Joshua PollackKorea: Instability Within Stability

As Michael has recently reminded us, the possession of nuclear weapons by two adversaries may lessen the chances of all-out war, but it does not prevent — and may even encourage — more limited forms of conflict. Western strategists have held this view since at least the 1950s, and lately have used it to explain the pattern of Indo-Pakistani clashes since the nuclear tests of 1998. (See The Stability-Instability Paradox, Nov. 2, 2010.)

The same phenomenon now appears to be at work on the Korean Peninsula.

In Korea as elsewhere, it’s not necessarily the more powerful actor that reaps the benefit of mutual nuclear deterrence. What Thomas Schelling defined as a competition in risk-taking mainly works in favor of those less averse to risk. That doesn’t mean that North Korea has been completely reckless; it simply means that Seoul and Washington have been more cautious. Before the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last week, and even before the sinking of the ROK ship Cheonan off Baeknyeong Island in March, KPA artillery units had started to fire occasional barrages in the direction of the islands, testing South Korean tolerance by small steps. As the Chosun Ilbo observes, the shelling fell on the northern side of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in January, then south of the NLL in August. Neither incident garnered more than a verbal response. Now that the South Koreans have fired back — and say they will alter the rules of engagement in response to this incident — the North may well conclude it has started to discover the limits of Seoul’s tolerance.

The Role of Nuclear Weapons

Some maintain that by holding Seoul hostage to artillery fire, North Korea has long had the political or functional equivalent of the Bomb. That might explain some of its aggressiveness in the military incidents and bombings of the 1960s through the 1980s. But in hindsight, perhaps this factor has never really loomed so large in Pyongyang’s own thinking. As Victor Cha pointed out at an Aug. 31, 2010 talk at CSIS, the long gap between the Cheonan and the massacres of yore suggests that something important has changed lately, and that something seems to have been the second, more successful nuclear test.

We might also ask what changed in the late 1980s. Why, a full decade before the onset of the Sunshine Policy (ca. 1998), did North Korea stop trying to assassinate South Korean leaders, blow up airliners, or attack American military ships or planes? And why was it necessary to test a couple of nuclear devices before reverting to the bad habits of yesteryear? The answers aren’t clear, but a couple of points stand out.

First, without a nuclear-armed superpower ally behind them, North Korean leaders may have hesitated to act too provocatively, even with the advantage of having Seoul under the gun. Second, in the Sunshine period, they had little incentive to behave that way. Only after North-South relations had entered their downturn (ca. 2008), and only after North Korea had the Bomb (ca. 2009) would this sort of behavior seemed at all attractive.  We needn’t even invoke the succession or other special factors to explain it — this is the historic norm for North Korean conduct toward the South.

The D-word

So why did North Korea start performing nuclear tests during the era of good feelings (comparatively speaking)? One answer is, possessing a demonstrated nuclear capability was seen to protect against regime change. The shift in Kim Jong Il’s thinking can be seen rather plainly in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) statement that appeared in KCNA on April 6, 2003, when North Korea suddenly embraced the doctrine of deterrence wholesale:

Only the physical deterrent force, tremendous military deterrent force powerful enough to decisively beat back an attack supported by any ultra-modern weapons, can avert a war and protect the security of the country and the nation. This is a lesson drawn from the Iraqi war.

The U.S is seriously mistaken if it thinks that the DPRK will accept the demand for disarming while watching one of the three countries the U.S. listed as part of an “axis of evil” already subject to the barbarous military attack.

Before then, deterrence was just a Yankee imperialist shibboleth that KCNA mentioned only to sneer at.

April 6, 2003 is also just about when it became plain that the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army was meeting no serious resistance on the doorstep of Baghdad. North Korean leaders have always paid close attention to distant military events, as Joe Bermudez convincingly shows in the latest issue of KPA Journal. And — as noted in the MFA statement itself — it scarcely could have escaped Kim Jong Il’s attention that he was a charter member of the Axis of Evil. Thus, when North Korea announced its first nuclear test in October 2006, it called the event “the new measure to be taken to bolster the war deterrent for self-defence.”

But as an amulet against regime change, a nuclear deterrent cuts both ways; it protects a regime whether it’s defensively minded or inclined to aggression — at least on a limited scale.

