Follow the science, not rhetoric, when it comes to Pyongyang

In his televised New Year speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered a two-pronged message of trepidation and hope.

He warned the United States of the "reality" of North Korea's nuclear deterrent. He then called for peace on the Korean peninsula, adding that his representatives should start talks with their South Korean counterparts "as soon as possible" on sending a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next month. Unsurprisingly, South Korean President Moon Jae In welcomed these overtures with open arms.

The question is why North Korea is making a conciliatory move towards dialogue now? After all, it did snub previous olive branches from President Moon.

Increasingly, the opinion seems to be that this two-pronged message stems from Pyongyang's confidence that its burgeoning nuclear weapons capability, as it stands, is perceivably credible in deterring the US. Some observers have also suggested that Pyongyang's conciliatory approach towards Seoul may signal that it is feeling the impact of current sanctions and that the ensuing rapprochement could be leveraged to lighten trade restrictions on it.

THE SCIENCE

Certainly, in heeding Machiavellian caution, the Korean peninsula crisis is yet another geopolitical game where we must treat every move as being deliberate and calibrated on the part of its players.

However, we must also follow the most tangible trail in this saga - the science and technology of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development programme. Doing so leads us to a different consideration.

To begin with, we must not lose sight of North Korea's next objective in producing viable nuclear-armed ICBMs. The two-step goal is to technically succeed at testing a nuclear warhead design that can survive the demands of atmospheric re-entry after the space phase of intercontinental flight; and to avoid pre-emptive action from the US during the final window of vulnerability while it manufactures a few warheads based on the winning design, to cater for operational redundancy.


North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a New Year's Day speech. PHOTO: REUTERS

The brute reality regarding North Korea's nuclear-armed ICBMs is that there is no demonstrable indication - based on what we have seen in previous tests - that the country's nuclear warheads can survive atmospheric re-entry.

There is no such restriction facing North Korea's nuclear-armed short-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles used to threaten US military bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam. This explains why North Korea is now focusing on the testing of its ICBMs.

Despite previously boasting that his country's strategic nuclear deterrent is "complete", Mr Kim knows - as the US nuclear planners know - that until North Korean nuclear warheads are truly survivable, the credibility of its nuclear threat against the US mainland remains a question that must be answered through actual testing.

However, missile and warhead testing does not occur in the vacuum of a laboratory but in a geopolitical environment. Missile launches and warhead explosions are inescapably detected by radars and seismographs. Testing comes with diplomatic, strategic and economic costs. The most significant strategic cost is the risk of pre-emptive military strikes by the US, which some observers say is increasing by the day.

With all the testing that went on last year, North Korea knows that whatever little cachet it had has fallen flat, especially after the last ICBM test on Nov 29.

Mr Kim knows that any further testing at this lowest point in the crisis certainly risks American military pre-emption.

Therefore, the decision to execute a warhead re-entry test is a matter of context and timing. Time may also matter more than we think because the level of international tolerance will always be relatively low, and North Korea understands that the ideal outcome is to get a singular re-entry test right. One can only imagine a flurry of computer-simulated warhead testing within North Korea's engineering labs. However, there is no running away from an actual test and, right now, North Korea is shaping a context on its terms.

UNPACKING THE PSYCHOLOGY

Psychology is clearly a key tool in shaping an amenable context. What Mr Kim has done through his conciliatory gestures towards South Korea is to lift the mood considerably, both within South Korea and internationally, from its lowest levels to a new-found high. Indeed, one could say that the effect has been almost euphoric after what has been a difficult past year in this crisis. Picturing a barometer graph, what Mr Kim may have effectively done is to plot a point that is much higher than we are now at in the current state of tensions.

If he follows this psychological rationale through to its conclusion, then it is quite unlikely that Mr Kim will renege on his proposals to South Korea.

Doing so will make any subsequent rhetoric on his part completely unbelievable. Instead, following through with his proposals to Seoul would surely drive a wedge between South Korea and the US by the end of the games.

Seoul can be expected to have become more dovish while Washington will likely remain extremely hawkish (one American senator has already proposed that the US boycott the Winter Olympics should North Korea participate).

As a matter of framing, the US easily ends up being painted as the aggressor, giving North Korea the impetus to resume testing. Because conciliation can be expected to facilitate South Korea's acceptance of the North as a nuclear-weapons state, the Moon administration could even be counted upon to deter the US from considering a pre-emptive strike, asserting arms control as the alternative path forward.

This is likely how Mr Kim can be expected to spend his newly gained chips.

In the end, having gone this far in its nuclear weapons development, North Korea must rationally see its programme to its conclusion in order to credibly threaten the US mainland and, therefore, achieve mutual nuclear deterrence at the strategic level.

• Dr Graham Ong-Webb is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Follow the science, not rhetoric, when it comes to Pyongyang'. Print Edition | Subscribe