North Korea's Nuclear Offer

North Korea Rocket offer

Photo of 2012 rocket test in North Korea/Image courtesy of U.S. Naval Institute

North Korea's Nuclear Offer
| published January 11, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


The rapidly unfolding—and sometimes immensely-complex—story of the Sony Pictures cyber-attack soon morphed into a larger moral lesson for the United States and its allies: companies, corporations, government agencies large and small are all vulnerable to cyber-warfare. The Sony attack was an assault on non-essential services, and its outcome—though costly in the extreme—posed little risk to Americans. No air traffic was disrupted, no highway traffic system disabled, no power grid shut-down.

Unlike the Target and Home Depot data breaches, no money changed hands—even on the black market—save for the potentially lost revenue for movies stolen from Sony’s digital cache and widely distributed on the web. The conventional narrative quickly became simple: The attack on Sony was a wake-up call for U.S. business and government; time to get prepared, and time to implement sensible, prudent defenses for what will surely be the face of war in the future.

But life along the border which separates North Korea from South Korea is not representative of the digital age. The two Koreas face off in what is arguably the most visible throwback to the Cold War found anywhere on Earth—two large, heavily-armed, well-trained conventional armies which stand almost literally face-to-face across a geographical line still defined by the sharp differences between the Marxist-Leninist principles of Joseph Stalin, and the post-World War II template of capitalism and democracy so stringently advocated by the U.S. and its economic and military allies.

Which is why, despite the ongoing debate about what—if anything—North Korea’s cyber-military unit had to do with the Sony Pictures assault, North Korea’s real threat still comes in the form of its vast army, an army which uses real bullets, real guns, and possesses working nuclear warheads.

Last week, North Korea offered an olive branch of sorts when it proposed to suspend its nuclear testing program, but only if the United States and South Korea would suspend joint military exercises and drills held each year in South Korea. The proposal came by way of state television in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

For their parts, both the White House and the Pentagon rejected the offer, reminding the U.S. media that Pyongyang routinely insists that the annual exercises be called off, and that North Korea often links the U.S.-South Korea drills to its own military activities and ambitions.

Travelling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Europe, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki characterized North Korea’s offer as “an implicit threat.” Psaki said that the linkage of the two issues was inappropriate. Other foreign policy analysts agree, saying that the implied message is simple: continue with the joint military drills, and North Korea will proceed with the next phase of its nuclear testing. North Korea has been in the not-so-secret process of developing a nuclear arsenal for several years, and it has also been testing the effectiveness and reliability of its long-range missiles.

North Korea is already saddled with United Nations sanctions for its previous series of nuclear tests, the last of which occurred in early 2013. Pyongyang’s missile and rocket program has also been criticized by the United Nations and the U.S. for its overtly aggressive designs—missiles developed with the obvious goal of hitting targets not only in South Korea, but also in Japan, and across the Pacific. Many of North Korea’s rocket tests involve firing missiles east into the Sea of Japan. In August, Pyongyang fired five medium-range missiles on the same day that Pope Francis visited Seoul, in South Korea. Three missiles were fired shortly before the Pope’s plane arrived, and two more were fired immediately after his arrival in the South Korean capital.

Washington regards these tests as North Korea’s way of bullying its way into major events. North Korea has, in the past, conducted missile drills and missile tests concurrent to joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. North Korea has consistently complained that the South’s exercises and drills are a pretext for an invasion of the North.

South Korea and the United States have participated in the drills annually since the end of the Korean War. But in 2013, Pyongyang reacted more aggressively, demanding that the exercises be called off. When the joint exercises were not called off, North Korea mobilized its entire combined military forces—placing them in a state of full combat readiness—and moved tens of thousands of additional troops to areas close to the demilitarized zone.

According to the watchdog group NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative), North Korea has tested explosive nuclear devices at least three times: in 2006, in 2009, and again in 2013. NTI says that North Korea is proficient with its short-range and medium-range rockets, but has only successfully tested one long-range missile in 2012.

“It is also capable of enriching uranium and producing weapons-grade plutonium,” NTI’s website says. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, specifically so that it could pursue its nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang also declined any further involvement in the so-called Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, meaning it insists it can test nuclear devices any time it chooses—underground or in the air. Though exact figures are hard to find, some military analysts suggest that Pyongyang has at its disposal between 12 and 20 nuclear devices, a few of which may already be linked to its missile program (though officially the Pentagon says North Korea has not yet built a nuclear device capable of being delivered by rocket).

And though North Korea is a willing participant in the international treaties and protocols established to govern biological weapons, many watchdog groups and military analysts—including those in the United States—have reason to believe that North Korea operates a substantial biological weapons program in secret. Based in part on the testimony of scientists and military operatives who have defected from the North, intelligence agencies in Seoul estimate that North Korea maintains a weapons-grade arsenal for the delivery of anthrax and smallpox.

Pyongyang also maintains chemical weapons, which both Seoul and Washington believe may contain some of the nastiest weapons-grade agents available, including mustard gas and sarin gas. According to information gleaned from numerous defectors in recent years, North Korea places some of these chemical weapons into explosive cartridges atop medium and short range missiles. North Korea also operates at least six major storage facilities for its chemical weapons program.

After several years of delicate negotiations, the U.S. and North Korea entered into an agreement in early 2012 wherein North Korea would suspend any long-range rocket testing in exchange for massive supplies of food. But only a few months later Pyongyang violated that agreement with the launch of an Unha-3 rocket in an attempt to place a communications and military satellite in orbit. Not only did the U.S. regard that launch as a violation of the letter of the treaty, but many in the international community also regarded the rocket program as a violation of the spirit of the agreement: if North Korea was so desperate for food for its civilians, why spend billions on the development of a military satellite system and a long range rocket system?

But in the meantime, North Korea’s most recent offer to cease its nuclear program is being met with skepticism by most experts. The White House and the Pentagon say that the joint military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces will go on as planned.

Related Thursday Review articles:

U.S. to Impose Sanctions on North Korea; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; January 3, 2015.

Seoul and Tokyo to Share Intelligence on N. Korea; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 29, 2014.