Policy goals

Policy goals

Long-standing tensions over North Korea's weapons programme have worsened after it tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July. That prompted a new round of UN sanctions and an escalation of the war of words with the United States. As the provocations continue, what does Kim Jong-un really want to achieve?


A recent report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has questioned the extent to which this improved missile capability genuinely allows the North to deploy a nuclear warhead against the US, but there is little doubt that Pyongyang has made dramatic progress in the last year in securing full de-facto membership of the nuclear club.

Washington, however, has made it clear that it will not recognize or tolerate such a development. To do so would offer a propaganda victory to the North, critically undermine America's relations with its key regional allies - Japan and South Korea - prompt a destabilizing arms race in the region, and destabilize the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.


He can also calculate rationally that ultimately the United States, as many experienced observers are arguing, will accept the need to negotiate some form of intermediate freeze in the North's military capabilities in the hope that this will stabilize the strategic situation while keeping the door open to future disarmament.

By then, Mr Kim may hope he will be able to secure a range of concessions from the US and South Korea, whether in the form of economic assistance, conventional arms reductions, or more importantly the political respect and status as an independent, sovereign state that the North has long craved.

The wild card in the current situation is how far President Trump's rhetorical brinkmanship will deter the North from pushing ahead with its missile testing programme. The North Korean military has threatened to test fire four intermediate range missiles in the vicinity of the US military facilities on Guam later this month.

No US President could tolerate a direct attack, but a test launch in the international waters close to the island would arguably represent a "grey zone" contingency that would require a more nuanced response, stopping short of full-blown military conflict.

Discussions of the current stand-off have focused on the parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the strategic judgment of the US president at the time, John F Kennedy. His caution in seeking to avoid nuclear war was shaped by his reading of Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August and its insights into the lessons of World War One.

It is ironic and telling that once again August is a time of acute strategic risk and uncertainty, when the rhetoric, assessments and actions of national leaders are likely to carry profound significance for regional and global security.

Dr John Nilsson-Wright is a Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia Programme, Chatham House and Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics and the International Relations of East Asia, University of Cambridge



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