Light Water Reactors. After the end of the Cold War, the United States withdrew its nuclear weapons out of South Korea and both the North and the South signed an agreement to make the peninsula nuclear-free.
However, the agreement died stillborn due the two nation’s inability to actual put the agreement into motion. The first nuclear crisis that nearly erupted into full-blown war was in 1994. In 1992, the North signed the IAEA safeguards agreement and inspection began, but they blocked the inspectors from visiting rumored nuclear waste sites. Tensions rose and the North withdrew from the NPT in 1993. Just before the withdraw from the NPT took effect, Pyongyang entered into talks with the US, but still refused inspection of those rumored waste sites.
What lead the US to discussing sanctions against North Korea by the UN Security Council was the attempted cover-up by the North of the spent fuel rods and their operation history. It was here that the Clinton Administration pursued sanctions against North Korea at the UN, who warned that this move was an act of war. The flare up was contained by former President Jimmy Carter and his peace mission to Pyongyang in October of 1994. This Agreed Framework halted the nuclear weapons program in exchange for heavy fuel oil imports, assurances of the US not using nukes against the DPRK, and construction of peaceful Light Water nuclear reactors. This also likely halted a US missile strike on the North as well.
The deal soured due to lack of IAEA inspections to investigate previous nuclear sites and the slow progress of the reactors. Intelligence pointed to a hidden highly enriched uranium program along with missile technology exchanges with Pakistan. During talks in 2002, North Korea admitted the enrichment program and that their development of nuclear weapon was a means of national self-defense. This resulted in the heavy oil program being shut down with North Korea responding with withdrawing from the NPT and expelling IAEA personnel. By 2003, intelligence pointed to a reprocessing rod program to gain plutonium. The 8,000 spent fuel rods were said to have been able to construct 4–6 nuclear devices. With this information, in 2003 the Six-Party Talks began, and it yielded some agreements and promises that did not lead anywhere for years. It was hinted by the North at this time that they were already in possession of an atomic bomb. But, given the North’s history, this claims maybe false.
Only three years later, the North Korean regime detonated its first atomic test that turned out to be sub-nuclear (less than one kiloton) in nature. More sanctions were imposed on North Korea as the Chinese worked on a diplomatic solution. There was hope of the North Koreans shutting down their nuclear program and its facilities for incentives and agreements. Part of that agreement was to release millions in overseas North Korean assets. It seemed with the release of the money and IAEA inspectors back in the country in 2007 that the end was near. But the North Koreans failed to follow through and development continued. By 2009, IAEA inspectors were booted out, reactors in Yongbyon were restarted and the second underground nuclear test was carried out. North Korea had joined the Nuclear Club. 2010 arrived with North Korean aggression in the form of artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel; all resulting in deaths and increased tensions.
From 2011–2015, North Korea said they were willing to come back to the table, but then there was ramped up production of uranium production in 2015. During this, Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and his son, Kim Jong Un was installed as the leader of the hermit kingdom. While attempts were made at talk, North Korea launched a satellite in orbit that caused anger due to advancement in missile technology. More nuclear tests were conducted, miniaturizing of the bomb to allow placement atop a rocket, and increased nuclear production all increased tensions. In the winter of 2015, the first Hydrogen bomb was tested by North Korea at Punggye-ri. New sanctions were issued as North Korea attempted to mount their bombs to rocket and create more plutonium. The 5th nuclear test was carried out in 2016 during the American presidential election and a year later, the most recent test. With the new administration that was inexperienced and feeling bullish, a storm of words, threats, and insults were flung about as North Korean missiles were flown over Japan. All of this was going on as the North Koreans continued to work on a long-range ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear payload to the US mainland. What may be different is the much harsher sanctions imposed and the support of China in regards to the sanctions and the halting of the nuclear program. Time will tell if the sanctions will starve the DPRK out or to the peace table.
How Many Nuclear Devices Does the DPRK Have?
Released intelligence reports and rumors have no firm numbers on the size, type, and yield of North Koreans nuclear weapons. Figures range from as little as six, to ten, to sixty. The average is around 15. Not all of these are up to the level of the last weapons test and the majority of these nuclear devices are likely atomic bombs rather than thermonuclear (hydrogen) weapons. Most of their current nuclear stockpile would likely be bomb-based relying on deployment via aircraft. These atomic bombs fall under the 10–30 kiloton range. Their largest appears to be in the 150 kiloton range due to the most recent underground test. There is much debate about if the North Koreans can mount a nuclear device on a rocket and have it successfully hit its target. Their rockets are not all that reliable, and it is likely nor are their nuclear devices….which is good for us.
