North Korea and Nuclear Proliferation

Via Mick Hartley, this piece on North Korea:

But what North Korea wants is South Korea. It has always wanted South Korea, and it has never stopped saying that it wants South Korea. Its messianic vision of reunification has always rested on its express promise of reuniting Korea under its rule. You can try to pretend that away, but North Korea won’t be content to sit behind its borders and watch its legitimacy eroded away by unfavorable comparison — made vivid by every smuggled DVD of a South Korean TV drama — to a superior model of Korean nationhood.

This is consistent with a piece I quoted before, also via Mick:

North Korea would not need intercontinental ballistic missiles to strike South Korea, whose capital sits just 35 miles from their shared border. Pyongyang has had the ability to detonate nuclear devices in Seoul via short- and medium-range ballistic missiles for years. There’s also reason to question the wisdom of nuking a proud, democratic city of 25 million people before attempting to rule it.

What an ICBM does for North Korea is establish deterrence in the event of a reunification campaign.

Kim Jong Un thinks “the nuclear weapons will prevent US from getting involved,” Sun said. “That’s why we see more and more people making the argument that the North Korea’s nuclear development is not aimed at the US, not aimed at South Korea, but aimed at reunification.”

It should hardly be surprising that North Korea seeks reunification of the peninsula. When I was working in Seoul in 2005 I talked to some South Koreans about this, and they all agreed that reunification would happen one day. The only problem is Kim wants the unified Korea to be a Communist hell-hole, the South Koreans want it to look like South Korea, and the Chinese want to be sure they don’t have a hostile or (more likely) embarrassingly rich and democratic state on its borders raising awkward questions among its own population. As the BBC says:

China is key but it is a conflicted party. On the one hand it does not want to see a nuclear-armed North Korea and it has made its view clear to Pyongyang on many occasions.

Something which always gets left out of the reporting is that a nuclear North Korea is largely a problem of China’s own making. First they supplied Pakistan with the technology and materials to build nuclear weapons:

Since the 1970s, China has been instrumental in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs. China provided Pakistan with highly enriched uranium, ring magnets necessary for processing the uranium, and education for nuclear engineers. Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, in fact, is widely believed to be based on Chinese blueprints. Worse, in 1990 and 1992, China provided Pakistan with nuclear-capable M-11 missiles that have a range of 186 miles. China reportedly has provided the technology for Pakistan to build a missile that could strike targets within a 360-mile range.

A key figure in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme was one A.Q. Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani bomb. To cut a long story short, this chap (and/or others in the Pakistani military) then wandered around the world flogging the technology to anyone who wanted it, chiefly Iran, Libya – and North Korea:

The story of the world’s worst case of nuclear smuggling took a new twist on Thursday when documents surfaced appearing to implicate two former Pakistani generals in the sale of uranium enrichment technology to North Korea in return for millions of dollars in cash and jewels handed over in a canvas bag and cardboard boxes of fruit.

The source of the documents is AQ Khan, who confessed in 2004 to selling parts and instructions for the use of high-speed centrifuges in enriching uranium to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Extracts were published by the Washington Post, including a letter in English purportedly from a senior North Korean official to Khan in 1998 detailing payment of $3m to Pakistan’s former army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, and another half-million to Lieutenant General Zulfiqar Khan, who was involved in Pakistan’s nuclear bomb tests.

It is unlikely that the proliferation of their nuclear missile technology and capabilities into North Korea via Pakistan was the intention of the Chinese government when they set out to assist Pakistan, but here we are. With Kim Jong-Un now testing hydrogen bombs, the proliferation horse has well and truly bolted.

The most logical step, although one that would horrify most people, is for South Korea to go nuclear, enabling it to retaliate in the event of a North Korean first use. The nightmare situation for South Korea is for the North to attack and before the South can eliminate the North (using conventional means) in response the Chinese step in and ensure the regime’s survival for their own ends. Yes, we’ve been here before. If the South was nuclear-armed, they could remove the regime before the Chinese could intervene and/or dissuade the Chinese from doing so in the first place.

