North Korea: A Clear Double-Strategy with a Red Line to stop the A-Bomb needed
Looking at the heavily militarized, yet ironically named "Demilitarized Zone" (DMZ) 100 kilometers north of Seoul in the North Korean Camel (Nakla) Mountains, everything is peaceful and green. Only a few armed South Korean soldiers manning checkpoints give you the impression that you are near one of the most dangerous frontiers on the globe. But there is an eerie silence, looking north upon the most bizarre and aggressive state on earth, which focuses entirely on getting 'The Bomb' in its hands.
Here, everything is possible, and the impossible always a possibility. The latest provocation was a huge explosion, apparently nuclear, by North Korea in February 2013. Two years earlier, a North Korean torpedo sunk the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
South Korea has learned to live with a constant existential threat, as well as the propaganda emerging from the North. In the 1970s they discovered three (four until 1990) tunnels which had the capacity to quickly enable some 30,000 soldiers to infiltrate the South. This was a real threat, as almost half of the 50 million people in the South live in the Seoul metropolitan area (23 million), which is only 100 kilometers away from the border.
North Korea has a very large, but technologically-inefficient conventional strike force. A poorly-equipped army of more than one million soldiers, 4,100 tanks, 2,100 armored vehicles, 8,500 field artillery pieces, 730 combat aircrafts and other hardware. However, it is missing communication tools, fuel, and new technologies, although it has a lot of standard firepower. The 639,000 South Korean soldiers on the Peninsula, supported by 28,000 Americans and the backbone of the U.S. in the Pacific, could halt any conventional attack from the North. Modern communications and firepower enable them to balance those large numbers, as we saw in Iraq in 2003. This is the difference to the Korean War, 1950-1953, when the North Koreans, supported by the USSR and in particular China, were very strong. The good news is: North Korea could attack, but not win against, the South. Any use of force in a conventional military confrontation would lead to a collapse of the North, but with a lot of victims on both sides of the DMZ.
To understand the nature of the North Korean threat, you have to know how they think – not us. How they treat others. What they want and how they act. We asked people who lived in North Korea and experts from think tanks in Seoul about these issues.
Unfortunately, North Korea is a Family-Gulag for 23 million people with no appetite for reforms, in contrast to Vietnam or China, now owned by the 31 years young dictator, Kim Jong-un. He is the grandson of its founder, Kim Il-sung, in the first hereditary communist dynasty on Earth. He rules a bizarre Orwellian country that lacks everything apart from propaganda, permanent supervision, labor camps and suppression of all kinds. The society is segmented into three categories of people and their families. Only 100,000 regime-loyal people constitute its elite class and rule the state. They live (only) like the middle-class in the South and have many privileges. The bulk are working class people without sufficient nutrition, rights or freedom.
Whoever disagrees even slightly with the Great Leader is interned in a Stalinist Gulag system of slave labor camps. There are approximately 150,000–200,000 people who live as human work machines with no human rights or dignity whatsoever. Their guardians can beat, rape or even kill them as they please for minor offenses. To survive, they have to live on rats and grass. If one family member is arrested, the terror regime interns the entire family in these camps, including their children – all three generations are imprisoned.
On February 1st, 2013, Mr. Marzuki Darusman, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights issues in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, noted: "Grave, systematic and widespread violations of human rights, including: violation of the right to adequate food while promoting excessive expenditure by the authorities on its defense sector; internment, torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment; guilt by association of family members and discrimination. As well as violations of freedom of expression, the right to life, freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances."
North Korea is a real Frankenstein state of permanent control and terror. It is unfortunate that in the UN Security Council, this entity is protected by the People's Republic of China.
After the collapse of the USSR and the end of its many gifts to North Korea like fuel, more than one million died of hunger in the 1990s. Only 100 km south, you could get everything in the luxurious streets of Seoul, while only a little further north, people died like flies. China can feed 1.3 billion, the dictator not even 23 million in a country with water and hard-working people. Once again, this shows the absurd logic of a communist economy. His people are much smaller than in the south and often die of bad health conditions. Beijing must lead to push him to reforms.
