North Korea: waiting out the tortoise?
12 Feb 2016|


North Korea’s latest satellite launch helps expose the paucity of the international community’s options for responding against a determined proliferator. The UN huddles to agree on new sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s regime. China counsels all parties to act calmly and with deliberation, clearly still believing that the present regime in Pyongyang is preferable to an uncertain future on the peninsula. The Obama administration clings tenaciously to its policy of strategic patience—a policy that makes sense only on the condition that we can wait out North Korean radicalism.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are never going to win any prizes for speed or technological prowess. Events typically have a stage-managed character to them. They’re often conducted to celebrate particular occasions on the leadership calendar: Kim Jong-un’s birthday, for example. Official media coverage of the events contain a mixture of real and concocted footage. The test of an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile depicts the missile streaking boldly into the sky, which in all likelihood never happened. Coverage of the space launch last Sunday appears to include footage from the 2012 space launch.

But one thing is clear: even a tortoise will eventually reach the winning post. What constitutes the winning post? A semi-reliable long range ballistic missile that can be fitted with a solitary nuclear warhead and perhaps some elementary penetration aids to confuse a ballistic missile defence. How far is North Korea from that goal? We don’t know—and that’s worrying in itself. Common sense says it’s better at building shorter-range missiles than longer-range ones, but the same is true of everyone. Common sense also says it’s harder to miniaturise a nuclear warhead than to build one at all, but again that doesn’t get us far in judging North Korean progress down the miniaturisation path.

In the absence of hard data about the rate of technological progress, there’s an obvious tendency to make worst-case assumptions about North Korean capabilities. That seems to be the US military’s approach, with senior US military leaders occasionally stating that they have to assume Pyongyang already has the ability to target the continental US with a nuclear warhead.

The assumption isn’t contrived. The launch of a satellite into space uses similar technologies to those needed for a long range missile. The launcher has to accelerate the satellite to a velocity of 7km/sec in order to achieve orbital insertion, and that’s the sort of capability a state needs in order to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. If the throw-weight of the launcher is large enough—in other words, if the nuclear warhead weighs approximately the same as the satellite—it should be possible to substitute one payload for another.

True, a satellite launch isn’t exactly like a ballistic missile test: it doesn’t allow testing of a re-entry vehicle, for example. Stresses upon an ICBM RV are higher—because of velocity and heat—than they are upon a shorter-range RV. And the payloads might not be perfectly interchangeable, for the simple reason that the physical dimensions of a nuclear warhead are more constrained than those of a satellite meant to broadcast a few happy slogans about life under Kim Jong-un. But remember the tortoise. If we give Pyongyang long enough, and the regime endures, it will eventually reach the winning post.

With sanctions ineffective, negotiations non-existent, and strategic patience wearing thin, the international community is in the market for new ideas on how to constrain the tortoise. What we might call the gentler options have so far failed, which means that harder options are gradually looking more attractive. Those include something already under discussion: the deployment of US ballistic missile defences to neighbouring countries. But Beijing opposes that option, concerned that the associated radars would look deeply enough into China that they could provide early tracking capabilities against Chinese strategic missiles.

The harder options might also include the deployment of a small number of US nuclear warheads in Northeast Asia to reinforce extended deterrence relationships with US allies, though it’s hard to see the Obama administration pursuing that course. And we shouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of overt military action against the North’s nuclear and missile programs. That would be an extreme option—many would prefer tolerating Pyongyang’s possession of a small nuclear arsenal before reaching that point. Still, tolerance turns upon the same axis as strategic patience—the judgment that we can wait out North Korean radicalism. Can we?

We’re past the easy options, and they haven’t worked. But in all likelihood the latest bout of nuclear and missile testing won’t be enough to precipitate the harder options now necessary to deflect Pyongyang from its course. International leaders will take solace in the fact that they’re menaced by a tortoise, after all.