If South Korea goes nuclear, and we’re fast approaching the point that they have every right to, Japan will quickly follow – and possibly Taiwan. This would cause the Chinese to go apoplectic, but it would be too late and their own fault. If I were the US, I’d be putting this scenario in front of the PRC and telling them it is both very much of their own making yet still within their powers to prevent it.

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18 thoughts on “North Korea and Nuclear Proliferation

  1. Well luckily Tim you and I don’t have to make those decisions!

    I think you’re right, the Chinese have made this and I think they’re paralysed by the enormity of it, or at least seem to think they can leave the Americans to sort it out.

    But the Americans lack the legitimacy and probably the ruthlessness to do whatever is required. Whatever they do they’ll get pilloried by some or most, and will end up owning an even worse mess than the Middle East with all the cost in blood, cash and diplomatic argy bargy that brings with it.

    The only way to approach it has to be to get the PRC to fix it in any way they can.

    I guess that is the aim of all Trump’s blustering.

  2. The only way to approach it has to be to get the PRC to fix it in any way they can.

    Exactly. It’s not really America’s problem, other than their having pledged their support to South Korea and maintaining a small military presence there to act as a trip-wire, thus guaranteeing American involvement.

  3. …Thing is, where did they get the design for their reactor in which they can breed Plutonium? They got it from the British, of course, under Eisenhower’s disastrous Atoms For Peace initiative, which saw the blueprints and designs for Magnox cycle reactors declassified and made public. The very same design being used at Calder Hall to “provide electricity too cheap to meter,” and, ahem, breed Plutonium was thus available to anybody.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnox

    As wikipedia notes, the last operating Magnox type reactors are in North Korea. They weren’t economic to run to generate power, in competition against coal and so only got exported to nations that lacked local supplies of it.

    The situation is made even more laughable when one considers that the “economic sanctions” that are always talked about mostly comprise banning coal, mined with slave labour for export to China.

  4. Reunification of the Koreas, probably, and was there ever a communist dictatorship (that’s all of them, by the way) who didn’t want more territory?

    In the meantime Kim Fatty Un — the only overweight person in NK and not noticed by anyone there — wants free food to stave off a peasant’s revolt, international credibility for what it’s worth and a guaranteed place at the biggest banquets in the west. Threatening others might get him there, but I fancy the US quietly rearming Japan may give tubby pause for thought between courses.

  5. @dearieme,

    I don’t want 100 kilotons landing on me either. The multi-megaton weapons are obsolete anyway, assuming you can drop the warhead close enough to your target. Assuming they can hit San Francisco or Seattle with reasonable accuracy, 100 kilotons will do the job.

    Of course South Korea has to go nuclear now. Kim’s weapons are to stop the US supporting the South in the face of a northern invasion. The US might accept a nuclear war limited to Korea but will not intervene at all if it means west-coast cities being flattened. Thus, you can’t actually stop a nuclear power with delivery systems doing anything to a non-nuclear power (viz. Crimea, Abkhazia, eastern Ukraine etc.)

    Unfortunately, it is probably already too late for South Korea. China will be totally fine with a Northern takeover for strategic reasons. Putin will also because he just likes chaos. Ultimately both Russia and China still have big expansionist ambitions, and have demonstrated that they have the means to carry them out. The old nuclear umbrellas are worth nothing on that background.

  6. You could trace responsibility back a little further to Yalta when Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that “Uncle Joe” could enter the Asian theater and have North Korea and also help Mao arm in China. Uncle Joe went on to break his non-aggression pact and declared war on the already beaten Japs only three days after Hiroshima and a couple of hours before Nagasaki, enabling the Soviets to occupy North Korea and Pyongyang, how convenient, talk about a free gift. Never mind the 60,000 American deaths.

    My uncle served there and also got his American naturalization by doing so. In what marked the start of a long and auspicious relationship between Uncle Sam and him.

    Beijing said a fortnight ago that if Pyongyang attacked another nation that they would not retaliate against them. They also said they would defend North Korea if they were attacked first, that’s what you call a green light.

