Yesterday North Korea conducted a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a system which once functional could serve as a working ‘nuclear deterrent’. This test was nonetheless only partially successful at best, flying a total of 30km according to officials within the South Korea military. Following failures last year, this latest test shows that the North Korean (DPRK) nuclear deterrent is still some years away from being fully effective.
The DPRK’s Nuclear Goals
While some have suggested in the past that the DPRK’s nuclear program was not so-much driven by military strategy, as it was by a diplomatic strategy of creating and relieving tension, its continual development and progress in recent years has generally ruled this out. Instead, the primary driver behind the country’s push to develop nuclear weapons is the establishment of a so-called ‘nuclear deterrent’.
In this case, a nuclear deterrent is the ability to cause significant (and unacceptable) damage to any country that attacks you or attempts (in the case of the DPRK) regime change. For such a deterrent, North Korea would need to demonstrate that it can both miniaturize its nuclear weapons and then deploy them atop ballistic missiles capable of carrying them to their target.
According to South Korean officials; North Korea has already developed the technology to miniaturize its warheads, however specific confirmation of this has yet to be demonstrated. As well, North Korea has recently tested rockets similar in design to intercontinental ballistic missiles; however these have achieved only partial successes at best, with most tests ending in failure.
Another significant part of a nuclear deterrent is a ‘second strike’ capability. This implies a way of delivering nuclear weapons to a target nation, even after most of your country’s military systems have been destroyed in a devastating first strike. Usually this capability takes the form of nuclear missiles launched from submarines, which are all but impossible to track. The fact that North Korea is developing the technology for such missiles, implies that it is taking a second strike deterrent seriously.
Incomplete But Not Impotent
From the failed missile launches, to the lower-than-expected yield nuclear tests, it is clear that the DPRK is still some years away from a foolproof nuclear deterrent. Nevertheless, significant technical progress is being made, especially when one takes into consideration that low economic development of the country, and crippling UN sanctions. Beyond the ridicule of many in the international press, the North Korea nuclear program is growing increasingly more dangerous.
Putting aside intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the country already has the ability to strike at its local enemies (Japan and South Korea) particularly through unconventional means. As well, its stockpile of nuclear weapons is likely now greater than 20, with some believing that it could have up 100 by 2020.
This alone means that losses from a full-scale war with North Korea would already be unacceptably high, especially for the United States’ Asian allies. While a military solution to the DPRK’s nuclear program is made less palatable, a political one is also becoming less likely, as the country grows ever more isolated. Formerly its principal ally, now even China is sharpening its rhetoric towards North Korea.
Taken in totality, the progress of North Korea’s nuclear problem is dangerous indeed. The country’s internal politics are highly unstable, and its external rhetoric is increasingly war-like and schizophrenic following the rise of Kim Jung-Un. Regional and international players alike would do well to work together to establish practical frameworks for cooperative defence and nuclear threat mitigation should the situation continue to deteriorate.
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