STATE OF ALERT: North Korea has changed the tenor of its threats to include a nuclear strike. Here students gather around a statue of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, whose birthday will be celebrated April 15. Image: Courtesy of Denis Bakfiets, via WikiMedia Commons
North Korea has been threatening its neighbor to the south as well as its U.S. ally with invasion and destruction for more than 60 years. Backed by China, the North made good on the first part of this promise in June 1950, sparking the Korean War. But for the most part the decades of hostile rhetoric since the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting have amounted to little more than minor skirmishes. It’s easy to dismiss North Korea’s latest round of pronunciations and posturing as more of the same, except for one important variation in the Kim Jung-un regime’s verbiage. This time around the threat is “thermonuclear” war, and it comes about two months after North Korea’s third nuclear test prompted the U.N. Security Council to pursue additional sanctions against the North.
Taken on its own, North Korea’s recent saber rattling is not much different from what the country has done in the past. The Kim regime earlier this week warned foreign embassies in its capital Pyongyang to consider evacuating by April 10 for their own safety. North Korea this week also withdrew all of its workers and suspended operations in the country’s Kaesong Industrial Zone, which it jointly administers with South Korea, something former leader Kim Jong-il (the late father of the current leader) did three times in 2009. Pyongyang likewise relocated intermediate-range ballistic missiles on mobile launchers—including a couple of untested BM-25 Musudan weapons theoretically capable of reaching Guam 3,500 kilometers away—to its Japan-facing east coast.
Kim Jong-un’s strange proclamations and behavior—including meeting with former basketball star Dennis Rodman—make it tempting to dismiss his regime as ineffectual and out of touch with reality. Yet U.S. officials have taken North Korea’s agitation seriously, even canceling an intercontinental ballistic missile test with the South as part of this year’s joint field training exercises to avoid any misunderstanding that might worsen the situation.
Much of this caution stems from North Korea’s secretive nature and its ongoing efforts to build up nuclear capabilities. The country’s February 12 underground nuclear detonation—about 380 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang—touched off a seismic event measuring between magnitudes 4.9 and 5.2, which correspond to a weapon with an estimated explosive yield of six or seven kilotons. The explosion surpasses the yield of North Korea’s 2009 nuclear test (estimated to have been between two and six kilotons) and a one-kiloton test in 2006.
North Korea has claimed that the February test was to develop a “smaller and light” warhead, according to a report last week from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). (pdf) If so, the test would contribute to North Korea’s ability to develop a warhead that could be mounted on a medium- or long-range missile, although it’s still unclear whether the North Koreans tested a uranium- or plutonium-based device, the CRS report notes.
This matters, according to the CRS, because North Korea is widely believed to have mastered the engineering requirements of plutonium and may now be focusing its efforts on mastering uranium enrichment. The North has also built a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon that could produce highly enriched uranium for weapons or low-enriched uranium reactor fuel that could be irradiated for plutonium production. The CRS estimates that North Korea has enough separated plutonium to build several nuclear weapons. In terms of delivering those weapons, the North successfully launched a satellite into orbit in December using a ballistic missile. Still, launching a missile and hitting a terrestrial target are two very different things.
Scientific American spoke with Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, about the events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. Cumings, the author of several books on North Korea, explains the animosity between the Koreas, the risk of taking the North’s threats lightly and why that country should be allowed to keep any nuclear weapons it currently possesses.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
In the 60 years since the armistice that ended Korean War fighting, the Koreas have frequently engaged in hostile rhetoric. What is different this time around?
It’s not unusual for North Korea to ramp up pressure and tension on its neighbor to the south when that country and the U.S. hold military exercises, which they do on a regular basis. However, as far as I know this is the first time the North has said it is targeting nuclear weapons at South Korea or the U.S. I don’t know that we’re close to war with North Korea right now, but the threats coming out of Pyongyang lately are an extreme form of what they’ve done in the past. As a result, there’s a hyped-up situation that the White House and the Pentagon have recently been trying to diffuse by putting out word just about every day that there are no unusual troop movements in North Korea, no missiles being readied for launch—except for one or two that the country put on their east coast, probably for a test.
What has kept North Korea from making good on its threats over the years?
North Korea has the capability to inflict huge damage on the South and on Japan. But it has been deterred from launching a serious military offensive six ways to breakfast since 1953, and were they to have launched such an attack at any point in the past 60 years, they would have lost everything they have built since the war ended. They have no effective defense against U.S. airpower and missiles, except to run underground, as they did during the Korean War. They are a unique subterranean people, with some 15,000 underground facilities of a national security nature. In fact, nearly all of their military forces are underground.
North Korea’s latest threats involve the use of nuclear weapons against South Korea and the U.S., yet much of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are a mystery. What do we know about their ability to launch a nuclear strike?
In general, North Korea has the capability to invade South Korea and cause a horrendous mess, with 10,000 artillery guns in the mountains just north of Seoul and 300,000 to 400,000 crack troops in special forces and guerrilla units. South Korea and the U.S. could defeat a conventional North Korean attack, though it would take half a million U.S. troops, 650,000 South Korean troops and six months to do it. Probably twice the number of troops would be needed to conquer and successfully govern the North. Though I think you would still have warfare going on there for years, a North Korean attack on the South would ultimately mean the end of the Kim regime.
Even if North Korea actually wanted to up the ante by using nuclear weapons, they cannot, to my knowledge, deliver a nuclear weapon on the South short of trucking it across the border, or so-called in situ placement. If they put an A-bomb on a bomber it would be shot down immediately; their missiles do not have nuclear warheads to the best of my knowledge.
What keeps South Korea and the U.S. from preemptively ending any nuclear threat from North Korea?
Paradoxically the U.S. and South Korea are in a similar position as they were in 1953. They are capable of defeating a North Korean invasion of the South, but invading, occupying and governing the North would still be a monumental task. The North Koreans have another 700,000 or 800,000 in their army—in addition to their special forces—that probably aren’t crack troops, but that’s an awful lot of people to deal with in a very mountainous country with all sorts of underground facilities. I think it would be a nightmare to defeat North Korea and try to unify the peninsula. And what would China do if U.S. troops again arrived at their Yalu [River] border? There is no military solution in Korea.
In response to North Korea’s most recent nuclear test in February, the U.S. and its allies tightened sanctions against the North. Is this a potential path to resolving the current hostilities?
These sanctions are a ratcheting up of previous sanctions [prohibiting North Korea from conducting future nuclear tests, giving countries the right to destroy North Korean cargo suspected of including banned materials, denying bulk cash transfers into the country, and freezing any assets or bank accounts tied to the country’s nuclear program]. A new element is that China for the first time worked up new sanctions with the U.S. In the past China has voted for sanctions but didn't actually develop them—and it didn't enforce them. China’s doing this because North Korea decided to make life very hard for China. There is the risk that South Korea and Japan might go nuclear, and North Korea’s words and actions have prompted the U.S. to redouble their missile defenses in the region—which can probably also take out China's intercontinental ballistic missiles.