In strategic-military terms, 2017 will be mainly remembered for the following trilogy: the severe degradation of the Islamic State’s presence and capabilities in both Iraq and Syria, the consequently announced windup of the large-scale portion of Russia’s military intervention into Syria, and of course, in parallel, the sinister culmination of the decennial US/West – North Korea row over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
Rightfully or not, the North Korea issue has recently been generating a great deal of fear, not just among North Americans but across much of the globe. This media-driven and increasingly civilian concern, which has come to be so conspicuous as of late, while understandable, can hardly be deemed substantiated from a realist or intelligence perspective.
Namely, even though the DPRK has, by its own admission, learnt much from Milosevic’s, Saddam’s, and Gaddafi’s ‘mistakes,’ and is therefore set to remain essentially intransigent when it comes to developing and implementing its top strategic programs, notwithstanding any palliative diplomatic solution that could be reached in the coming period, a sudden nuclear attack on any of its perceived adversaries (South Korea, Japan), let alone the farthest ones (the US, Canada), appears highly improbable in the foreseeable future. The reason is fairly evident: a mix of rationality, technological constraints, and regional geopolitics.
Common sense is the primary factor. Thanks to a relatively simple strategic calculation (a clear-cut cost/benefit analysis), no nuclear power has ever attacked another nuclear-armed state however asymmetric the respective nuclear-weapons ratio may have been. North Korea is all but an exception in this sense, having been stuck on the inferior side of the nuclear relationship, with only a dozen (15 estimated) nuclear warheads versus nearly 5000 sophisticated in–service (deployed + stockpiled yet foregoing those retired and planned to be dismantled) nuclear weapons owned by the West, and also lagging decades behind technologically.
In other words, unlike its conventional counterpart, nuclear deterrence, however imperfect, has never truly, in existential terms, failed in practice, in spite of the continuing academic debate over the flaws and limitations of the so-called rational deterrence theory (RDT). Nuclear retaliation, no matter the scale, remains profoundly unacceptable, at least to state actors. Even the roughest notion of it is so appalling to the normal mind that the ‘irrationality’ argument that is nowadays generously invoked against both the North Korean leadership and President Donald Trump, and which apparently dominates the amateurish segment of the debate on the subject, simply holds no water having been for the most part emotionally and/or ideologically driven with no practical value whatsoever.
The second important reason not to take Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threats too seriously lies with the, thus far, comparatively primitive design and capabilities of the DPRK’s nuclear devices and intermediate-to-long-range ballistic missiles. To be fair, in recent years the latter have undergone a significant process of technological advancement, thereby surprising many. For instance, inspired by the DPRK’s latest technological success, some rocket engineers and nuclear physicists close to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) have not only begun regarding the insular socialist regime as a candidate for “the world’s fourth missile power,” after the West/NATO, Russia, and China, but have, moreover, displayed such a level of technological determinism venturing to claim that modern-day politics is actually non-existent i.e. reduced to developing and owning advanced nuclear and aerospace technology, Yet, even so, the North’s strategic arms are invariably still plagued by outdated components and inferior technical characteristics.
Finally, the current geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific favours the survival of the communist North, however ironic this might sound. No major power involved in the region has sufficient interest in an abrupt regime change in Pyongyang, a daunting scenario that could conceivably trigger not just a serious refugee crisis and various post-conflict management problems (China’s nightmare in particular), but, moreover, some form of nuclear retaliation, if not by those targeted to be ousted then by their sponsors.
Proactive and thoroughly psychological as it is, and raising the stakes enormously high, this game, this nuclear version of deterrence is likely to hold ─ for now. In the meantime, notwithstanding Kim Jong-un’s triumphal explanation of the “completeness” of his missile program, USNORTHCOM and NORAD have every reason to remain vigilant given two facts in particular:
- the temporally, and perhaps also substantively non-exhausted Five-Year Plan (2017-2021) guiding the DPRK’s military technological policy; and
- the country’s, at this point, inherently pressing need to own a truly modernized, far more reliable and survivable, solid-fuel ICBM.
*This is an abridged version of a scholarly article that is scheduled to appear in Canadian Military Journal in 2019.
Hristijan Ivanovski is a Research Fellow at the University of Manitoba (UofM) Centre for Defence and Security Studies (CDSS), Associate Editor (Europe) of iAffairs Canada, and a former coordination officer with Macedonia’s Secretariat for European Affairs. Since 2016, he has been a Member of East-West Bridge (EWB) contributing to the Foundation’s Foreign Policy Task Force. Hristijan can be reached @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
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