How big is the threat from North Korea?

As North Korea ramps up its testing of nuclear weapons, international relations experts comment on escalating tensions and the war of words between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

Could you comment on the war of words that is currently happening between the US and North Korea?

Terence Roehrig, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College:

While the increasing tension levels is concerning, in my view it will stay a war of words. Military action is a very bad idea, especially any type of preventive strike against North Korea's nuclear and missile program. Seoul remains very vulnerable.

Kevin Gray, Reader in International Relations at University of Sussex:

North Korea has resorted to aggressive rhetoric in the past. Their threats often seem very alarming, but most North Korea observers, and I'm sure diplomats, quickly learn to take threats of turning Seoul into a "Sea of Fire" not too seriously. I think it is a strategy that has been used by North Korea, which is essentially an economically weak country with a fairly antiquated military, to leverage its influence and get what it wants. What is new is the use of what amounts to pretty much the same kind of rhetoric by a US president. This potentially adds a much more destabilising factor into the equation. If North Korea's actions are primarily driven by its sense of insecurity driven by a strong US military presence in Northeast Asia, the prospects of a cycle of threat and counter-threat by the US could be very dangerous.

Derek Bolton, Political Science Professor at the University of Bath:

North Korea's successful development of a miniaturized nuclear warhead is alarming, but not surprising, given its trajectory. The regime in Pyongyang is not looking to spark a wider engagement it knows it would lose, meaning confrontational rhetoric only destabilizes what is an already tense situation. The real threat then is from further provocative behavior potentially setting off unintended consequences that could quickly spiral into a larger conflict that neither side wants.

What measures should the world community use to stop North Korean aggression?

Kevin Gray:

It is quite clear that sanctions have failed to slow down North Korea's development of WMD, largely due to the US's coordination problems with China as well as due to the nature of the North Korean regime, which is relatively insulated from the impact of sanctions. Nothing underlines this more than the fact that the recovery and growth of the North Korean economy in recent years has been simultaneous with the strengthening of the sanctions regime. Military action is simply not an option due to the huge of loss of life that could result from any North Korean retaliation. The only realistic approach is negotiations. It should be noted that North Korea has repeatedly requested negotiations with the US over its nuclear program, including last month via its ambassador to India, though this was ignored by the US and South Korea.

Part of the problem here is the unrealistic nature of the United Nations Security Council and US demands, which are based on North Korea's denuclearization as a precondition for talks. What is more likely at this stage is a moratorium on further testing in exchange for certain measures such as scaling down or suspension of US military exercises in the West Sea, which the North regards as threatening, and in the longer term, a peace treaty and diplomatic recognition. These are demands that North Korea has made repeatedly, but unfortunately the US has lacked the leadership to make this happen.

What does North Korea hope to achieve?

Derek Bolton: 

North Korea conducted its first successful nuclear test in 2006. However, it is still some way from claiming a nuclear deterrent or, perhaps what it truly craves, being recognized as a nuclear weapons state. To achieve these aims, a few things need to occur. For one, the North Koreans need to achieve miniaturization – that is they need to produce and test a nuclear device small enough to fit on a delivery mechanisms. The second is creating such a mechanism – for example an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). North Korea already possesses medium range missiles. These more recent tests have thus been aimed at trying to master the technical prowess to not only launch an ICBM, but also to guide that missile to strike a specified target following re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. In short, North Korea is working to solidify its position as a nuclear weapons state, both to underscore its deterrent capability and to showcase itself as an advanced, modern, independent state.

Terence Roehrig:

North Korea’s testing has two primary goals. To ensure it has a credible deterrent, Pyongyang must be sure these systems work, particularly the ability to target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. Thus, testing is driven, in large measure, by technical requirements. However, these tests also play a role in deterrence signaling. With these programs, North Korea is standing up the United States and South Korea. North Korean leaders also believe these weapons generate prestige, making them one of the few nuclear-capable states, as well as providing leverage and strength in any future dealings with Seoul and Washington.

Does North Korea pose a serious risk to global security?

Kevin Gray:

North Korea’s strategy is based on brinkmanship, and so there is always scope for events to get out of control. The threat of the Korean problem depends greatly on how other countries in the region react, for example the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea has served to deepen the arms race in the region. Furthermore, if North Korea is accepted as a nuclear state, this may lead other countries in the region to develop nuclear weapons.

Derek Bolton:

The real risk is an inadvertent escalation of tensions sparked off by a more low-level incident. Most scholars and analysts are uniform in their assumption the North is not ‘crazy’ or ‘irrational’, and that Pyongyang understands it would quickly lose any war. The real fear is that smaller incidents, such as a naval conflict along the Northern Limit Line or an incident along the DMZ, might accidently grow into something much larger. North Korea has often resorted to more aggressive measures and forms of brinkmanship to achieve policy objectives and without adequate mechanisms in place to diffuse tensions the situation could unravel.

What role do other countries’ interests play? 

Derek Bolton: 

There are a few problems at play here. For one, it appears that the Trump administration might be gearing up to take a more hardline approach to North Korea, most likely in the form of more sanctions, while Seoul appears to be holding open the door to dialogue. There is consequently a potential for future friction in the US - Republic of Korea alliance, as was witnessed the last time the two sides diverged on North Korea. Meanwhile, the US is also pushing through its plans to introduce a missile defense shield in South Korea, much to the displeasure of China, which views this as a direct threat to its own interests, leading to more friction in the region.

This also brings into question China’s views on the issue. Beijing has little interest in seeing North Korea collapse; Pyongyang acts as an effective bumper against US forces suddenly appearing on its border – coupled with a mass influx of North Korean refugees. At the same time, China has longed worked for stability on the peninsula. Thus, while China will at time reprimand the North (with Pyongyang historically rebuffing perceptions of Chinese great power chauvinism), it will refrain from instigating a situation where North Korea collapses. Consequently, those hoping China is the key to solving problems with North Korea seriously underestimate the animosity Pyongyang has historically held against Chinese incursions into DPRK domestic affairs.

Image credit (stephan).