PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Missiles, Nuclear Tests, Border Clashes–and Politics

by | April 1st, 2014 | 07:00 am
|

To the short- and intermediate-range missile tests of last month, we now have two Foreign Ministry statements of North Korea’s intention to bolster its nuclear deterrent. These include a statement read on television that the DPRK might undertake a “new form” of nuclear test and that it was continuing to work on a variety of delivery systems. We also have the last-minute live-fire drills around the Northern Limit Line that resulted in an artillery exchange across the contested maritime boundary.

These developments have multiple purposes, ranging from the testing of military capabilities to political signaling in the face of the US-ROK exercises, Nuclear Security Summit diplomacy and action on the part of the UN Security Council. Tomorrow, we will address some additional complications in North-South relations, including leaflets and a detained fishing boat. However, these events must also be seen through the larger lens of an important political statement issued by the National Defense Commission on March 14 (reproduced in full below). This statement was aimed at much at Beijing as at Washington and suggested that despite Chinese entreaties, North Korea is unlikely to change its present course any time soon.

First, the missile tests. We and others downplayed the significance of the February 27 and March 3 Scud tests because they seemed to fall within a normal distribution of responses to the annual US-ROK exercises; Dan Pinkston at the International Crisis Group provided a thorough, non-alarmist review. They also came in the midst of what appeared to be a thaw in North-South relations, symbolized by the family reunions.

The missile tests of last week, however, marked a departure in several respects. It is worth noting that the missiles were not the only new hardware the North Koreans have been testing; Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk notes that some of the “missile” tests of last week were misreported and were in fact tests of a new 300mm artillery system. The two more recent Nodong tests—coming in at about 650 kilometers–were the longest missile tests that North Korea had undertaken since the December 2012 “satellite” launch and the first test of a Nodong since July 4, 2009.

The most disturbing possibility is that recent steps might conform with a pattern we reviewed in some detail in early 2012: missile test, UN condemnation, nuclear threat, nuclear test–and in 2009 another round of missile tests for good measure. True to the theory that history repeats itself, the nuclear challenge came precisely in the wake of a US request for a special UNSC session to consider the missile test. The UNSC went with a Presidential press statement, one step down from Presidential Statement (as of this writing not yet posted). But also under consideration is the possibility of tasking the North Korea Sanctions Committee to expand the list of designated individuals and entities in response to the test. That step would provide an excuse–if one were needed–for a fourth nuclear test.

In February, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin stated that North Korea was ready to undertake such a test, an assessment repeated by Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok two weeks ago. Analysts of satellite imagery have been going back and forth on 38North about whether there is evidence of preparations at the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Nick Hansen and Jack Liu are skeptical but Jeffrey Lewis outlines why patterns of tunneling at the site are consistent with an effort to undertake tests on a more regular basis. Whether a test is imminent or not, Lewis is right that the restart of the reactor and expansion of the enrichment effort will provide the country an increasing stockpile of fissile material over time. One possible meaning of the “new form” of nuclear test: that the next test will be an HEU rather than plutonium device.

Which brings us finally to the Chinese connection and the underlying politics of the recent North Korean moves. There has been an intensification of Chinese diplomacy on the nuclear question in the last three weeks. Following the five-day visit to Pyongyang by Wu Dawei (March 17-21), China’s envoy on the nuclear issue, Choe Son-hui, deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau and deputy chief to the six-party talks was back in Beijing last week. One rumor is that the North Koreans might confer with US officials as well. If China is genuinely interested in restarting the talks, though, it will need to provide at least some meaningful deliverable from Pyongyang; we are not seeing any cracks in the “strategic patience” approach. Whatever transpired during Wu Dawei’s visit, however, it did not serve to deter the Nodong tests, the escalation of nuclear rhetoric or the risky live-fire exercises; to the contrary, these actions appear to have been thrown in Beijing’s face.

