The Blog

North Korean Nuclear Poker - Who Is Winning in the Battle of the Mind Games?

If the North Korea's nuclear capability is a shield, this reflects the regime's paranoia or chronic insecurity, and weapons are being developed as a deterrent. If it is a sword, the nuclear capacity is for aggressive purposes and part of an offensive war stratagem, perhaps reuniting the Korean peninsula.

North Korea has been described as the most secretive nation on earth - yet in order to negotiate successfully with an adversary, it's essential to get inside their heads.

Professor Victor Cha from Georgetown University in the US was Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council - a key advisor to the White House over North Korea. He points out in a paper entitled 'North Korea's weapons of mass destruction: Badges, shields, or swords?' that developing weapons of mass destruction can only be properly understood as part of a wider military rationale.

He classifies such motivations into ''shields,'' ''swords'' and ''badges'' in his study published in the journal 'Political Science Quarterly'.

If the North Korea's nuclear capability is a shield, this reflects the regime's paranoia or chronic insecurity, and weapons are being developed as a deterrent.

If it is a sword, the nuclear capacity is for aggressive purposes and part of an offensive war stratagem, perhaps reuniting the Korean peninsula.

If it is a badge, the nuclear program becomes a symbol of international prestige affording North Korea heavier diplomatic punch in the international arena, than what it otherwise would enjoy, particularly given it's perilous economic state.

Victor Cha argues the essential psychology of small states' nuclear proliferation is completely different from the 'second strike' deterrence that pertained between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war.

Instead North Korea appears to be gambling on 'existential deterrence'; creating just enough uncertainty in the minds of a superior adversary that any conflict might escalate into nuclear war, and the smaller state may not be completely neutralised by a first strike. Faced with this ambiguity a more powerful adversary is going to be more cautious and prudent than they would otherwise be given overwhelming military superiority.

The recent postponing by the USA of a missile test appears to confirm Professor Cha's psychological analysis.

Professor Cha contends that if a weapons program is developed under a cloak of secrecy then 'existential deterrence' is most likely because opacity generates worse case assessments that err on the side of caution, so increasing first strike uncertainty. Small states like North Korea could be banking on displaying just enough activity in a nuclear program to make the rest of the world believe they possess the ultimate trump card. Whether they actually have viable weapons becomes irrelevant, if they just keep everyone else guessing.

Dr Benjamin Habib, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia specialising in North Korean Nuclear Proliferation, argues segments of the North Korean population are now excluded from access to food and services in order to prioritise the provision of the military. Therefore he contends North Korean society has become synonymous with its nuclear proliferation project. Any concession by them is likely to be short-term and part of a long term strategy to accomplish their aim of a viable nuclear arsenal.

Dr Habib's study of North Korea and the psychology of its ruling elite has lead him to conclude the nuclear program is in fact key to the perpetuation of the regime. Such weapons have been a long-term project spanning several decades. Negotiations have followed a cyclical pattern - the North provokes crises to extract concessions and gain leverage.

Dr Habib contends in a recent study entitled 'Rogue proliferator? North Korea's nuclear fuel cycle and its relationship to regime perpetuation', that the massive sunk costs of previous investment in the nuclear program, creates forward momentum which makes putting the brakes on now practically impossible.

Observers often refer to nuclear dismantlement as if it were something the North could do rapidly and easily. Habib argues that in a very real way, the physical plant of the program, the nuclear infrastructure, is embedded in the national economy. In fact, North Korea's nuclear fuel cycle, with it's associated bureaucracy, are integral to economic survival, political stability and regime validation.

Habib believes to understand the psychology of the leadership you need to grasp just how much of the whole country has become diverted down the route of becoming a nuclear power.

North Korea is endowed with extensive uranium ore deposits, which constitute the prerequisite feedstock of the nuclear fuel cycle. One ton of North Korean uranium ore contains 1 kg of uranium, which means that 50,000 tons of uranium ore had to be mined and milled to extract the 50 tons of uranium required for the initial fuel load for the reactor at Yongbyon.

Calculations of the size of North Korea's plutonium stockpile are highly uncertain but the latest estimates are they have enough fissile material for between 12 to 23 nuclear weapons.

The precise amount of plutonium required to fashion a nuclear bomb depends on several variables: the desired yield, the design of the weapon, and the sophistication of the technology.

But even if you can make a bomb reliably, suitable delivery systems must exist to carry it to targets. North Korea possesses Scud-C, Nodong and Taepo-dong ballistic missile systems capable of delivering warheads to South Korea and Japan.

On 5 April 2009 the regime launched a multistage rocket for the ostensible purpose of placing a satellite into orbit, but which foreign observers believed to be a clandestine long range rocket test. Though ultimately described as a failure, the final stage of the rocket did manage to fly 2700 km before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, a more successful result than previous tests.

On 25 May 2009, following what was widely considered a failed nuclear test in 2006, a blast was measured from North Korea, much more powerful than the 2006 test, registering a magnitude of 4.52 on the Richter scale, with an estimated yield of 20 kilotons, putting it on par with the American atomic bomb that levelled Nagasaki in 1945. A kiloton is an explosive force equivalent to 1,000 metric tons of TNT.

The successful second test demonstrated clearly North Korea was now a nuclear power.

The momentum established by such progress from the unsuccessful 2006 test - whose yield was perhaps even as low as 0.2 kilotons - Habib believes means that a negotiated settlement as a way of securing the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program is now doomed.

Instead he argues for a strategy for constructive management of Northeast Asian security in light of North Korea's ascension as a nuclear power.

Habib points out the nuclear capability gives the regime the bargaining leverage it desperately needs to plug holes in its economy, with injections of aid from the international community. North Korea derived approximately one-third of its revenues from international aid back in 2010.

The problem with smaller states nuclear gamble is that proliferation might produce uncertainty and caution, but it could also provoke a pre-emptive first strike depending, on assessments over how advanced the nuclear programme has become.

But Habib contends that a key ace in North Korea's hand is that Seoul is hostage to North Korean rockets and artillery.

The reality behind the rhetoric, Habib argues, is that Western leaders have quietly accepted a nuclear North Korea.

They're keeping this hushed up because just don't want other countries contemplating joining the top table of nuclear nations, to draw unhelpful conclusions from North Korea's successful playing of this poker game.

Before You Go