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North Korea’s Nuclear Security Blanket

North Korea and the United States have been at odds since the Korean War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea was left looking for a new protector and benefactor – a new security blanket. North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, if allowed to grow larger and more sophisticated, will become a “security blanket” for the regime and create a false sense that Pyongyang can do what it wills in northeast Asia without worry of interference from the United States. This “security blanket” theory is one of the primary hurdles blocking a nuclear deal between North Korea and the United States.

Picture courtesy of Stefan Krasowski, © 2013

Above all else, North Korea wants regime security. Kim Jong-un, his father, and his grandfather all witnessed the United States and its allies steamroll adversarial regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. In the cases of Iraq and Libya, both regimes had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Muammar Gaddafi decided to give up his WMD programs around the same time the United States was gearing up for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2011, well after Libya’s WMD program had been dismantled, Western air strikes supported an uprising that led to Gaddafi’s violent death at the hands of the rebels.

The lesson for dictators and regimes that oppose the United States is pretty clear: a lack of a strategic WMD deterrent leaves you vulnerable to regime change by the United States. North Korea fits into this same mold: though it has a large standing military, North Korea’s forces are equipped with mostly vintage Soviet equipment. This includes heavy equipment such as Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines and MiG-21 jet fighters that dates to the 1950s and the early 1960s. Furthermore, the continued antagonism between North Korea and the United States dates back to the Korean War. In order to survive, therefore, the Kim regime needs a “security blanket.” What better security blanket than a strategic nuclear deterrent?

Although Kim Jong-un has declared his nuclear weapons program “complete” in 2018, there is still no word on the reliability of the Hwasong-series of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are the only missiles in North Korea’s arsenal that can reach the continental United States. North Korea also lacks a true ballistic missile submarine, one of the most survivable legs of a nuclear deterrent. There is no easy way of determining for sure just how “complete” North Korea’s deterrent is, but time is on Kim Jong-un’s side.

What would Kim Jong-un do once North Korea possesses a truly complete nuclear deterrent? One possibility is that North Korea will become much more aggressive in its dealings with South Korea. If North Korea can create the visage that the United States will not trade Los Angeles for Seoul, the South Korean government may not have any other choice but to cave in to demands from Pyongyang. This idea that the United States will not risk its homeland is key to the idea that a nuclear deterrent creates a security blanket for Pyongyang. Even if it does not try to force concessions from the South, a complete nuclear deterrent will make any progress towards denuclearization nearly impossible.

The key for the United States will be to convince North Korea that 1) the United States takes its extended deterrence commitments seriously and 2) it does not need the security blanket in the first place. In order to achieve number one, the United States needs to increase its defense cooperation with its regional partners, South Korea and Japan. Number two will be harder to achieve. The nuclear weapons present a hurdle that will make any progress towards denuclearization or peace on the Korean peninsula difficult to achieve. As a recent missile test shows, Kim Jong-un is not easily placated. There are calls to return to “maximum pressure” against North Korea, and there is merit to squeezing the Kim regime. However, the efficacy of maximum pressure is being called into question by some. Maximum pressure may bring North Korea to the table, but the United States and its allies must be prepared to offer real concessions in exchange for verifiable, sustained good behavior. These can range from economic aid or sanctions relief to the long-awaited peace treaty ending the Korean War.

Getting over the hurdle posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be difficult. Kim Jong-un will not give up his security blanket easily. But it must be done. A North Korea with nuclear weapons will at worst destabilize northeast Asia, and at best be a rogue nuclear state. Neither option is palatable to the United States or its allies.

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John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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