What the North Did Wrong
There are few governments in the world as isolated, paranoid, and baffling as the DPRK and that basic governmental mental framework is one of the major blockades to stopping another war. This paranoia as manifested itself into nuclear weapons to serve as the ultimate deterrent any future American/South Korean military aggression. However, this is a massive miscalculation on the part of the North. It is the very existence of their nuclear program that has placed the hermit kingdom regime in its greatest peril since the Korean War. It should also be stated that the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its founding in 1948 has propelled the nation towards continued misery and pain for its own people.
Since the negotiated cease-fire in 1954 of the North’s failed invasion of the South to bring them under the banner of authoritative regime styled as “communism,” the North has been deeply scared on a national level that the United States would finish the fight and oust the Kim dynasty and its “communist” state. Such fear was common during the Cold War around the globe and while it encouraged diplomacy, it also encouraged an arms race. For the most part, North Korea has been unimportant to the world stage and largely ignored, save for threats of reopening the Korean War. They have never achieved the level of international respect or economic power as their southern brothers. This deeply bothers the North Korean regime and the Kim family. They want badly to obtain this level of respect, and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve that…even creating the tools of their own destruction.
This method of “respect by any means necessary” has led to the current madness. The success of North Korea’s nuclear program has placed at a higher level of being invaded and the Kim dynasty being forcible replaced; which counteracts their use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This is a self-fulling prophecy. If the North had never developed nukes than the world would not care about the DPRK and the situation that has existed since the end of the Korean War would have continued onward. Neither the US nor the South was planning on invading them. The Kim family, and others in power, could have continued onward with the brutal treatment of their own people as the international community turned a blind eye to the internal horror show. It is darkly ironic and even sort of grimly funny to think that the North Korean government did this to themselves by not understanding the world community. They fatally miscalculated the world, and we could all pay the price for that, but no more than the long suffering North Korean people.
What the US and International Community Did Wrong
The primary mistake of the United States and the international community was not finishing the job in 1953 with the removal of the communist government and the reunification of the Korean peninsula under a democratic government. None of this current uncomfortable situation could have materialized if that had been accomplished by men like my grandfather fighting the good fight against the North Koreans and the Red Chinese. But that did not happen in this reality and we are left with the grim present situation.
There are others that say that previous US administrations should have resolved the situation years ago. They cite the inaction of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to rid the North of their nuclear program. Certainly as today, this would have involved the dreaded military option and millions of casualties. The two central issues that I can foresee on the part of the United States is the lack of ability to communicate directly with the powers that be in Pyongyang and to form a deal in good faith. While there have been deals and attempts, the North Koreans seems to need and greatly desire the respect of a real summit meeting with the leaders of the South, North, and America meeting face-to-face.
The ego of the US government has gotten in the way of this avenue and that needs to change. Respect should be given, after all, the North did develop their nuclear program despite the many roadblocks put in their way. Lastly, the United States has fed directly into the mass paranoia of the North Korean government and their society. It is one thing for the communication coming from the North to the rest of the world being filled with crazy comments, threats, and falsehoods; it is another thing to reinforce it. There is nothing worse for paranoia to be validated as was the case in the Bush “Axis of Evil” 2002 speech and the mad rambles of Trump that peaked at a disgraceful and shameful speech before the UN general assembly.
This mirrored the case for war that the US laid out for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and it played right into the regime’s collective fears of another war. This pushed the nuclear weapons program into a fever pitch to prevent North Korea from being the next “Axis of Evil” to fall. Then we have the arrival of Trump tweets…dear god. His lack of understanding and being narcissistic sociopath has propelled the North Korean crisis into a rapid boil with collective fears of a bloody war about to breakout due to his inability to be an adult.
What Will Happen if there is War?
