On May 6, 2017, in the South Korean news, it was once again reported that work on the creation of a new tunnel was seen at the North Korean nuclear test site near the village of Phungue-ri in the Kielzhu-gun region of North Hamgyong Province. As reported by the Internet portal ‘38 North’, satellite imagery shows that there are vehicles located at the entrance to the northern tunnel. There is also noticeable, increased activity in the area of the command center and administrative buildings. As it turns out, the special services of the RK and the US have indicated since the beginning of the year that the North may conduct a nuclear test at any time, but against the backdrop of increased pressure from the US and China, North Korean authorities have probably decided to take a breather.
A little earlier, on May 2, during preparations for the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said that the nuclear program of the North raises fears: although it is not possible to assess the state of the DPRK’s nuclear facilities in detail, all signs point to Pyongyang’s nuclear program having moved to a new level.
He also said in an interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that North Korea has made a great step forward in improving their nuclear weaponry, which creates a security threat not only for the region, but for the whole world, and it is bound to disturb the global community.
In a similar vein, the commander of the special forces of the US Armed Forces (SOCOM) General Raymond Thomas stated that North Korea has ceased to be a regional threat, becoming a global threat due to the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In this context, the US is ready to conduct operations to neutralize nuclear facilities, missiles and other weapons of mass destruction belonging to the DPRK.
US CIA Director Michael Pompeo, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, went further: North Korea is closer than ever before in its history to threatening to hit the US using ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. During each subsequent nuclear test, the charge capacity increases, which “increases the chances of the North Korean leader making the wrong decision at some point in the future.” The head of the US National Security Ministry, John Kelly, agrees with him stating that North Korea’s ballistic missiles will be able to reach the territory of the United States within the Donald Trump’s four-year presidential term. The former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, also believes that the moment when North Korea’s missiles with nuclear warheads will be able to reach American territory may come earlier than expected.
In general, America is expecting new nuclear firework displays, although “in the opinion of knowledgeable sources”, the sixth test is supposed to have already been held: on April 6, during the US-PRC summit; April 15, in honor of the 105th birthday of Kim Il Sung; April 25, on the day of the People’s Army; May 9, as a “gift” to the presidential elections in the Republic of Korea. Each time we are told that “preparation for testing is at the final stage”, it is at best based on the interpretation of satellite imagery.
There was even the suggestion that several bombs would explode as part of the sixth nuclear test. However, there has still been no explosion, and for us it is an occasion to explain that North Korean nuclear tests are conducted not so much in order for Kim to celebrate another date, but as part of a further strategy of confrontation.
Here it is necessary to explain that nuclear deterrence can have several degrees. The first is hypothetical restraint, when the very fact that the enemy may have nuclear weapons is already a shock of cold water for hot heads. Ten years ago, to explain this, the author used the image of a wooden pistol, which one waves in the dark, frightening attackers: it is unclear whether they know how to shoot; it is unclear whether they are shooting or not, but to put oneself out there and catch a bullet is not very desirable.
However, this kind bluff-or-not works only with a certain type of attacker, and, therefore, the next step is minimal containment, when the enemy does indeed have some level of nuclear weaponry, although this is still a case of “they might try to respond in kind”, where the key word is “try”. The probability is small, but must already be taken into account.
Alas, given a certain political conjuncture, the attacking side may consider this response as a “lesser evil,” or hope that “we will intercept in any case”, so the next step is reliable deterrence, in which the probability of a successful response substantially increases so much that it can no longer be ignored.
Finally, there is guaranteed containment, in which case a nuclear attack unequivocally causes a response with commensurate capacity. Only the arsenals of Russia, the United States and China are at this level.
In general, the modern concept of nuclear deterrence is not based on mutual protection, but rather on mutual attack, on a situation in which both sides strike each other, neutralizing the results of a successful attack by the enemy. At the same time, some control systems for nuclear forces (first of all, the “dead hand”, when the red button is pressed not in the case of an order from the center, but in the case when the order for deterrence does not come from the center) guarantee a nuclear response even in the case of destruction of the highest echelon of the command infrastructure.
According to the Russian military expert Vasily Kashin, the entire North Korean security strategy is based on guaranteed unacceptable damage to the closest US allies, and at present the DPRK is moving from minimal to reliable deterrence.
It should be noted that although a low-power weapon strike on enemy territory can inflict serious reputational damage on the enemy and make his victory a Pyrrhic one, this doesn’t save the defending side much. There may be a “Pearl Harbor effect” when such an attack finally angers the enemy and forces him to lift any moral and technical limitations. Therefore, the potential for a retaliatory strike must be raised to such an extent that it is not a pinprick, but a serious blow, and the North will work on delivery vehicles and ammunition that will allow it to deliver a) something serious, b) to the territory of the continental US.
Of course, this is a very risky strategy, but it is risky only until you have reached a guaranteed or very reliable deterrence level. Using their military-technical advantage, the enemy can and will try to stop you at this stage, but not after crossing this barrier.
As a result, the development of the nuclear missile potential of the DPRK presents the US with a very unpleasant choice. On the one hand, radically changing one’s strategy and moving on to negotiations means unacceptable reputational losses and recognition of defeat. On the other hand, if the problem is solved by force, then it must be done as soon as possible. So far, North Korea’s response potential is at a minimum, not reliable level. But the probability of an “ideal” preventive disarming strike is small, and that is why 2017 may be complicated, difficult and dangerous from the point of view in regards to forced decisions.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (Hist.), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.