A merican television host and comedian Bill Maher quipped in 2013 that being threatened by a North Korean nuclear attack is “like walking through a parking lot and getting barked at by a chihuahua locked in a car”. Despite a constant barrage of anti-American propaganda and repeated threats to launch nuclear assaults against the United States since assuming supreme leadership of North Korea in 2011, Kim Jong Un could argue that he has never really been taken seriously.
But Mr. Kim’s new year address has turned heads, and his threats may finally be treated with gravity rather than gaiety. 2016, Mr. Kim proclaimed, saw North Korea achieve “the status of a nuclear power, a military giant… which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke”. Additionally, he said, it had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM]”.
The first statement was mere puff, the second laced with menace. Fully-functioning ICBMs have a minimum range of 5,500 km, and some are designed to travel 10,000 km or further. The continental US lies 9,000 km from North Korea.
Pyongyang’s nuclear progress
Some Western media outlets have assumed a level of certainty in Mr. Kim’s intentions that was not present in the speech itself. The New York Times, for example, ran the headline ‘North Korea Will Test Intercontinental Ballistic Missile’. Instead, Mr. Kim’s address should be seen as something of a victory parade for the strides that North Korea’s nuclear programme has made in the past year - more a ceremonial patting of his own back than an imminent declaration of war.
These strides are undeniable. Joshua Pollack, editor of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Review, told The World Weekly that the North made two key technical advances in 2016. The first was a static test of a heat shield, a component designed to protect the nuclear warhead on the missile’s reentry into the atmosphere. The second was a static test of the first stage of a KN-08 mobile ICBM. According to Mr. Pollack, both tests (which were broadcast to the world) seemed “designed to correct common misconceptions in the West about North Korean ICBM technology”.
On top of this, last spring North Korean state media shared a photo of Mr. Kim looking inquisitively at a beach ball-sized metallic orb, which it described as a miniaturised warhead that could be mounted on ICBMs. On Wednesday, the US State Department denied that North Korea had developed such technology. However, Pyongyang has described its fifth major nuclear test, conducted in September, as a successful outing for that warhead.
“If we are to take them at their word,” Mr. Pollack said, “all that remains for them to hold the US at risk is to start and complete a campaign of ICBM flight-tests, followed by deployment of the weapons to the field.”
This is why nonproliferation experts were appalled by President-elect Donald Trump’s typically blasé response. “It won’t happen!” he tweeted in response to Mr. Kim's address. Although it was initially unclear whether Mr. Trump was suggesting that North Korea would be unable to construct a fully-functioning ICBM, it seems that he was drawing a line in the sand, stating that the Trump administration would not allow North Korea to develop such a weapon. Mr. Trump then proceeded to lambast China for refusing to help Washington deal with Pyongyang, despite “taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade”.
For all Mr. Trump’s posturing, it is in South Korea where Pyongyang’s ICBM-rattling causes most anxiety. Unlike many in the West, it has been awake to the danger for some time. “Since authorities and experts in South Korea have predicted that Kim would conduct a long-range ballistic missile test during the first half of 2017,” said Professor Jaechun Kim, a political scientist from Seoul’s Sogang University, Mr. Kim’s remarks “didn’t come as a surprise”.
Indeed, despite the US State Department’s protestations to the contrary, South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy published a report on December 25 stating that the “seriousness of the North Korean nuclear program lies in the rapid growth in the number of warheads, as well as its miniaturisation and diversification”. It continued: “The North is estimated to have succeeded in developing nuclear warheads on par with boosted fission weapons through its fourth and fifth nuclear tests."
So just how severe is the threat to the safety and security of the US and its allies? For James Hoare, the former British chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, the answer requires a degree of clairvoyance. “Nobody really knows what Kim Jong Un's views are or what he intends to do with his nuclear and missile programme,” he told TWW. Given the America's formidable nuclear capability, an attack would be tantamount to suicide. Yet Mr. Kim is an unknown quantity and “he might think he could get away with such an action - we do not know”.
Although North Korea has in the past acted as a convenient menace for countries seeking to justify their own nuclear arsenals - not only in Washington and Beijing, but in London and elsewhere - recent condemnation of Mr. Kim, particularly from China, seems sincere.
Sino-North Korean relations are currently at their lowest ebb. After the North’s fourth major nuclear test in March 2016, China was a major player in the UN’s imposition of various sanctions on Pyongyang, helping draft the resolution and pledging to uphold its rulings. Even before the resolution had been passed, reports emerged that Sino-Korean trade in the Chinese border city of Dandong had been curtailed, and that Beijing had severely restricted the North’s access to various ports on the northeastern coastline.
China’s exports to North Korea in July 2016 plunged 27.6% from the same month the previous year, according to the Korea International Trade Organisation.
It is no accident that China’s growing estrangement with North Korea coincided with Mr. Kim’s assumption of North Korea’s leadership from his father, the late Kim Jong Il. Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution argues that Beijing’s support and implementation of United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang in March 2016 was driven by “the cavalier, near-contemptuous attitude of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s impetuous young leader, toward his principal source of economic support”.
Mr. Kim’s arrogance, combined with a profound desire not to upset Beijing’s vital diplomatic and economic relationship with Seoul, seems to have led President Xi Jinping to conclude that North Korea causes more trouble than it is worth. On the surface at least, such a conclusion opens the door for collaboration with the US on North Korea.
The wildcard, of course, is Mr. Trump. His willingness to rip up the US foreign policy playbook, and in particular to pursue a much more confrontational relationship with China, could destabilise the entire region. This week he tapped Robert Lighthizer, who has advocated a “much more aggressive approach in dealing with China”, as his trade representative. Still more concerning for Beijing is Mr. Trump’s apparent embrace of Taiwan.
For Dr. Hoare, Mr. Trump’s hardline approach to Beijing is “not very reassuring”, and means that there will be “very little Sino-US cooperation on North Korea”. Although the Chinese may not like Mr. Kim’s constant nuclear chest-puffing, Beijing seems to like the way that the US is handling the situation even less. Reports emerged that China’s foreign ministry has this week threatened some of South Korea’s largest companies with sanctions as a result of Seoul’s decision to host a US ballistic missile shield in the country. Beijing claims that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system undermines its own nuclear deterrent, and allows the US to use its powerful radar to peek into its territory. Joint Sino-American action to counter Pyongyang seems increasingly unlikely.
A nuclear winter?
What can we expect in 2017? Professor Kim foresees “another year of living dangerously in the Korean peninsula”, suggesting that the supreme leader may try to “test the nerves” of the incoming Trump administration. He may also seek to take advantage of the political maelstrom currently engulfing South Korea, whose president, Park Geun-hye, has been impeached.
The stance of the international community will continue to evolve. Mr. Trump has yet to reveal his policy plans towards North Korea (besides describing Mr. Kim as a “bad dude” in February last year), but an adviser to his transition team told Reuters that a “period of serious sanctions” was the most likely course of action.
Yet recent events suggest such sanctions are unlikely to deter Mr. Kim. North Korea, Dr. Hoare says, “is set on a trajectory that seems to lead inexorably to being a real nuclear state”. A nuclear winter remains unlikely, but Kim Jong Un’s bellicosity is no laughing matter.