How did it happen: North Korea’s quest for legitimacy and the threat to security and peace

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How did it happen: North Korea’s quest for legitimacy and the threat to security and peace

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Guest post by Ian Fleming, member of the IAPSS Student Research Committee on Conflict, Security and Crime.

In 2003, when the Six Party Talks started, North Korea had already started paving its way to acquire a nuclear weapon with the capability to reach the United States. Throughout, the failed Six Party Talks North Korea carried out three nuclear and missile tests and had Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) in parades in 2012, 2013 and 2015. These efforts were met with the same outrage but never fruitfully addressed to stop Pyongyang from attaining one of the goals that has influenced its domestic and foreign policy since the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945. Even though, a nuclear armed North Korea presents a security challenge on the Korean Peninsula, the motivations behind the nuclear program remain an interest for nuclear proliferation analysts. This opinion piece demonstrates how Pyongyang’s April 2017 military parade that showed off a series of new missiles, as well as two different types of missile canisters that appeared designed for never-before-seen ICBMs and the July 28 ICBM testing all had roots in the failure of a proper response to address the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear program. The case for legitimacy through nuclear weapons is demonstrated with how Pyongyang has diligently out witted powerful states like the U.S. by arguing that if the U.S. has nuclear weapons, it (Pyongyang) should also have nuclear weapons for “security reasons” against the U.S.

The challenge to security analysts comes from the failure to understand the Kim regime and how it would handle its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has remained reclusive and isolated and this presents a challenge to those who would want to understand in what circumstances would Pyongyang use its nuclear weapons. However, based on North Korea’s penchant for escalation and threats, one can only assume what a nuclear armed North Korea is capable of. Nuclear powers, should refrain from indulging into North Korea’s tactics of tit-for-tat. What I mean by this is that nuclear powers cannot threaten North Korea with nuclear retaliation if Kim Jong-un challenges them. The repercussions could be dire and based on theorists who have written about “The game of chicken” players should only indulge in the game if they are prepared to follow through with the threats.

Based on how North Korea has followed through with the nuclear program over the years, it shows that the “Hermit Kingdom” seeks a path to be seen as a legitimate power through nuclear weapons. The Kim regime’s isolation has not helped deter its nuclear program but it has exacerbated Kim Jong-un’s quest to be recognized as a global nuclear power. The threat to international and regional security was never underestimated if North Korea acquired a nuclear weapon but the United States and China failed to halt the program or to come to a negotiated settlement with Pyongyang. Their failure should not be attributed only to the lack of will to stop the nuclear weapons development in North Korea but should be looked at in all its capacity/form. What has driven North Korea to get the nuclear weapon is bigger and much emotional than a day at the Six Party Talks to try to negotiate a nuclear disarmament deal. Both the U.S. and China were always up against a regime that is driven by a quest for legitimacy. No negotiation which did not facilitate the provision of a nuclear weapon could have stopped the nuclear tests of July 2017 and those beforehand.

The U.S. has tried to avoid sending higher diplomatic personal to the DPRK so that they do not legitimize the Kim family. Their motivations however, have been proven a sign of wishful thinking because North Korea continued nonetheless with the weapons development capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. It was never inconceivable that North Korea would develop a nuclear weapon and put it on a missile. But there was never a reason to assume that if the U.S. denied North Korea legitimacy, North Korea would not fight its way through to attaining the recognition that it craves. Through the countless failed tests, one thing has remained consistent in Pyongyang- they are willing to gain legitimacy at any costs, even if it means half of its population remains poverty stricken. In a September 11th 2016 publication, the guardian pointed out that, North Korea had demanded the US recognize it as a “legitimate nuclear weapons state” following its fifth and largest atomic test, adding that threats of further sanctions against the country were “laughable”.

