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What Is North Korea’s Next Threat Likely to Be?

by Scott A. Snyder
April 4, 2013

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) presides over an urgent operation meeting on the Korean People's Army Strategic Rocket Force's performance of duty for firepower strike at the Supreme Command in Pyongyang, early March 29, 2013. (KCNA/courtesy Reuters)


Given the threat-a-day nature of North Korean actions in recent weeks, I have noticed that many of the media headlines on North Korea are including the word “again.”  I can almost imagine North Korea’s repetition of threats turning into a college drinking game.

Despite the fact that the North has already promised more threatening action, I had thought last week that the U.S. show of force might introduce an element of sobriety into North Korea’s responses. However, this proved not to be the case.  So it is worth looking forward to see what the North Koreans have already pledged will come next.

Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2087 in January condemning North Korea’s December satellite launch, the DPRK foreign ministry issued a statement on January 23 that 1) rejected “the unjust acts of the UNSC aimed at wantonly violating the sovereignty of the DPRK,” 2) pledged to “continue to exercise its independent and legitimate right to launch satellites for peaceful purposes,” 3) drew a final conclusion that “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is impossible unless the denuclearization of the world is realized,” and 4) declared it would “take steps for physical counteraction to bolster the military capabilities for self-defense including the nuclear deterrence both qualitatively and quantitatively.”

The DPRK National Defense Commission issued a more concrete statement on January 24 that stated: “We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the DPRK one after another and a nuclear test of higher level which will be carried out by it in the upcoming all-out action, a new phase of the anti-U.S. struggle that has lasted century after century, will target against the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people.”

The U.S decision to deploy sea-based X-band radars and destroyers near North Korea anticipates a new missile launch, possibly including types that would require much less warning to test than has been the case with North Korea’s prior launches.  North Korea’s continued threats and brinkmanship always raise questions about the internal stability of its leadership, but this focus distracts from the clear evidence that South Korea and the United States are increasingly intolerant of North Korea’s threats, especially as the North broadens the spectrum of potential attacks from low-end, limited border skirmishes to high-end apocalyptic threats of nuclear attack. North Korean leadership’s miscalculation may come as a result of its failure to recognize this fact.

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  • Posted by Doug Norton

    There’s an elephant in the room when most policy analysts and government officials turn to the fraught question of North Korean behavior. While frequently mentioning that North Korea has shown itself willing to sell any weapon it has to anyone who can meet their price, the vast majority of commentators maneuver silently around the elephant: the sale of nuclear bombs to non-state actors, many of whom are terrorist organizations. (An rare example of a prominent figure doing otherwise is Harvard’s Graham Allison, most recently in his February 12, 2013 Op-Ed in the New York Times.)

    The usual reasoning given for this dismissal by silence of what I believe is the most serious threat posed to America by North Korean nuclear weapons is that:
    1. North Korean rulers are not suicidal. Like all dictators they are shrewd judges of power who would neither have reached the pinnacle nor survived but for being coldly realistic—which tells them they and their cohort would die in nuclear retaliation if a sold nuclear weapon was used against any other nuclear power. They know that every nuclear explosion has a signature that reveals enough about its materials and design to point to its maker just as elements of technique, palette, and composition would identify an unsigned Rembrandt.
    2. Selling a bomb means giving up control of it and North Korean rulers would never do that because the bomb might be used in a manner injurious to North Korean objectives or even survival. Regardless of what assurances were given by the purchaser, once in purchaser hands the bomb could be used in any manner and against any target.

    These arguments are flawed. The first is a shibboleth, not because it’s inherently wrong, but because throughout human history rulers have made colossal misjudgments—something we’ve seen many times in the last hundred years alone, The second fails to account for the state of satellite-enabled digital control technology.

