Beijing, North Korea and the Escalating Threat (Updated)
2017-02-17 By Danny Lam
North Korea’s rapid progress in fielding a credible land and undersea nuclear arsenal capable of reaching CONUS calls for a prompt, clear and unambiguous response.
Multilateral diplomacy and sanctions to date have not slowed or hindered the progress of under a youthful Kim Jong Un looking to make his mark and secure his claim to the Kim dynasty.
Likewise, existing and planned upgrades of defenses fielded by South Korean and Japanese allies have failed to deter aggressive moves toward a capability to threaten the US and allies like, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Time is of the essence for urgent defense upgrades with the goal of deterring DPRK and defending against potential nuclear attacks. Procurement cycles and logistical issues like training and deployment for new weapons systems (absent imminent or actual war) are too slow to match the pace at which DPRK is advancing and becoming existential threats.
Under Kim Jong Un, the pace of progress accelerated. The third nuclear test in 2013 moved in parallel with the moves to fielding a credible nuclear arsenal. Crude liquid fueled ICBMs have been supplanted by solid fueled, cold launch ballistic missiles tested in February 2017 ideal for a nuclear first strike.
Such rapid technical progress since 2013 suggest deployment of considerable resources from a supposedly impoverished regime.
Iran, Pakistan, China (whether official or not) and others are known to have aided the DPRK nuclear and missile program. Resources, be it financing, access to critical materials, basic technology, skills, etc. are not a major problem for the DPRK nuclear program.
It is a matter of time before they succeed.
Sanctions have not only not hindered the DPRK regime, but reports from visitors to DPRK show they have not hindered recent improvement in North Korean living standards. As recently as 2011, Pyonyang roads are notable for their silence and the lack of vehicular traffic. Satellite images show a “blacked out” state too poverty stricken to afford street lights.
Fast forward to 2016, and credible observers report “there is a lot of traffic—a lot of cars, a lot of trucks, and a lot of taxis”. Unless all of this is a Potemkin village, one must surmise that sanctions, especially since 2013, have failed.
This is not a regime that is being harmed by existing sanctions. If anything, the evidence indicate that the regime is rapidly raising the living standard of their people, providing North Koreans (at least in Pyonyang) with luxury goods that could not be imagined a few years ago.
All of this is happening despite Beijing’s grudging “co-operation” in “tightening” sanctions.
Incredulously, the Beijing regime proudly noted after the last round that sanctions are not meant to harm “normal” trade or affect civilians. As if it is possible to clearly delineate civilian from military in DPRK or to prevent diversions even if the sanctions are actually implemented.
The US and allies have virtually expended all their diplomatic capital with Beijing over the past decade dealing with the North Korean issue.
Other issues, like Beijing’s massive arms buildup and armed forces transition to an offensive posture, tantalizing hints of PRC plans for launching a surprise nuclear first strike on Japan, repeated threats to US and allies of nuclear war, invasion and occupation of the South China Sea and other moves in the military sphere have met with little US response.
Nor is there any call for the PRC to join existing US-Russia arms control regimes if they want their security concerns like the opposition to South Korean THAAD to be taken seriously.
Recently, PLAN openly engaged in piracy, announced their intention to ban and/or regulate foreign submersibles and military vessels from “Chinese waters” by 2020 which presumably include areas claimed by the PRC as “sovereign territory” to solidify their sea grab.
Likewise, non military issues like the PRC’s beggar thy neighbor currency devaluation, mercantilism, hostile campaigns against foreign firms, widespread theft and pillage of technology, cyber warfare, or even mundane issues like PRC becoming the center for synthetic narcotics manufacture and distribution around the world, etc. have largely fallen by the wayside because of DPRK.
The Beijing regime is the greatest beneficiary from the fear created by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. By going through the motions of “co-operation” with the US and allies to “restrain” DPRK, the regime have essentially forced the US and allies to take almost all other issues off the table.