The reality is that North Korea’s nuclear-armed missiles have become a threat to the security and peace of the Asian region as well as the continental Northern America. Not only has Kim Jong-un been described as irrational and unpredictable, but the North Korean leader penchant for reclusiveness presents a challenge to those who would want to assess the potential of the regime in using the nuclear weapons if tempted or faced with a reason to do so. Even though the Kim regime is reclusive, there is no evidence that illustrates that Kim Jong-un would use the nuclear missiles against its Southern neighbor or the United States. However, this does not lessen the threat to security and peace that a nuclear armed North Korea poses. The previous tests signify that Pyongyang is now on a path to improve its nuclear missiles and this would open a door for them to carry out mass production of nuclear weapons which could be sold to perceived rogue states or entities such as ISIS or Iran. The economic sanctions imposed on the regime would no longer be able to affect the regime from covertly selling its mass produced nuclear weapons to the highest bidder. I make this point, to highlight that, North Korea’s security threat does not emanate from it using the ICBM against a rival state but presents a wider challenge when North Korea decides to covertly sell its nuclear weapons to entities that would not hesitate to use them.

North Korea’s nuclear tests would no longer be in pursuit or a desperate measure to acquire legitimacy, they would become instead a routine activity associated with improving its nuclear arsenal as well as a source for potential economic relief from the economic sanctions that have crippled the regime. The regime is in transition from seeking legitimacy to finding another use for the nuclear missiles that could potentially have a significant threat on the peace and security of the entire international system. These missile tests leaves international leaders with only one option – to treat North Korea as a de-facto nuclear state whether they find this reprehensible. The challenges that a nuclear armed North Korea are many especially to the peace and security but from a North Korean perspective, its quest for legitimacy is almost fulfilled. This also means that any policy stances regarding North Korea should consider the fact that the North has nuclear weapons. Since the Kim regime has found legitimacy through its “nuclear armament diplomacy”, then going forward requires a rational assessment of how North Korea’s nuclear capabilities affect the future unfolding of inter-Korean relations and regional security order in Northeast Asia.

Over the past years, denying and doubting North Korea’s potential to get an ICBM brought us here. Even though an operationally armed North Korea might leave a bad taste in the mouth for most analysts, the eventuality has been shown by North Korea’s commitment under the most stringent economic sanctions. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will fundamentally alter the current security order in the Korean peninsula. The questions that were raised by Defense Minister Han of South Korea and Secretary of Defense Carter in 2016 in a joint statement on the future of the Korean Peninsula’s security and peace if North Korea continued with threats to acquire a nuclear weapon or if they managed to attain nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles might be answered in the very near future since Pyongyang is one step closer from sealing the nuclear deal.

Some pundits argue that a nuclear North Korea is not a game changer. This conclusion implies that Northeast Asia’s regional security dynamics essentially will stay the same even with North Korea emerging as a nuclear power. However, a nuclear armed North Korea might become bullish in its interaction with South Korea or Japan. The existing U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances deterrence system is still more powerful and challenges North Korea’s attempts to directly affect South Korea or Japan due to their superior military capabilities compared to the North Korean stockpile. Even if Pyongyang augments its military capabilities with nuclear warheads, it is still a long way from matching the United States. Certainly, North Korea’s nuclear weapons may complicate the existing regional order, but it will not fundamentally alter the underlying security order of crisis stability defined by a tight balance of mutually assured deterrence capability prevalent in the region. Admittedly North Korea’s nuclear weapons will require that regional states of Northeast Asia adopt a different set of military strategies and diplomatic responses. Moreover, the U.S.-ROK alliance should have a more coherent approach on North Korea to avoid showing any signs of weakness that Pyongyang would manipulate to benefit its bullish strategy to weaken the alliance. If the alliance remains strong, the chances of North Korea’s nuclear armament will not directly change anything on the Korean Peninsula. Could North Korea’s desire for recognition as a legitimate Nuclear Weapon State be signaling a quest for a multi polar world which is not dictated to only by the US?


Ian FlemingIan Fleming holds an Honors degree in Bachelor of Arts in International Politics from the University of South Africa. He is about to complete a Masters of Arts in International Politics, with a focus on the North Korea nuclear issue. In the MA dissertation, he analyzes how time delay tactics in nuclear negotiations create an environment conducive for entrapment especially for the stronger parties. He has researched on the Israeli/Palestine conflict negotiations and the security matters. His areas of interest include nuclear proliferation, the conduct of negotiations and the influence of social media on International and national politics.

IAPSS Academic Department
Under this account posts authored by members and collaborators of the IAPSS Academic Department are published.

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