The situation change couldn’t have been more drastic. Only a year ago, the tensions surrounding the Korean peninsula were rising as if war was just around the corner. North Korea conducted a nuclear experiment that was more powerful than the previous experiments combined, and launched three ICBMs. Threats and insults, such as “fire and fury”, “Rocket Man”, “dotard” and “EMP attacks” were exchanged across the Pacific Ocean. Now, the South-North talks are included in the itinerary, and U.S-North Korea talks are expected to take place sometime later. These changes, while abrupt, are relieving. Nevertheless, these events are not signs that we can now simply sit back and celebrate the détente. In fact, this peaceful mood is the very reason why we should remain vigilant.
1. Why now is not the time for champagnes.
North Korea’s nuclear capability is the result of the Hermit Kingdom’s siege mentality. To gain this capability, North Korea cheated numerous multinational agreements and continued its path towards isolation. Every agreement that North Korea signed with the U.S. since 1994, starting with the Agreed Framework, had collapsed. Moreover, North Korea has shown consistently its firm stance against allowing foreign inspectors into its territory. It had already expelled IAEA inspectors at Yongbyeon nuclear facility in 2002 and 2009, and never let a human rights inspector enter its borders. This means that even if North Korea says they’ll honor a deal, there will be no way to prove it.
One unfortunate scenario is North Korea abusing this thawing period to buy some more time for its nuclear capabilities. North Korea already has strong nuclear capabilities. Moreover, it also has ICBMs and basic SLBMs that can deliver warheads to America. When the Kim regime validate their capability to strike across the Pacific, America would have to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state and either engage in an appeasement policy or strike North Korea’s nuclear facilities which may possibly start a devastating war in the Korean peninsula. This potential dilemma is undesirable for South Korea, which relies much on the United States when it comes to national security.
2. Only a dozen steps left.
Fortunately, North Korea’s nuclear program still has some way to go. One of the huddles that the North is facing is re-entry technology. If the re-entry technology is incomplete, the nuclear warhead will not detonate and the attack will end in failure. Another obstacle is increasing the thrust of the ICBMs. Even though North Korea currently possesses rockets that can be classified as ICBMs (Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15), experts assume that North Korean ICBMs do not possess enough thrust to fly across the Pacific while carrying a nuclear warhead. It is highly likely that North Korea will follow the footsteps of other countries with ICBMs and try to develop a solid propellant, three-stage ICBM. Solid propellants provide more propulsion, and a three-stage ICBM has a longer range compared to a two-stage ICBM thanks to an additional more rocket engine.
Other obstacles that North Korea needs to overcome are the miniaturizing of nuclear warheads and making the missiles more reliable. North Korea has always conducted its ICBM tests on a lofted trajectory, thus nobody knows how far the ICBMs will actually fly unless they’re launched on a minimum energy trajectory (maximum range). Furthermore, North Korea has only conducted three successful ICBM tests, and only one of their SLBM tests successfully underwent both ejection and flight. To guarantee that their missiles are consistent performance-wise, North Korea would need to conduct at least two to three more tests. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) concluded in July 2017 that North Korea succeeded in producing small warheads which can fit into their missiles. However, it is unknown whether North Korea actually miniaturized their nuclear warheads to a level that their nuclear-tipped ICBMs can reach the American mainland.
3. Time is ticking.
North Korea’s pace is becoming faster as time goes by. North Korea’s Musudan (Hwasong-10) Intermediate-range ballistic missile test failed three consecutive times in April 2016. Yet, North Korea now has ICBMs that can fly three times longer than the Musudan. North Korean threat is real and developing at an even quicker pace as we speak. But that does not mean that the future has to be bleak. The current negotiations and talks can decrease the chances of miscommunication, thereby avoiding misunderstandings that could lead to an abrupt attack on either side. And if other nations crack through Kim’s siege mentality, they may be able to get Kim to give up his nukes. Still, the ultimate goal should be the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korean nuclear weapons. The summit meetings and talks should not serve as a time-waster event that allows DPRK to carry on its nuclear development. For now, the focus should not be on whether these dialogues will guarantee peace, but instead wish the people involved good luck.