North Korea’s Hwasong-15 missile test on November 28 has intensified international concerns about the developments in North East Asia. The missile, fired in an almost vertical trajectory, reached a height of nearly 4500 km before falling in the East China Sea, within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), after travelling 860 km downrange. The total flight time was reported to be 53 minutes. No additional details of the test, such as the weight of the payload for instance, were given. However, preliminary calculations suggest that if the Hwasong-15 launched on November 28 had been flown on a normal missile trajectory, it would have reached distances of up to 13,000 km with the same payload, enough to cover the whole of the continental United States from West Coast to East Coast. If, however, the test had been conducted with no payload, the range would have been 8500 km with a 500 kg payload.
In addition, there are conflicting statements about the test from the North Korean and South Korean/US sides. After the test, the North Korean State news agency, KCNA (Korean Central News Agency), called its so-called new missile “the most powerful ICBM” and said it “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development.” It further quoted the North Korean leader as saying that the country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
South Korea, however, had a different take on the test. The South Korean presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun said, after a phone call between the US and South Korean Presidents, that “The launch on Wednesday was apparently the most advanced one so far, but North Korea’s re-entry and terminal guidance capacities have not yet been proven. It is also unclear whether the North has mastered the technology of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead.”
Notwithstanding any doubts that one may have about the missile test itself, there are a few factors which one can safely assume without fear of much contradiction.The first of these is that the North Korean leadership, which essentially means Kim, will not cease testing – nuclear or missile – till it is sure that the country has an assured deliverable nuclear weapon and an equally assured means of delivery. Second, notwithstanding the State news agency’s report, North Korea may feel the need to continue with its tests – missiles certainly and nuclear warheads most likely. Therefore, it is most likely that tensions will increase in the coming period, unless North Korea ceases all testing or agrees to a moratorium on all testing.
Third, such testing will increase the degree of existential nuclear threat posed by North Korea to the US. North Korea’s current nuclear and missile capabilities are probably sufficient only as a deterrent in its immediate neighbourhood and its nuclear threat to the US is an uncertain one. It is not certain whether North Korea has miniaturized its nuclear arsenal or has perfected the re-entry vehicle technology or the accuracy of its missiles. Nevertheless, it is equally certain that, with continued testing, North Korea will overcome these deficiencies.
Fourthly, at the moment, the size of the North Korean nuclear arsenal is low at a mid-two digit level. This small size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal with a not yet fully developed delivery capability does pose a degree of nuclear threat to the US. But it does not in any manner offer North Korea any semblance of parity with the US on the issue of nuclear deterrence, let alone with respect to MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) capability. However, North Korea’s unchecked and continual production of fissile material for weapon purposes will, over a period of time, degrade the current US nuclear deterrent superiority. It is even possible that in such a scenario North Korea might gain parity with the US in terms of MAD. That will inevitably lead to greater instability in the US-North Korea nuclear deterrence relationship.
Finally, given the historically unpredictable and tempestuous nature of the North Korean, and the current American, leadership, the near term prospects of improving the North East Asian security environment does not look encouraging.
Therefore, left unchecked, the probability of a military conflict arising in North East Asia will only increase. While such a military conflict may arise in a non-nuclear environment – either because of an act of misadventure by North Korea or a non-nuclear pre-emptive missile attack by the US to degrade the North Korean nuclear and missile assets – it will most likely end with a nuclear exchange between North Korea and the US. Any such military exchange will certainly result in the total devastation of North Korea. But others in the neighbourhood are equally likely to suffer, in particular, South Korea whose capital Seoul is within range of North Korea’s conventional artillery as well as Japan which is very likely to suffer extensive damage. The damage to the US is likely to be non-crippling. And the international security environment will deteriorate in a major way.
It is, therefore, in the interest of the international community that such a military option is not exercised by any party and instead a diplomatic solution is forged. It is possible to outline the contours of such a diplomatic solution – the basic essentials that must form part of such an agreement.First, the major factor driving the North Korean nuclear and missile programme has been its extreme fear about the US wanting to effect a regime change. This fear has to be removed.
Two, North Korea’s continued efforts to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities is the factor that is propelling the fears of the US and its allies in the region. These fears must be addressed in a concrete and meaningful fashion by suitably constraining North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
These two objectives can be met through an UN-led multinational dialogue with North Korea. It must include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with the two countries most concerned with the North Korean nuclear programme, namely Japan and South Korea. This would be not unlike the recently concluded and successful EU-led Iran nuclear agreement.
What are the essential elements of such a deal that would make it attractive to North Korea? First, the final agreement, in particular the provision guaranteeing North Korea’s sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs, must be underwritten by the UN Security Council.
Two, the North Korean nuclear programme should come under IAEA full scope safeguards, with the country declaring all its peaceful and non-peaceful nuclear material and bringing the former along with all nuclear facilities under IAEA full scope safeguards. North Korea must also sign and ratify the IAEA Additional protocol. In addition, it must agree to certain negotiated conditions on its missile programme with verification procedures.
Three, under a specified and agreed time framework, all UN non-proliferation related sanctions on North Korea must be removed.Finally, the duration of the agreement needs to be specified, depending on the results of these negotiations on the future of the nuclear weapons already manufactured by North Korea.
While the other parties to such an agreement, including China, should have no political issues with such an arrangement, North Korea may initially have some (perhaps even total) opposition to such an agreement especially if all the benefits are not given at the very beginning. That may not be acceptable to the other parties. However, a graded release of the benefits to be negotiated along with the required actions by North Korea may not be difficult to reach an agreement on especially if North Korea’s most trusted allies, China and Russia, as part of the guarantors to the agreement, convince it of the benefits of such an agreement. Incidentally, the much acclaimed Iran nuclear deal also adopted such a graded approach. It is most likely that no diplomatic agreement falling short of these basic principles will find acceptance with all the concerned states.
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