By Teresa Welsh |
"If the U.S. imperialists brandish nuclear weapons, we ... will by means of diversified, precision nuclear strike …turn not just Seoul, but even Washington, into a sea of fire."
Thus wrote a North Korean official on March 6. This threat against cities was reinforced by another on March 7 that the North might "carry out preemptive nuclear strikes on the strongholds of the aggressors." Are these threats serious?
A threat requires intent plus capability. North Korea's goal surely is survival, not suicide.
Until March 16, Northern officials stated that as "an all-powerful treasured sword," its nuclear weapons were not negotiable — but added "as long as the United States' nuclear threats and hostile policy exist" — leaving open the possibility that nuclear weapons are negotiable after all.
Predictably, things went haywire when nuclear-capable U.S. B52 and then B2 bombers flew to South Korea and simulated nuclear attacks against North Korea. Over a five day span North Korea reacted by adopting "No 1 combat ready posture" and , "set[ting] forth a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously." The new line directed the Korean Peoples' Army to make nuclear forces "pivotal" in all aspects of military strategy and deterrence.
What to make of this nuclear roller coaster ride? First, the U.S. decision to reassure South Korea by sending nuclear-capable bombers was tailor-made to prompt Northern leaders to escalate. Second, North Korea cannot sustain its huge military and have an economy. Substituting nuclear for conventional forces might allow it to square this circle-at least in theory. Third, the Party stated: "As a responsible nuclear weapons state, the [North] will make positive efforts to prevent the nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia ... and realize the denuclearization of the world."
Here, Kim indicated nuclear negotiations are still possible. As a down payment on that option, he signaled that the North might not export nuclear weapons or materials.
The North's nuclear forces aim to compel changes in U.S., Chinese, and South Korean policy towards the North, not deter unprovoked external attack for which it has plenty of conventional forces. Because North Korea's external circumstances are always in flux, its strategy and rhetoric are improvised from day to day, and change constantly.
Today according to Pyongyang, it's nuclear war or nothing. Tomorrow, we may again hear the sweet melody of denuclearization.
Meanwhile, the only way to find out their intention is to talk.
About Peter Hayes Associate of the Nautilus Institute, Director of Nautilus Institute
About Roger Cavazos Associate of the Nautilus Institute, Director of Nautilus Institute
Philip Yun Executive Director of the Ploughshares Fund
Ed Royce Republican Representative from California