The dictator controls much conventional firepower in the form of older model missiles. This includes 200 short-range SCUD-C and SCUD-ER missiles (up to 1000 km), 50 No-Dong launchers (1300 km) and IRBM launchers (320 km), with the TD-2, with 5500 km reach, also having been tested.
The 'Prince-in-Power' already has enough nuclear material to destroy Seoul and the South using some primitive, dirty bomb-style devices. It is still unclear whether the bombs he claims to have assembled are actual atomic bombs. Some experts argue, small, two to four kilogram warheads were tested, which could fit on top of the medium range No-Dong missiles. North Korea got the deadly know-how from Pakistani A-bomb guru A. Q. Khan who visited the country 13 times between 1997 and 2002 and sold the technology. Since 2005, North Korea has operated 2000 to 3000 P-1 uranium centrifuges, enough to produce material for two bombs a year. It conducted three tests of the devices in 2006, 2009 and February 2013. The leading expert David Albrights estimates that there was already enough nuclear material for 12 to 23 warheads by the end of 2011, extended up to 34 by the end of 2016. In any case, Kim Jong-un wants the bomb, loves the bomb, banks on acquiring a bomb and also needs the bomb in order to be heard and taken seriously both inside and outside his communist kingdom.
Until today, however, he has been unable to acquire a miniature version of a large device capable of being emplaced in the warheads of his missiles – that is his problem. But he is working on it. He wants to make the nuclear threat both credible and deployable. The A-clock countdown is ticking in Korea and nobody knows how much time is left. It could take between two and five years from now to fit a miniaturized NK-A-bomb into a missile warhead.
North Korea and the other state with nuclear ambitions, Iran, cooperate in missile technology, and may be very discretely engaging in the production of nuclear materials and warheads as well. A kind of atomic devil joint venture and exchange program. Some even argue that a bomb designed by Iran has been tested in North Korea. Of course, any design in Korea would be sold to and used by Iran as well – it is safe to say, since both are allies and North Korea desperately needs money. If Iran goes nuclear, we can bet it will franchise the bomb to the little Prince. Asia and the West will then be sandwiched between two very aggressive totalitarian atomic powers – in the Gulf and Northeast Asia. A horror scenario, maybe even for Beijing and Moscow, which do almost nothing to stop these developments by their allies and business and arms sales partners. To contain the communist prince and the Mullahs at the same time – both guided by ruthless dictators and lacking any human values – with atomic bombs in their hands, seems like a mission impossible.
If Kim Jong-un is able to play with an A-bomb on rockets, ready to push the button at any time when he may be in a bad mood and angry, is not just a new threat for South Korea, Japan and the Pacific, but a real unpredictable and ticking time bomb.
His line of provocations, attacks on the South, and torture of his own people show a no-mercy approach. When you let one million of your own people die, why not the same number in the South or Japan?
Some argue, that the nuclear option is the only way he can get recognition from the outside. They are right. But if so, he would gain more with an effective nuclear-armed missile force. It would make him more unpredictable and aggressive as he would believe that nobody can harm him anymore.
The key question now is: what should be done?
What's missing is a coordinated, efficient and credible Korean-American-Japanese Grand Containment Strategy to contain the atomic threat from North Korea with clear American leadership and power projection. Too much remains too vague.
This strategy should be based on two equal pillars of power and diplomacy as a double-strategy in the spirit of that which helped NATO get rid of the SS-20-IRBM. The situation is different in Korea, but some lessons can be learned from Europe.
The six-party talks, which include China, Russia, the U.S., South Korea and Japan, aiming to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, should address not only nuclear but also economic issues. They could be widened to broaden the issues and find common ground. We need both hard power and smart diplomacy, fitting together like two sides of a single coin.
