Nuclear Power Play: How North Korea Uses U.S. Fears to Gain Leverage

    Masahiro Kurita

    Security, Asia

    Soldiers hold weapons while sitting on a vehicle carrying rockets as it drives past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

    North Korea is about to acquire the technological capability to produce nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the continental United States. So what?

    Despite mounting international pressure, North Korea is resolutely advancing toward achieving nuclear deterrent against the United States. The rapid pace of its nuclear development has caused impatience on the side of the United States and its allies, and one recurring theme in recent debates is that the international community is “running out of time.”

    However, this mindset is incorrect. Due to two narratives established by the post–Cold War proliferation studies, which have dealt with the issue of emerging nuclear powers, the implication of Pyongyang’s limited nuclear capability has been overestimated and we have cornered ourselves into an unnecessarily disadvantageous position. As some experts have noted, North Korea’s nuclear ICBM is not a game changer. It doesn’t make a cataclysmic shift in the East-Asian strategic environment imminent, and eventual denuclearization is still possible. There is no need to prematurely resort to a costly preventive-war. Only by reversing those narratives can we deal with this national-security issue more easily rather than in a time-pressured manner.

    What has Pyongyang achieved?

    North Korea is about to acquire the technological capability to produce nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the continental United States. In terms of deterrence, however, what can accrue to North Korea from achieving and possessing nuclear ICBMs is limited—especially since such a rudimentary capability is vulnerable to the adversary’s nuclear first-strike. It cannot be anything but a form of existential deterrence, which rests not on the certainty of nuclear retaliation but on the uncertainty perceived by the adversary, and its deterrent effect is, by nature, vague and unreliable—especially in the eyes of the possessor. Even more, there is no way that this capability can serve as an effective tool of compellence to make significant gains, like relieving sanctions vis-à-vis more established nuclear powers.

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