In short, the Korean peninsula will be wrecked and awash in blood. The vibrant South Korean economy will be shattered, causing an international economic crisis, millions will die, and there will no longer be a “communist” government in North Korea. If there is war, the South and its American partners will win the bloody affair within a few weeks and reunite the shattered Korean peninsula under a democratic government. The rein of the Kim family will end. That is if there is no exchange of nuclear weapons. If there is and in what form and amount could alter the entire world. If it somehow triggers an all-out nuclear exchange between the US, China, and Russia; it will be the end of the world as we know it and most of the life on the planet. It is odd to think, much like Cuba, that some relatively unimportant country could spell global doomsday for the entire world. There is a good possibility that the US missile defense systems, like THAAD, could intercept an incoming missile before it impacts Hawaii (the most likely target) or the West Coast.
The Crumbling Situation in North Korea…Could There be a Coup?
Will the brutalized North Korean people and the elites follow their leader down the rabbit hole all the way to “eating grass “as Putin claims? With the massive economic sanctions, the cutting off by their estranged friend China, and the expense of their nuclear program, while Kim Jong-un be facing a coup by his own military backed by the elites? It is possible, but the last hint at a coup was met with extreme violence. Any authoritarian regimes, like North Korea, detest questioning to its rule and its stability. In August of 2017, news leaked out that in 2013, Kim Jong-un learned of a Chinese plot to replace him with his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. The answer to these intelligence reports was the murder of Kim Jong-nam and others. While it may see that a decapitation of the Kim Jong-nam government would be a likely resolution to the nuclear crisis, it could only come via North Korean actors and not any American assassination team. Given the mental warfare and public programming that has been embarked on by the government of North Korea on its people, it is highly likely that any coup would be met with civil unrest and destabilize the region, as we saw with the end of Baathist Iraq, While there have been a few attempts on removing the Kim dynasty from power, none have been successful and the fear is just too high to attempt it again, especially with the very public threats by the current (and insane) US administration. However, with the iron boot of sanctions, the crumbling economy of North Korea, the coming of winter; we could see society of North Korea break down with the people starving (more than they have) and growing sicker and sicker. It is likely that the core will rot. The question is: what will the Kim government do if that happens?
What Needs to Happen to Avoid a 2nd Korean War
We need to talk directly to the North at a peace summit on neutral ground. Seriously talk to them about how we can unscrew this situation together and restore the peace that has held since 1953. Never-mind the two dimwitted leaders on both sides that enjoy trading insults while the world worries. Their nuclear prick measuring contest is foolish and speaks to the true nature and mental state of these two world “leaders.” What we need is experienced diplomats and policy makers devoted to peace to forge some sort of lasting peace that can benefit both the South and the North. Armed conflict and forced regime change is not in the interest of anyone, despite the bully threats of the Screaming Cheeto-in-Chief and Kim Jong Un.
Self-preservationist should be the order of the day, and I think that Kim Jong Un is committed to that above everything else, including his own people that he doesn’t mind starving. While high-level talks with the North Koreans have always been challenging, to say the least, the inclusion of Trump into the mix along with the dysfunctional State Department has only complicated matters to the extreme. While the goal of the world seems to be being disarming the North, which should happen, it cannot be a roadblock to peace and the reason for war. Ultimately, peace needs to be maintained and it needs to be respected. Millions are at risk and the greater stability of the world rests in the hands of these three nations to figure it out. If diplomacy fails and the bombs fall, the blood of the innocent shall rest on those that were charged with maintaining the peace and protecting their people…even from their own leaders.
To Sum Up…
The blame for the entire Korean situation rests on the decisions of the North Korean regime. They could have avoided war with the South back in 1950 by accepting the division between the governments. There did not need to be a war, but the North rolled the dice and lost. That loss and the continued paranoia by the Kim dynasty about a American invasion to remove the authoritative regime that has never come has fueled their suicidal nuclear program. The act of unneeded nuclear deterrence has firmly paced the entire Korean peninsula at risk for a bloody war. It is the direct fault of the North Korean Kim regime that they are facing brutal sanctions, deeper isolation, suffering, and possible war that they will lose. If they had developed their nukes and remained to themselves, than no one would care. It does not help that the wider international community does not respect the North and that the regime seems bipolar…then there is Trump…the fuel to the fire. Maybe cooler heads will prevail and the urge of self-preservation will be kicking in soon and to end this situation before blood is spilled. We can all hope.