The simplest explanation is that the North Korean leadership means exactly what it says, which is that it plans to stick to the byungjin line of seeking economic development while also maintaining its nuclear deterrent. The NDC statement of March 14 makes three basic points:

  • It is the United States that must show its sincerity by rolling back its hostile policy, including sanctions. Needless to say, this is pretty far away from either the US position of strategic patience or even China’s “no preconditions” approach to restarting the Six Party Talks.
  • North Korea is going to persist in developing its nuclear capacity, which should not be seen as a bargaining chip but as a necessary deterrent that the country will continue to develop.
  • The human rights push through the UN is a component of the hostile policy the country faces. But North Korea will “not show any mercy and leniency towards a tiny handful of hostile elements doing harm to the ideology and social system chosen by all its people.” To the contrary, the consolidation of power continues.

 

NDC of DPRK Clarifies Stand on U.S. Hostile Policy towards It

Pyongyang, March 14 (KCNA) — The National Defence Commission of the DPRK released a statement Friday in connection with the fact that the U.S. hostile policy towards it and its recent moves pursuant to the policy have gone to such a grave pass that they cannot be overlooked any longer.

The statement says:

It is none other than the U.S. which has deliberately infringed upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, the life and soul of its people, century after century. It is again the U.S., the sworn enemy, which has resorted to crafty and foolish moves to undermine the ideology of the DPRK and bring down its social system.

The National Defence Commission of the DPRK clarifies the following principled stand on the U.S. hostile policy towards it, representing the unanimous will of the Workers’ Party of Korea, state, army and people:

The U.S. should make a policy decision to roll back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lift all the measures pursuant to the policy, though belatedly.

The above-said policy is the harshest one aimed at undermining the ideology of the DPRK and bringing down its social system by dint of U.S.-style democracy and market economy, and swallowing up all Koreans and the whole of Korea by force of arms for aggression.

The U.S. would be well advised to lift by itself all unjust measures in all fields before facing the disastrous consequences to be entailed by its anachronistic hostile policy towards the DPRK.

2. The U.S. should have a proper viewpoint and stand on the DPRK’s nuclear deterrence and stop behaving foolishly, letting loose a string of reckless remarks that the “DPRK’s dismantlement of its nukes first” is the “keynote” of the hostile policy towards it.

The U.S. should properly understand that Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrence is neither a means for bargaining nor a plaything to be used by it keen on dialogue and blinded by the improvement of relations.

Moreover, the DPRK’s nuclear deterrence is by no means a ghost-like means which does not exist when it is not recognized by the U.S. or remains when it is “recognized” by it.

The U.S. is resorting to what it calls “patience strategy”, hoping the DPRK to move and make changes first, but such things desired by Washington will never happen.

It is the stand of the DPRK to wait with a high degree of patience for the time when the White House is bossed by a person with normal insight and way of thinking.

The U.S. should bear in mind that the efforts of the army and people of the DPRK to bolster up its nuclear deterrence for self-defence will go on and additional measures will be taken to demonstrate its might one after another as long as the U.S. nuclear threat and blackmail persist as now.

3. The U.S. should stop at once its groundless “human rights” racket against the DPRK which began as part of its new hostile policy towards the latter.

National sovereignty is more important than human rights.

Probably this is the reason why the U.S. has kept more prisoners than any other countries in the world, mercilessly brandishing sharp swords against any forces opposed to the state and endangering its existence.

The DPRK also does not show any mercy and leniency towards a tiny handful of hostile elements doing harm to the ideology and social system chosen by all its people who are the masters of the sovereignty.
The U.S. would be well advised to mind its own business, being aware of where it stands, before talking nonsense about others’ affairs.

The U.S. had better roll back its worn-out hostile policy towards the DPRK as soon as possible and shape a new realistic policy before it is too late. This would be beneficial not only to meeting the U.S. interests but also to ensuring the security of its mainland.

The U.S. should judge the situation with a cool head and make a policy decision in line with the trend of the times, the statement concludes.