Most Western experts don’t assume that the North Korean military actually has nuclear warheads small enough to place on its missiles. But the shelling of Baeknyeong suggests either that it does, or that Pyongyang is engaged in one great bluff.


  1. Robert Merkel (History)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the North Korean military possess a) the capacity to lob a great deal of artillery into downtown Seoul before the South Korean military can stop them, and b) the capacity to put chemical weapons, both on the artillery shells and on short-range missiles? Indeed, couldn’t their missiles reach Japan, to wreak similar havoc?

    As such, even if their nuclear capability is a paper tiger, don’t they have a near-equivalent deterrent anyway?

    • joshua (History)

      The issue is discussed above, albeit maybe too briefly. Based on their reaction to the Iraq War, it doesn’t look like the North Koreans believe their artillery along the DMZ gives them this capability. They clearly felt that their deterrent needed strengthening. Now, why might that be?

      One possibility, discussed here —

      — is that they no longer have a conventional force capable of sustained massed fires of the sort we’re talking about, simply because the force has become so decrepit.

      A second possibility, described here —

      — is that they actually only have a limited number of long-range artillery positions postured to threaten Seoul to begin with. Not being a conventional military expert, I’m not in a position to validate that, though.

      A third possibility is that they consider their artillery positions vulnerable to preemptive strikes with the sorts of precision-guided weapons demonstrated by the U.S. and its allies in recent wars, and for that reason have developed another deterrent force they can hide and protect deep in the interior of the country.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Actually, what the Bluffer’s Guide analysis (mostly of Google Earth photos) shows is that North Korean artillery is arrayed in defensive positions, mostly out of range of Seoul. If there is a threat to Seoul, it is more the ballistic missiles.

    North Korea’s conventional forces alone are a sufficient deterrent to a South Korean / US attack only because South Korea does not want war, and even if Bush did he didn’t want it bad enough to make it happen.

    If KJI is half as intelligent as some people make him out to be, he must realize that a few nukes, “deliverable” or not (and they must be deliverable by some, e.g. covert, means), and even with low yields, are absolutely terrifying to the US, Japan, and South Korea, and imply that there is zero chance of a war of choice being ginned up against him.

    Still, it isn’t clear that this provides any cover for “aggression” from North Korea. Belligerence, yes, and displays of it, but what exactly does Pyongyang gain from shelling an island, or even from sinking a ship? Such acts send a message, but don’t return any tangible rewards.

    The message from Pyongyang seems to be, “We are not afraid of you. We will not be threatened or arm-twisted into or out of anything. And if you want to make a deal with us, we are going to drive a hard bargain.”

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I should add that the flip side of that message, as is usually the case, is that actually they are very much afraid, and a deal should really be possible.

    • rwendland (History)

      I don’t think NK sees shelling around the NLL as general belligerence, but as specifically necessary to show that they do not accept the NLL as an accepted and legal boundary. Note that the enforcement of the NLL prevents NK access to its (arguable?) 12 nautical mile territorial waters, and an UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zone to control fishing beyond.

      Consider these KCNA quotes:

      “the recent provocation prompted by a sinister calculation that in case the DPRK did not make any reaction it would take it as “a tacit recognition” of the illegal “northern limit line” and make it a fait accompli”

      “the DPRK responded with an instant and strong physical strike to the reckless military provocation the south Korean puppet forces committed by firing dozens of shells at the territorial waters of the DPRK around Yonphyong Island in the West Sea of Korea. This was a legitimate exercise of the right to self-defence taken to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the DPRK from the provocateurs’ reckless moves.

      … The recent provocation by the south Korean warmongers is part of their vicious scheme to defend the brigandish “northern limit line” by persistently letting their warships into the territorial waters of the DPRK side under the pretext of “intercepting fishing boats”

      But I don’t think shelling islands is necessary, or useful, in making such a stand against the NLL.

      I’d suggest reading this 38 North article by Jon Van Dyke, an International Ocean Law academic, for a quick background on the NLL legal position:

      The problem is that there are areas of the sea south of the NLL that NK sees as easily inside thier 12 nautical mile territorial waters. The NLL was drawn with a 1953-era US 3 nautical mile territorial waters limit in mind. A negotiated solution to this should not be delayed much longer.

