More thoughts on North Korea

I thought it would be nice to just explore further why North Korea’s ICBM capability changes the geopolitical calculations quite a bit, and could lead to other unintended consequences, the most important being the credibility of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the prospect of more countries acquiring nuclear weapons.

The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty is a set of rules and monitoring mechanisms that sought to limit the number of countries that could have nuclear arsenals.

We would have to go back to the 1970s, when India became a nuclear-weapons country. This was an unprecedented event, and would eventually lead to Pakistan wanting to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1990s and the proliferation threat that they posed. With that, the world had to live with two more nuclear weapons-capable country — India and Pakistan, in addition to a third — Israel.

So why do countries want to acquire nuclear weapons? Countries want to acquire nuclear weapons as a sign of prestige, that they matter in the world. More importantly, they are a ultimate deterrent and guarantor for their sovereignty. In the Cold War, this went under the term, “Mutually Assured Destruction.” But it was more than just a race for more nuclear weapons; it was also part of a system of politics and technological development to ensure that both sides would continue to have ‘parity’ — the ability to more or less destroy the whole world together. This was why the American missile defense shield was seen as threatening — the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars”, as it was known at that time. The ability to shoot down missiles from the other side would render nuclear weapons obsolete, and would tilt the world towards instability, as the inferior country would be prompted to use their nuclear weapons before the defense was ready, and so on.

Saddam Hussein wanted to acquire nuclear weapons to deter further attacks from Iran — a ruse that failed tragically with his ouster following the 2003 conflict. North Korean leaders thus learnt that it was better to have nuclear weapons than risk regime change from the United States.

And so we come to North Korea. North Korea’s ICBM programme and nuclear weapons appear to be, the beginning of the development of a limited deterrent — to build weapons that can reach the continental United States, presumably to deter an American attack. There are a couple of things here: if there was to be a military attack on North Korea, it would almost certainly come after reaching a consensus with South Korea and Japan, and even China. Such an attack would also, almost certainly, lead to the destruction of Seoul — this much is known. This strategic balance has prevented the US and South Korea from attacking the North.

(If the US acted unilaterally, it would break off the US-South Korea alliance, and affect the US-Japan alliance as well. It would cause US to be seen as an unreliable treaty partner, and cause every country that has partnerships with the US to reconsider their position.)

So why would a nuclear-capable ICBM make any difference?

The difference is that North Korea can now directly threaten the continental United States. Can an American president be seen to not to be acting pro-actively against such a prospect?

More importantly, the Non-Proliferation Treaty will also suffer a severe loss of credibility. It was already affected when India and Pakistan (and Israel) became de facto nuclear weapons states without loss of international support. For North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them will also mean that other states wishing to protect themselves from regime change should also pursue nuclear weapons. This was the animating logic for Iran.

This is actually the more important indirect threat that North Korea nuclear threat poses — of a world where more countries seek to create their own nuclear arsenals, knowing now that there’s no penalty. Indirectly, it contributes to a more dangerous world, where countries seek to become regional hegemons by acquiring their own nuclear weapons.