On the diplomatic, soft side of the strategy, much more imagination, creativity and actions are needed. South Korea should learn and copy the best practices from the more than 50 years of East-West confrontation in Europe, Germany's Ostpolitik and the experience of the Eastern European freedom movements. We need a balanced mix of soft and hard instruments of peace-making for North Korea, of power and reconciliation, which must be enhanced simultaneously as two columns of a singular strategic approach: Korea 3.0.
One option as an incentive for North Korea to reform could be a USD 600 million per year North Korean Development Fund, with USD 50 million paid out each month. This could help to support farmers and small businesses with direct loans that could not be cashed by the regime. China could control and report upon its use. If Pyongyang leaves the negotiation table, no cash will be transferred. The Chinese President has asked the shrill dictator why he cannot feed a mere 23 million people when the People's Republic of China manages to feed more than a billion. That offended him. China is uneasy about the instability on its borders and has an interest in reforming North Korea, as was done in the PRC or Vietnam in evolving into capitalist states.
The PRC should establish a Chinese Special Economic Zone in the north of the country and employ specialists for agriculture and industrial reform.
China should promote a China-Korea railway system. This would connect its large Eastern provinces with several hundred million people through the North and into South Korea.
A tax-free zone seaport in Korea could be built to connect the underdeveloped Chinese regions in the Northeast to the sea, best financed by investors from China and South Korea. North Korea should get the option to participate.
On the essential and equally important hard power side of such a fresh double-strategy for Korea, several activities are essential:
The U.S. must neither reduce nor soften, but rather enhance its commitment to the defense of South Korea. Washington now spends USD 1.1 billion per year, plus personnel costs.
South Korea should increase its defense budget from its traditional three to four percent of GDP for the next five years to come. It should integrate its missile defense into the U.S. system and not develop its own now, as there must be strong cooperation in times of war. South Korea must be open to integrate even the formerly hostile Japan into its missile defense. South Korea must increase its support for political activities in the North and human rights organizations. It could start a leadership and mentoring program for talented people from the North as well. It should lift the old restrictions on information flow from the North, as in the digital age this is no longer a threat; Germany never banned propaganda from the communist East. The German way of "Wandel durch Annäherung" (change through rapprochement) should be copied and adopted by the Seoul administration now.
It is a shame for Japan not to have come to real reconciliation with the Korean victims of its brutal colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, even after 68 long years. Thus, there are no military ties between Seoul and Tokyo yet. Newly-elected (and more nationalistic) Korean President Park Geun-hye declined to meet newly-elected (and also more nationalistic) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the ASEAN Summit in Bali in early October 2013. During his political campaign last year, Abe even proposed revising two official Japanese apologies for Japan's cruelties to the occupied nations, including the enslaved "comfort women" used by the Japanese Forces. In the Hiroshima museum, his country still portrays itself more as a victim, not as an aggressor that was stopped by U.S. forces. Even worse: South Korea and Japan argue about which country owns the small Liancourt Islands (Korean: Dokto, or Tokto- Japanse: Takeshima) half-way between the two states, with rich fishing grounds and natural gas resources.
To balance a rising China and to effectively deter the bomb in North Korea, an alignment of military strategies and tools as well as diplomatic strategies is needed and a condition sine qua non for Tokyo. Japan must now, under Abe's leadership, take over more military burdens to secure its national interests against North Korea and China. It is in the national interest of Japan to acquire South Korea as a closer ally. Tokyo must now learn from the reconciliation policy of Germany with Poland and France. As an important gesture of reconciliation, Japan should not continue to claim the disputed islands any longer. Japan's Prime Minister Abe wants to integrate his defense forces into an alliance, but needs a solid political reconciliatory approach and a political basis with Korea, as German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer did so effectively with Charles de Gaulle and France in the 1950s, followed by Willy Brandt's successful Ostpolitik with Poland in the 1970s and the integration of Poland into the EU with the fierce support by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1990s. The Japanese Emperor himself has to officially apologize, also in the name of wartime – Emperor Hirohito and visit Korea – just as Adenauer, Brandt and Kohl did with former archenemies France and Poland. The time for Japan is now and nothing less is needed after merely lukewarm approaches in the past and missed opportunities.