    For all we know this little Swiss educated leader of theirs could be a CIA asset.

    Anyhow if they were going to do something big then I reckon that it wouldn’t be a strike launched from North Korea, more like a dirty bomb in Washington or the UN, depending when Trump was there, one of those missing North Korean subs surfacing in the East River and nuking the UN would be pretty cool.

  7. Uncle Joe went on to break his non-aggression pact and declared war on the already beaten Japs only three days after Hiroshima and a couple of hours before Nagasaki, enabling the Soviets to occupy North Korea and Pyongyang, how convenient, talk about a free gift. Never mind the 60,000 American deaths.

    To be fair, they did take back Sakhalin using ground forces, and paid a heavy price. They don’t talk about it much, but the monuments are still there. Your point stands, though.

  8. And what is the probability of him voluntarily giving them up for megabucks? Slim, but after looking at what happened to Gaddafi when he gave his up – hunted down like a dog and bayoneted up the jacksi – it ain’t ever going to happen. Don’t suppose Cameron or Sarkozy thought of those second order effects when they decided to go all Palmerston on him.

  9. “Don’t suppose Cameron or Sarkozy thought of those second order effects when they decided to go all Palmerston on him.” Maybe they wanted to become honorary Americans – feared by their allies, loved by their enemies.

  10. “This would cause the Chinese to go apoplectic, but it would be too late and their own fault. If I were the US, I’d be putting this scenario in front of the PRC and telling them it is both very much of their own making yet still within their powers to prevent it.”
    At which point it matters a great deal whether China believes this is for real, or bluffing. Washington has to be prepared to go through with the threat to bless Japan acquiring nuclear weapons – a thing they resist because of the proliferation implications. But I’ve noticed on some US blogs comments about the latest Japanese budget request for anti-missile systems etc, which implies they are willing to follow through. Hopefully Beijing will believe it.
    (Cross-posted at Mick Hartley’s blog)

  11. “To be fair, they did take back Sakhalin using ground forces, and paid a heavy price”

    Yes I just read it up on that now thanks. Just think how better things would have been if Chang Siak had prevailed.

  12. If South Korea goes nuclear, and we’re fast approaching the point that they have every right to, Japan will quickly follow – and possibly Taiwan.

    I don’t think you’re a million miles away there, Tim. Tweeted by Trump today:

    I am allowing Japan & South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States.

    I’d be surprised if Japan weren’t a member of the ‘three screws away club’ when it comes to nuclear weapons – they already have enough Pu for about 5000 bombs stockpiled away.

  13. This post reminded me that there’s a rather good (free) podcast of a marathon 6.5hrs that discusses the post WWII Nuclear age from a modern viewpoint done by Dan Carlin. I found it really interesting as being born in the late 80s, the cold war was over when I was growing up, yet really, the threat nuclear weapons have always posed has not diminished at all, even today.
    If anyone has a long commute like I do it might provide an interesting way to pass the time, the guy goes out of his way to provide context (hence the length), which I like. The link if anyone else is interested: http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-59-the-destroyer-of-worlds/

  14. Don’t suppose Cameron or Sarkozy thought of those second order effects when they decided to go all Palmerston on him.

    I thought that was stupid too, I have no idea why they did it. Sure, he was a nasty f*cker but having peacefully given up his nuclear ambitions he ought to have been kept alive as an example. Now any dictator would be nuts to give them up.

  15. Thus, you can’t actually stop a nuclear power with delivery systems doing anything to a non-nuclear power (viz. Crimea, Abkhazia, eastern Ukraine etc.)

    True dat.

  16. don’t think you’re a million miles away there, Tim. Tweeted by Trump today:

    I should apply for a job at the White House.

    I’d be surprised if Japan weren’t a member of the ‘three screws away club’ when it comes to nuclear weapons – they already have enough Pu for about 5000 bombs stockpiled away.

    Exactly. These are the Japanese after all, they can probably convert Playstations into nuclear missile control systems with a firmware upgrade.

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