    • joshua (History)

      In this instance, the dispute strikes me as more instrumental than an end in itself. The DPRK first disputed the NLL around what, 1970? If your analysis is correct, why did it take them 40 years to respond to a routine exercise by shelling a fishing village (among other things)?

      I don’t think there’s the least interest in South Korea in responding to this outrage by coming to the table. And I’d be surprised if the North Koreans expected anything of the sort.

    • rwendland (History)

      First can I make clear that I do not think shelling the island was at all justified. I very much hope it was some terrible excess by a local NK commander, who is no longer in post. If NK insisted on making a strong response, shelling Yeonpyeong Island coastal waters, about 2 nautical miles out, would have been the correct step up.

      The following is obviously speculation.

      The step up in NLL tension the last two years is I suspect largely because President Lee Myung-bak totally rejected the approach agreed between President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il in 2007:

      “The South and the North have agreed to create a ‘special peace and cooperation zone in the West Sea’ encompassing Haeju and vicinity in a bid to proactively push ahead with the creation of a joint fishing zone and maritime peace zone, establishment of a special economic zone, utilization of Haeju harbor, passage of civilian vessels via direct routes in Haeju and the joint use of the Han River estuary.”

      I don’t follow Korean People’s Navy matters closely, but I suspect general NK coastal capability has increased over the years, so they are more willing to challenge. Certainly if it is true that the Cheonan was sunk with a “bubble jet” non-contact torpedo compact enough to fire from a mini submarine, that seems a considerable step up in capability. From what I see the US Navy only tested that kind of capability, on a large torpedo, in the 1990s after spending in the $billion range – am I wrong there?

      The other factor is that maritime law has developed with recent precedents “that small islands should have limited capacity to affect a maritime boundary, especially when their effect dramatically changes the result that would exist in their absence.” This makes it look like, if the delineation was put to a tribunal now, NK would get something quite close to thier “West Sea Military Demarcation Line” claim. So I suspect they feel increasingly aggrieved by the NLL preventing access to thier territorial waters.

      However your question “explain the absence of major incidents for two decades starting in the late 1980s” is very pertinent. I don’t know enough about the history to answer this – it seems a good contrary point. There was a major incident in 1999, with around 20 NK sailors dead. The CRS 2003 Chronology report mentions fishing and patrol boat incidents in 1995 and 1996. But before that I don’t know the history any better than Wikipedia gives, I’ll have to study it more.

    • rwendland (History)

      … in talking about the Cheonan torpedo above I forgot the rather important word “littoral” – obviously that capability has been around for a long time at sea. The Cheonan was in extremely shallow waters, fairly close to bumping the bottom, so any “bubble jet” non-contact torpedo that sunk it must have had excellent littoral capability. It seems the US Mk 48 only got an excellent littoral capability into operation in 2006, which suggests NK torpedo development would have to be first rate if that did indeed sink the Cheonan.

      “The MK 48 ADCAP Mod 7 Common Broadband Advanced Sonar System (CBASS) torpedo is optimized for both the deep and littoral waters and has advanced counter-countermeasure capabilities. The MK 48 ADCAP Mod 7 (CBASS) torpedo is the result of a Joint Development Program with the Royal Australian Navy and reached Initial Operational Capability in 2006. Current improvement efforts are focusing on improving CBASS performance in shallow water against the most challenging of targets.”

    • John Schilling (History)

      “Certainly if it is true that the Cheonan was sunk with a bubble jet non-contact torpedo compact enough to fire from a mini submarine, that seems a considerable step up in capability. From what I see the US Navy only tested that kind of capability, on a large torpedo, in the 1990s after spending in the $billion range – am I wrong there?”

      Yes, you are wrong there. And you are not alone; the torpedo which sank the Cheonan is often described as a newfangled wonder-weapon, but keep in mind that approximately 99.99% of the torpedoes ever fired in anger were fired before 1945. So there’s a tendency to set the dividing line between “modern” and “old-fashioned” torpedoes in, roughly, 1945.

      The submarine, and the torpedo, which sank the Cheonan, would have been quite familiar to the German navy of 1944. While described as a “midget” submarine, the DPRK’s “Yono” class submarine displaces 130 tons and carries two full-sized 21″ torpedo tubes. The CHT-02D torpedo can apparently use acoustic, wake-homing, or straight-running guidance modes and impact or magnetic (“bubble-jet non-contact”) detonators. Compare with the Kriegsmarine’s T-5 “Zauknonig” torpedo of 1944, though that did lack the wake-homing feature. And while the Germans were the only ones who had a magnetic detonator that worked in 1944, everybody knew the theory and everybody worked out the details fairly quickly thereafter.