Any successful containment doctrine must clearly draw a long-term and realistic clear red line for North Korea. This is the essential element of a credible deterrence and containment policy. The Korean War started in 1950 with the misperception of the communists that Washington did not value the South as a core US interest. Those mistakes of "Provocative Weakness" (Fritz Kraemer) must be avoided and not repeated again now.
Behind Seoul's closed doors, senior officials complain about the U.S. having drawn several red lines for the North in the past, which were crossed without any real punishment from Washington. America has lost credibility, even more with the recent no-show of President Barack Obama at the ASEAN summit due to the fiscal cliff crisis at home. One lesson learned from the nuclear confrontation in Europe is: there must be clear leadership by the U.S. or South Korea and Japan will appease.
The red line could be any successful launch with usable nuclear warhead-dummies on a missile. Such a test is already a direct threat to U.S. and Korean interests. A nuclear weapon could be put onto the missiles at any time and it may then be too late to stop its use as a tool for blackmail. It would be better not to wait too long for North Korea to acquire an operational nuclear missile, and it is much better for a credible deterrence to draw a sharp red line from the beginning. This should also be a well-known line for China and Russia.
The U.S. President must make clear now: If North Korea dares to ignore this red line, there will be no other outcome than a preventive airstrike by the U.S., which would target all his leadership structures, as well as the leader himself. For the first time during the U.S.-Korean military consultations in early October 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel officially agreed that a pre-emptive strike against the North is legitimate and necessary before a nuclear weapons capability is achieved.
We should be more optimistic as well: As Vietnam has shown, a small and militant communist country can reform itself, feed its people and integrate into the world.
German reunification proves that the collapse of a rotten communist system can happen overnight and is best organized by the communist secret services to reform the system from the inside. Do not forget: the KGB head Gorbatschow and the German Stasi general Michael Wolf started the transition to save the power of the communist parties. That could happen in North Korea as well.
We should therefore stimulate new thinking in the North Korean leadership and look for any – even tiny – dialogue and reform opportunities, based on a credible containment policy backed by credible deterrence and sufficient military power. We have to both use force and talk simultaneously. This will surely not be easy, but it is not impossible. We saw the Berlin Wall come down, the USSR dissolved, the Russian SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Western Europe destroyed and Eastern Europe freed. Let's be more optimistic and not self-fulfilling pessimists.
It is up to the young leader Kim Jong-un to decide whether he will cross the red line and be blown up before he has his bomb, or evolves into a reform leader like his recent Chinese counterparts. His bomb is an expensive dead-end road for him. Unfortunately, his vision is limited like a tunnel. He is still not well-established. But he could argue that the traditional Juche philosophy of his grandfather is best served by land reform. Juche in essence means to master things alone and be independent and self-reliant. That can be done in a more humane and capitalistic order in the North as well. One can even argue that Juche demands exactly this fresh approach in changing times. We belief the dictator could even stay in power as the people in the North have so differently developed than the Southerners, but only if he manages the transition wisely and does not wait too long. All communist leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe missed their windows of opportunity for reform in the 1960s which were long gone by 1990. If they had reformed much earlier, there would perhaps still be socialist countries in Europe today. Kim Jong-un needs a soft landing or he is lost.
The best way to achieve a safe peace in the region and help the oppressed North Koreans is a combination of several elements in a clever Double Strategy Korea 3.0 from 2013 until 2023: Most of all, a crystal clear red line made public, combined with sufficient deterrence capabilities from South Korea, Japan and the U.S., a new friendship between Tokyo and Seoul based on real reconciliation by the Emperor and military cooperation, the integration of China and Russia in a reform process of the North and the economic development of Northeast Asia, which best serves their interests, mixed with a fresh creative Korean Ostpolitik with incentives for Kim Jong-un under the umbrella of strong American leadership.