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13:26 10 September 2016

OPINION: The threat that won't go away

By Sharon Squassoni
WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, Kyodo

North Korea launched 21 missile tests this year and recently celebrated its Independence Day (Sept. 9) with its fifth nuclear weapon test. Experts can debate whether the recent test gave North Korea the ability to mass-produce standardized warheads and mate them to ballistic missiles, as the North Korean Nuclear Weapons Institute claimed, but one thing is certainly true: with each test, North Korea inches closer to operationalizing a nuclear arsenal with an ever-increasing range.

In the last 10 years, North Korea has demonstrated that it advanced beyond producing fissile material -- separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- to a warhead design that achieved a nuclear yield. Its record of success is mixed, both in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests, but that should bring small comfort since the trend is clearly moving toward developing deployable nuclear weapons. In particular, the fevered pitch of ballistic missile testing in 2015 and 2016 indicates a strong desire by North Korea to improve the quality of its "deterrent": in the last six months, the military has tested, almost on a monthly basis, solid-fueled rocket motors (easier to deploy and more stable), solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missiles (in April and in August) and an array of short- and medium-range missiles.

Of course, North Korea doesn't need sophisticated ballistic missiles to threaten its neighbors, South Korea and Japan, with nuclear weapons. That can be accomplished with simpler delivery options (bombs deployed on aircraft or boats or barges). As for China, as North Korea's ally it is not necessarily targeted or threatened by the North's nuclear arsenal, but more likely irritated at its own inability to control the volatile Kim Jong Un. China says the right thing, in its diplomatic demarches of North Korea's tests, but doesn't necessarily do the right thing in strictly enforcing sanctions.

North Korea does need long range missiles to threaten U.S. assets, and developments in this area tend to get the attention of policymakers in the United States. Deterring the United States appears to be North Korea's top motivation in spending its scarce resources on what Kim Jong Un calls "a might powerful enough to deter the United States from unleashing a nuclear war." He recently told war veterans that "We now possess such a force as to fight any form of warfare of the choice of the United States...Gone forever is the era when the U.S. blackmailed us with nukes; now the United States is no longer a source of threat and fear for us and we are the very source of the greatest threat and fear for it. This is the present reality."

It is tempting to reject this view of the strategic balance as wildly inaccurate and wait out the Kim regime. Recent developments suggest increasingly, however, that time is not on our side. The next U.S. administration must place North Korea at the top of its nuclear security agenda, not just for the sake of U.S. allies in East Asia, but to reduce pressures for nuclear weapons proliferation worldwide. If Russia and China were able to collaborate with the United States to reach an agreement on Iran, they should now see it in their interest to persuade North Korea to return to the negotiating table. The immediate goal should be a pause in North Korean tests of any kind in exchange for a wide-ranging agenda that includes both nuclear disarmament and regional security.

(Sharon Squassoni is Senior Fellow and Director of Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit policy research organization in Washington.)




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