North Korea’s Nuclear Ticket to Survival

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North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

In recent months, a number of U.S. officials have begun to reassess their understanding of why the North Korean government wants nuclear weapons. Rather than repeating the standard claim that the North Korean government is taking extreme measures to intimidate its enemies into making concessions, some officials have begun to suggest that the North Korean government desires nuclear weapons for defensive purposes.

After the North Korean government conducted its fifth underground nuclear test on September 9, 2016, former U.S. official Victor Cha presented the new line of thinking. “This is not a cry for negotiations,” Cha told The New York Times. “This is very clearly a serious effort at amassing real nuclear capabilities that they can use to deter the U.S. and others.”

A few days later, Cha shared the same logic with a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Testing was once interpreted by pundits to be an attention-getting effort for dialogue with the United States,” but “it would be irresponsible today to adhere to such an interpretation,” Cha stated. In today’s world, “North Korea is executing a strategy designed to demonstrate a survivable nuclear deterrent before the next U.S. administration comes into office.” In short, Cha insisted that the North Korean government sought to acquire nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterring its enemies.

Threat or No Threat? 

Of course, not everyone in Washington agrees with such thinking. Although Cha and other strategic analysts have proposed that the North Korean government is rationally pursuing a nuclear deterrent to defend itself against the United States, high-level officials in Washington insist that nothing could be further from the truth.

Notably, Secretary of State John Kerry has refuted the idea that the North Korean government needs to take defensive measures. For “any person of common sense,” the answer to the question of whether the North Korean government has to defend itself against the United States is “no,” Kerry announced on October 19, 2016. “Everybody knows that.”

After making his point, Kerry then insisted that the United States posed no threat to North Korea because the U.S. government has made no recent efforts to destroy the country. “The United States has had the power to wipe out North Korea for years – for years,” Kerry noted. “And if indeed that was our goal, we wouldn’t be sitting around waiting while they’re getting additional nuclear weapons.”

Certainly, U.S. officials have not recently attempted to wipe out North Korea. Although the United States had once destroyed most of North Korea during the Korean War, when it spent three years carpet-bombing the country and destroying most North Korean cities, U.S. officials have not resorted to comparable tactics in the country since the armistice ended the fighting in 1953.

At the same time, U.S. officials have continued to take other actions to pressure, marginalize, and isolate North Korea. For starters, U.S. officials have worked with their allies to impose restrictive sanctions on the country. Certainly, “we’re always looking at ways we can continue to apply pressure,” State Department Spokesperson Mark C. Toner acknowledged during a press briefing on July 19, 2016. In fact, “the sanctions are pretty severe right now.”

Two months later, White House official Ben Rhodes made a similar point, only providing more emphasis. “So we’ve passed now through the U.N. Security Council the strongest sanctions ever on North Korea,” Rhodes stated. The sanctions are “having an impact” and “putting a tighter squeeze on North Korea.”

To put an even tighter squeeze on North Korea, U.S. officials have also made it clear that they are ready to take more direct action. Taking advantage of their extraordinary military power in the region, including the 28,500 U.S. soldiers that are stationed in South Korea, U.S. officials have continually reminded the North Korean government that they are ready to resume the Korean War at a moment’s notice.

On the day that the North Korean government conducted its fifth underground nuclear test, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made the point by stating that “U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula are always ready, and this is true every single day, to fight tonight.”

A few days later, U.S. officials then sent an even more powerful signal of their preparedness, flying two nuclear-capable B-1B bombers over South Korea in a display of military power. As U.S. General Vincent K. Brooks explained at the time, U.S. officials wanted to demonstrate their commitment to using their “full range of military capabilities,” such as nuclear weapons.

Expect Serious Consequences 

By applying constant pressure to North Korea, U.S. officials have sent another powerful message to the North Korean government. Although officials in Washington may deny that they are threatening North Korea, they have made it clear that the North Korean government can expect to face serious consequences for continuing to defy the United States with its nuclear weapons program.

“What I can tell you is our policy, with respect to North Korea’s provocations and the resolve of the United States and the international community to try to put adequate pressure on them to change their behavior, has not changed and remains the same,” State Department Spokesperson John Kirby confirmed on October 25, 2016.

Even so, some officials are now providing another way of understanding the situation. On the same day that Kirby made his statement, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated that the United States has ultimately left the North Korean government with no serious alternatives. “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” Clapper stated. “They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival.” Indeed, Clapper indicated that the North Korean government would find it necessary to maintain a powerful nuclear arsenal in order to deter the constant threats it faces from the United States.

“And I got a good taste of that when I was there, about how the world looks from their vantage,” Clapper added. “And they are under siege and they are very paranoid.”

In short, a number of U.S. officials are now beginning to come to terms with one of the main reasons why the North Korean government is making such a major effort to acquire nuclear weapons. These officials are starting to believe that the North Korean government is working to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons to create a powerful deterrent against the United States.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.

  • Ramsay Liem

    Mr. Hunt – is it not incredulous that it’s taken Victor Cha over two decades to come to this realization? Your treatment of it as a noteworthy policy insight is equally extraordinary. Fortunately, hard nosed observers like James Clapper are beginning to penetrate the received narrative about North Korea creating the possibility for meaningful diplomacy to resolve hostilities born in the unended Korean War.