Had the PRC regime delivered results with DPRK similar to the denuclearization of South Africa or the dismantlement of Libya’s program, this might have been arguably a worthwhile sacrifice.
But the fact is not only did Beijing not deliver, but DPRK have become a larger, not smaller, threat with Beijing’s helpful “cooperation”.
The PRC regime cannot be counted on to cooperate on more sanctions, and even if they did, sanctions are unlikely to work.
Yet, “China experts” continue to extoll the benefits of concessions to Beijing.
The US and allies have to come to terms with the PRC that will not take action that will reliably and credibly roll back the DPRK nuclear and ballistic missile threat.
In other words, multilateral diplomacy have failed. Beijing, happen to prefer the status quo and DPRK’s growing capabilities as the tip of Beijing’s spear.
If the Beijing regime cannot be relied on to do whatever it takes to proactively remove the DPRK threat, perhaps it is time to compel the PRC and Russia to sit out a conventional war to avoid an all out war with the US and allies.
At present, there is not a credible conventional capability in place to proactively (or upon provocation) eliminate the NORK nuclear threat. Such a campaign cannot be a limited, ad hoc move, but will require invasion and occupation of North Korea. The US and allies are ill prepared and not equipped for such a campaign.
In the absence of this capability, the only deterrent the US and allies have is the threat of using nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsular, which is a blunt instrument that cannot be used without serious considerations of collateral damage and the risk of escalation to war with PRC and Russia.
A conventional military option is preferable as an alternative.
Having a conventional military option in place as quickly as possible to deter the Kim regime will require substantial changes in the financing, posture, equipment and training of allies like South Korea, Japan, Canada, Australia, etc. Ideally, this option must be in place no later than 1H2018 in order to head off the growing threat. Such a timeline leaves no room and option for dithering or delays.
Relying on the PRC’s best efforts to constrain DPRK, if they are willing, will not deliver “Peace for our time.”
But the threat of a credible conventional military option, might.
Let’s end this Kabuki theater of kowtowing to Beijing as is it was an aspect of deterrence with regard to North Korea.
Editor’s Note 1: Recently the Missile Defense Advocacy Association reached a similar conclusion to Lam about the origins of the technology, but called for inclusion of the Beijing leadership in the solution.
Unequivocally, North Korea is simply not capable of developing a completely organic, sophisticated, and complex sea- and land-mobile solid fuel missile that successfully flew a lofted trajectory.
North Korea doesn’t have the industry base, the massive foundational engineering and technology research infrastructure for production, assembly and quality control to independently build the ballistic missile that was demonstrated on Sunday.
For the North Korea regime’s existence and the Supreme Leader’s prosperity, North Korea is benefiting from someone else’s technology, industry infrastructure, engineering, training, doctrine, resources, and a shared commonality of intent to prevent the reunification of Korea, maintain the armistice, and banish American forces from the Korean Peninsula.
The indications and intent of the quality and quantity of ballistic missile and nuclear testing show it is much more than the limited industry capability and capacity of a poverty stricken North Korea and its Supreme Leader that has been enabled to prove remarkable genius military technical prowess to defeat and deter the most powerful nation in the world and its allies of Japan and South Korea.
There needs to be an end to it and China, not the Supreme Leader of North Korea, is the enabler of a sophisticated nuclear ballistic missile North Korea (Click here to read an article about how the Polaris-1 is similar to China’s JL-1 SLBM). China is the key and needs to be brought in to solve the North Korea dilemma with the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
But there is a core question which Lam has raised: if the PRC has aided the North Koreans in their nuclear program why does one expect them to actually end it?
Perhaps the challenge is to be found elsewhere in history — is the North Korean case the functional equivalent to the Spanish Civil War for the Beijing government?
Danny Lam has addressed ways to enhance conventional defense against North Korea and the potential Canadian role as well in these pieces:
Editor’s Note 2: We have argued that the US should move the command in South Korea from the Army to the USAF precisely to shape the kind of nuclear tipped conventional force that could deal with the North Korea threat as it is evolving, rather than staying in the past.