By Thalif Deen
North Korea, long dubbed as a “hermit kingdom” has continued to remain cut off from the rest of the world—politically, economically and geographically.
But neither rigid sanctions, nor international isolation and growing food insecurities, have prevented the country—officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—from making significant advances as the world’s ninth nuclear power, along with the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel.
In a news story originating in the South Korean capital of Seoul, the New York Times reported that North Korea on October 11 displayed its growing military arsenal, including an array of ballistic missiles.
“The exhibition was one of the biggest displays of weaponry North Korea has staged in recent years,” said the Times.
“We are a nuclear power with self-reliance,” one of the huge banners proclaimed, with a sense of nationalistic pride. “We are a great missile power,” read another banner.
Matt Korda, Associate Researcher with the Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IDN despite some apparent attempts to meet with DPRK negotiators, the administration of US President Joe Biden, has had little success in convincing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that its approach to the Korean Peninsula will be meaningfully different than that of his predecessor.
This is a serious problem, he said, because Kim has been quite clear that he isn’t going to come back to the negotiating table until the United States unilaterally changes its approach.
“And if the Biden administration declines to do so, we’re probably going to see quite a lot of new DPRK weaponry over the coming years”, said Korda, who is also Senior Research Associate and Project Manager with the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
He also pointed out that nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are a 1950s-era technology, and the concepts themselves aren’t necessarily prohibitive—especially if you have help from other countries, as the DPRK did at the beginning of its nuclear program.
“At this point, North Korean scientists and engineers have become quite adept at developing indigenously-designed systems, and unless the security drivers of the DPRK’s nuclear program are addressed very soon, I fully believe that it will be only a matter of time before we see Pyongyang roll out some dramatic new capabilities, including road-mobile solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles,” declared Korda.
Joseph Gerson, President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, told IDN North Korean development of its nuclear weapons and its increasingly advanced and dangerous delivery systems are the logical/illogical response to historical and current perceived threats of attack.
“Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is the logical, response to the repeated nuclear threats made by the United States and the military threats posed by the U.S.-Japanese-South Korean alliance system. You point your gun at me, I point mine back at you. You develop missile defenses that may be able to disarm our nuclear forces, we will build nuclear weapons that can circumvent your systems,” he said.
It is a classical spiraling nuclear arms race and is not entirely different from China’s development of its “minimum deterrent” nuclear arsenal, which appears to be on the very of being increased and upgraded to become a “medium deterrent” arsenal, said Gerson, who is Co-Founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy, and author of “Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.”
Like the United States and other nuclear powers’ preparations for nuclear war, North Korea is practicing what C. Wright Mills termed “crackpot realism”. Were their nuclear weapons to be launched (their display is already a “use”), at a minimum, they would result in the genocidal murder of tens of millions of innocent people.
“Worse, their use could ignite omnicidal nuclear exchanges, bringing on nuclear winter and ending civilization and nearly all life as we know it,” Gerson warned.
Cable News Network (CNN) reported October 13 that the North Korean leader, standing against a backdrop of missiles, said weapons are needed to defend the country against a “hostile” United States.
“The US has been frequently sending signals that they are not hostile towards our country, but there is no single evidence that they are not hostile,” Kim was quoted as saying.
Photos of the exhibition, released by state media KCNA, appeared to show what analysts believe is the Hwasong-16—one of the world’s largest ballistic missiles.
Also pictured is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which allows missiles to theoretically fly as fast as 20 times the speed of sound and can be very maneuverable in flight—making them almost impossible to shoot down, experts said.
Kim described the missiles as “our precious (weapons)” and said every country should maintain strong military power, even in peaceful times, according to CNN.
In a statement released August 30, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it is “deeply troubled” by indications that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea appears to have restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
The 5-megawatt reactor is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons and is at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program, the agency said.
At a news briefing, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, said Secretary-General António Guterres was aware of the reports “and concerned by the latest developments”.
“He calls for the DPRK to refrain from any nuclear weapon-related activities and to resume talks with the other parties concerned.
“Diplomatic engagement remains the only pathway to sustainable peace and complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he added.
Asked about the status of its relationship with DPRK, Ned Price, Spokesperson for the US State Department, told reporters October 15: “As you know, part of our strategy when it comes to the DPRK is to work closely with our allies and partners, to work in lockstep with our allies and partners towards our ultimate objective—and that is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That is why we have put such a premium on our coordination, on our consultation with our Japanese allies, with our allies from the Republic of Korea”.
He pointed out that the first physical trip the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken undertook, upon his confirmation in the job, was to Japan and the Republic of Korea. He was accompanied by the Secretary of Defense, where he met jointly with foreign minister counterparts and the minister of defense counterparts as well in a 2+2 format with—in Japan and South Korea.
“But we’re also committed to the trilateral relationship, knowing just how important it is. And we’ve had any number of opportunities to meet with our Republic of Korea and Japanese counterparts in a trilateral format,” he said.
In fact, Price said, the Secretary did that just the other week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York (late September). He has done that on other travels as well. Special Representative Sung Kim has done the same with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
“I don’t have any meetings to announce at this time but suffice to say that we are—we continue to work closely on a bilateral basis as well as on a trilateral basis with our Japanese and South Korean counterparts to advance that ultimate policy objective,” Price declared.
Asked about specific proposals, he said the US remains prepared to meet with the DPRK without preconditions to try to advance that overarching policy goal.
“We have conveyed messages and we have made specific proposals for discussion with the DPRK.”
“Those aren’t specific messages or proposals that we are in a position to detail, but our—the message we have been quite clear about is that we are ready and willing to engage in constructive diplomacy even as we continue to engage, as I said before, with our allies and partners around the world, including our allies in the Indo-Pacific, Japan, and the Republic of Korea,” Price added.