Joshua PollackDeterrence, North Korea-style

As regular readers are well aware, North Korea’s KCNA often features heartwarming turns of phrase like this one:

The DPRK will bolster up its war deterrent under the uplifted banner of Songun as long as the U.S. military threat and provocations against it persist.

“Bolstering” is ideally carried out through nuclear or missile tests, but it lately seems as if North Korea has gained the ability to create deterrence by means of an internet press release. At least, that’s what we might conclude after reading reports like this one from Yoshihiro Makino of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun:

Nuclear fusion techniques, which Pyongyang in May claimed it had developed, might allow the North to load smaller bombs onto ballistic missiles, while using highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium would make it more difficult for the international community to monitor Pyongyang’s access to raw materials for its bombs.

Pyongyang first referred to the new technology in a Foreign Ministry statement carried on the state-run Korean Central News Agency, on June 28. It said it was “strengthening (nuclear deterrence) with a new method.”

On July 25, the Foreign Ministry’s disarmament section chief Li Tong Il again seemed to refer to new capabilities, when he said: “We will further strengthen our nuclear deterrence in a variety of ways.”

Others have gone further still, with rumors flying of an imminent test of an HEU-based device. All on account of the words “new” and “variety” (or, in the official translation, “more diversified”). Psychological operations are at work, in the truest sense of the phrase.

As Jeffrey has warned us before, it’s only too easy to “get all tied into knots trying to parse the cryptic utterances of North Korea’s apparatchiks and its state media.”

Untying the Knots

I could be wrong. The DPRK Foreign Ministry has lately made a handful of statements about uranium enrichment,  and there was that much-discussed Rodong Sinmun story about fusion research. So perhaps the latest declarations are the only warnings we’ll get before Kim Jong Il uncorks the Q-bomb. But it’s pretty clear that the June 28 statement was occasioned by the release of a set of historic documents by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The events of 1969 are probably not driving new technical developments in North Korean nuclear weaponeering, not even as a pretext.

And then there are the twin statements of July 24 in the name of the National Defense Commission (“a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary”) and the Foreign Ministry (“bolster its nuclear deterrent in a more diversified manner and take strong physical measures”). These outbursts came in anticipation of the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises announced at the time. The fun continues this week.

Now, “new method” and “more diversified” could mean many things, or nothing at all. They’re just words, and not terribly clear ones at that. But with so little else to go on, it’s tempting to take what appears in KCNA and stretch it like taffy. We’ve all done it at one time or another.

(The latest North Korean computer numerical controlled taffy puller.)

In my own judgment, at least, there’s insufficient evidence to justify the belief that North Korea has produced enough HEU for a nuclear test (if any). And H-bombs? Don’t get me started. Let’s try taking these claims more seriously when it’s the North Koreans themselves making them. Then they’ll have something to prove. By that standard, anyway, we shouldn’t be expecting a third multi-kiloton “bolstering” of whatever variety in the near future.

Still not convinced? Remember that we went through all of this back in early March. It’s just how the game is played.

Below, a bonus feature: A rare view of the inner workings of the NK News Random Insult Generator.


  1. chris (History)

    I could not agree more. I don’t feel like I am being at all radical when I say I don’t believe a word of what the KCNA publishes on “powerful retaliations” or “merciless punishments”. The way they recycle phrases makes the whole thing look all kinds of desperate, too.

    Anything they really intend to do, they keep quiet about. So, when things go quiet, sit up and pay attention.

  2. Chad (History)

    Chris, I disagree.

    North Korea warned of:
    October 2006 Nuclear Test
    2010 ‘Satellite’ Launch
    Departure from the 6 Party Talks if satellite launch brought up at the UN
    May 2010 Nuclear Test

    All of these were carried out. While a lot of their warnings turn out to be nothing, there is a real danger of ignoring everything they say as rhetoric. The Aesops Fable, ‘The Boy Cried Wolf’ comes to mind!

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