    “Dictators are survivors. The never do things that threaten their own survival.” Not so. Dictators can and have and surely will in future make colossal misjudgments.Tojo and his coterie made a colossal misjudgment by attacking the United States. Hitler made a pair of colossal misjudgments: he too attacked the United States, and he invaded the Soviet Union. In 1948 Stalin made the colossal misjudgment of blockading the Allied sectors of Berlin only to have to back down. In 1950 Kim Jong-il, first of the Kim dynasty, made the colossal misjudgment of invading South Korea (despite U.S. forces in garrisoned there), bringing about the near-total destruction of his own country and the one he planned to annex.. Saddam Hussein made a series of colossal misjudgments: In 1980 he launched a war against Iran that bled his people and his petrodollars for eight years and gained none of his objectives. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait and was forced to beat a humiliating, debilitating retreat. And we learned from his interrogation after capture in 2003 that he didn’t believe the United States would follow through on its ultimatum with military force after he ejected UN inspectors. That “super-colossal” misjudgment cost him not only power but life. And right now there’s Bashar al-Assad, who made the colossal misjudgment of trying to crush Syria’s fractious rebels rather than offering them an insignificant place in his government, thereby giving them opportunity to commit political hara-kiri by infighting.

    The second reason, fear of loss of control over the weapon’s use, is valid but readily available technology offers a method of maintaining control. Digital devices called “PLCs” (Programmable Logic Controllers) are widely used in industry for remote control of electromechanical and electronic functions. Many of these devices permit worldwide tracking and control of objects when connected through satellite and cellular technology. Example: the “OnStar” automotive safety system allows a remote authority to track vehicle location and speed. It allows that authority send commands that initiate electromechanical actions such as to lock/unlock doors and disable the ignition system. The same PLC technology could easily be applied to allow an authority such as Kim to maintain continuous location of a nuclear bomb after selling it, arm or disarm its fusing system, and initiate a small conventional explosive charge to disable the bomb if necessary to prevent its use in a manner harmful to his interests.

    All of which leads me to fear that we are failing to connect the dots when we speak of Kim as a serious problem but not a threat to the continental U.S. because he lacks ICBMs to carry his nuclear weapons to us. Should he sell or (unlikely) give a nuke to a terrorist organization he could carry out a threat now widely considered hollow.

    If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: The administration and most commentators take seriously the threat from Kim’s nukes if he develops a nuclear-tipped ICBM. Since U.S. DOD technology would immediately and unequivocally lay an attack by North Korean ICBMs at Kim’s door, he would have to expect a prompt nuclear response from a nation that could erase all life in North Korea using less than ten percent of its nuclear weapons. If one worries that Kim might accept those daunting risk, shouldn’t one worry even more that he might accept the lesser risk of an attack delivered by a third party such as al Qaeda? Such an attack would not leave a smoking gun in Kim’s hand. There would soon be a strong scientific case that the bomb was of North Korean origin—but science is often inconclusive in political discourse. It seems inescapable that, if Kim were willing to take the enormous risk of attacking the U.S. homeland with a nuke, he’d be more attracted to using a cut-out, a third party, than to launching an ICBM for all to see on YouTube, rising from North Korea atop a fiery plume.

    And would Kim be willing to take that risk? That is, of course, unknowable. But consider this: With the exception of the Korean war, the three generations of Kims have never had to pay a retaliatory price of any significance to them for the many outrageous acts they have carried out since the shooting stopped in that war. The Kim dynasty’s score card contains deadly attacks on U.S. military aircraft, naval vessels, and aircraft, numerous attempts to assassinate presidents of South Korea, the kidnapping of Japanese, South Korean, and American citizens, and hundreds of attacks on South Korea—most unpublicized in the U.S. but some of such ferocity they broke into our crowded news cycle. In not one single case has the response from those attacked penalized the Kims and their generals. Since they are manifestly unconcerned about North Korea’s citizens, who have suffered as a result of sanctions imposed with the aim of deterring North Korea’s rulers, I conclude that, by their calculus, they have much less fear of the prospect of U.S. retaliation, nuclear or otherwise, than most Americans think they do.

    It’s time name the elephant and plan what to do if he charges. For a fictional but realistic look at how that could play out, see my novel Code Word: Paternity. I hope the plot remains fiction, but current North Korean leadership behavior leads into it like a car accelerating along a highway on-ramp.

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