Over the New Year holidays, the North Korean military tested some short-range (350-400 km) ballistic missiles, while the country’s news agency reported that it was testing a new 600mm multiple rocket launcher system capable of transport nuclear weapons.
On Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who often seems erratic, expressed his commitment to “respond with nuclear weapon for nuclear weapon and all-out confrontation for all-out confrontation.” He said that he had ordered more powerful weapons to “completely overwhelm the aggressive US imperialist forces and their puppet army.”
But really, just how erratic is Kim? His recent actions and comments came against the backdrop of South Korea conducting unprecedented extensive joint exercises with the US military, in and around its territory. And yesterday, South Korean President Yoon Yoon Suk-yeol’s press secretary said that “in order to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the two countries (South Korea and the United States) are discussing ways to share information about the operation. of US-owned nuclear assets, and the planning and joint execution of the same accordingly”.
(Senior US defense officials have tried to push back or downplay that announcement.)
Pres. Yoon is a new and potentially destabilizing factor in the tangled geopolitical landscape of the Korean peninsula. He is a political and social conservative who came to power last May at the end of President Moon Jae In’s five-year term. Moon was much more of a reformer, domestically and in intra-Korean affairs. When he was in office, he pioneered steps to reach the North and work toward peaceful reunification, which were widely supported by the South Korean public. In 2018, he had two meetings with Kim Jong-un, one of them in the northern capital, Pyongyang. (Much of his outreach to Kim paralleled similar efforts by President Donald Trump, though there is little to no evidence that his moves were coordinated.)
By contrast, President Yoon is much more aggressive against the North (as well as more socially conservative). One of his first acts as president was to move his office to the Ministry of National Defense, and one of his trips abroad was to the NATO Madrid Summit in June.
I began by responding to the latest news from Seoul by idly wondering if Yoon’s relationship with Washington could be characterized as similar to Israel’s. But very soon I thought that a more productive comparison would be between Kim’s relationship with China* and Israel’s with the United States.
There are many glaring differences between these two cases, I know. But at the level of the geopolitics of nuclear weapons, the parallels are striking.
In both cases, the smaller party, which has received vast amounts of help from the larger party over many decades, initially developed its independent nuclear arsenal with the stated goal of “deterring” or defending itself against its adversaries. … But then the smaller state discovered that its mastery of a nuclear activation capability gave it not only considerable leeway to challenge the preferences of its largest state sponsor, but also considerable power to compel him to accede to the actions of the smaller state. That is, effectively, the power to blackmail the largest state into compliance. (For more on the Israel case, see here.)
Or maybe the chronology I hinted at there isn’t accurate. Perhaps the smaller state’s discovery of the trigger and blackmail aspect of having a wholly owned nuclear arsenal did not occur. after the development of nuclear weapons but was it part of the plan all along? Who knows?
But that’s a minor issue. The big problem is that these two small states, North Korea and Israel, can defy the wishes of every other country in the world, including the sponsors of their superpowers. because they are capable of using nuclear blackmail.
This immediately raises two related questions:
- If the respective great power backers of these states did not also have (and face the threat of) very large, indeed quite plausibly omnicidal, nuclear arsenals, then the “trigger” potential of small state arsenals would be much greater. less scary. threatening. The blackmail effect of small state arsenals is almost entirely a function of the existence of the broader global nuclear terrorism regime.
- If one of the key effects of the possession of nuclear weapons by these smaller states has been to allow them to continue to defy world opinion and international law in a wide range of different ways, then what can we say about the effects of the possession of many larger and deadlier nuclear arsenals by the world’s much larger powers?
All of which underscores the urgency of redoubling our efforts to dismantle all the world’s nuclear arsenals. The existence of these arsenals places all of humanity in a precarious trigger for the very possible total extinction of our species. But also, in West Asia, on the Korean Peninsula, and elsewhere, it has kept very damaging conflicts frozen that continue to blight the lives of millions to this day, even though these conflicts should and could have been resolved through energetic and respectful of rights. negotiations many decades ago.
- Side note: I should point out that, for many years, China was not the only major, substantial backer of North Korea. In the past, the Soviet Union was too. Russia has a small direct border with North Korea, and is still an important factor in the complex balance of nuclear weapons in East Asia.