      As far as shallow water is concerned, the Cheonan has a three-meter draft and was sunk in 15-45 meters of water, depending on which source you believe. A magnetic torpedo would be set to run at maybe 5 meters against a ship like the Cheonan, and barring e.g. a major iron ore deposit would not care a whit about the sea bed ten or more meters below.

      The guidance system might or might not care. Getting acoustic guidance to work *reliably*, *against submarines*, in shallow water, was problematic right up to the end of the 20th century. Substantially easier if you limit it to surface targets. And against a target that doesn’t know it is likely to be the victim of torpedo attack, you don’t need to use acoustic guidance at all – just do some of that “trigonometry” stuff your high school math teacher told you you’d need later in life, and set a gyro bearing that definitely won’t be influenced by the sea bed ten or more meters below.

      The sinking of the Cheonan did not demonstrate any technical capability that hasn’t been part of the kit of just about every submarine force on Earth for as long as there has been a North Korea. It did demonstrate that North Korean sailors can effectively use their obsolescent gear, which is no small matter, but it isn’t necessarily a new development.

    • rwendland (History)

      John Schilling, thank you for your illuminating reply. I’ve now skim read the South Korean RIG final report.

      It looks like my memory that news reports suggested that the Cheonan was in very shallow water must also be flawed. Reviewing the South Korean RIG outputs shows why the news reporting was confusing. At the RIG Press Conference on 20 May 2010 one of the simulation overhead slides said:

      “Site: 6m~13m water depth”

      You can sea some reporters might read that as depth of water at the site of the sinking, but I suspect it was intended to mean the depth of the explosion in the simulations (though the following slide says the explosion was at 6~9m of water depth). The full report published in August also says the explosion was at 6~9m, and:

      “The water depth of the incident site is 47m. It is known that the depth at the shallowest point around the operational area is 8.6m” [compared to the <3.1m draft of the ship]

      Easily enough to confuse journalists.

      I find the whole episode puzzling. An AP/ABC report that at the time of the sinking a ROK/US joint anti-submarine exercise was taking place 75 miles away. So it would be an unwise, risky, time to mount a planned sinking mission. Perhaps it was a monitoring or intrusion-test mission that went wrong, and a panic response?

      The RIG suggests the submarine avoided the NLL by going via the Chinese side of the Yellow Sea – which implies SK thinks monitoring at the NLL is so good no NK submarine could pass unnoticed. It seems surprising that the NK submarine could not be detected returning given it would have had to return by that long route as well (~50nm to the China-Korea midpoint of the West Sea), and the resources of a major anti-submarine excercise were nearby.

  3. Greg (History)

    “And why was it necessary to test a couple of nuclear devices before reverting to the bad habits of yesteryear? The answers aren’t clear, but a couple of points stand out.”

    My own view is that the skirmishes are the product of political uncertainty in Pyongyang. That is, these incidents are timed to fortify KJI’s successor. That the DPRK isn’t trying to hijack planes is actually telling by itself:

    Six weeks ago, KJI invited a large contingent of international press to Pyongyang for his parade prominently featured his son. This never happens – and the timing is not a coincidence. These skirmishes, coupled with uranium enrichment facility, the elevation of KJU to general, all suggest that KJI is trying to build negotiating leverage for his son.

    What should KJI do to make his son’s life easier once he’s in complete control? Ramp up the pressure now. Increase uncertainty and the appearance of risk. Make it look like anything can happen… Then your 21 year old kid (who doesn’t know anything about the world) will at least have a tailwind of negotiating leverage for a while while he figures things out.

    If KJU wants/needs to negotiate, he can credibly back off and perhaps achieve more concessions than KJI can get – just by being the new guy. At the same time, these skirmishes are gold for propaganda – and can be used to sell KJU’s “skill and bravery” in the DPRK.

  4. jeannick (History)

    A superficial analysis is that it is about sea borders , all the incidents are sea based and the North is perfectly aligned with the Chinese position .
    I read it as a Chinese feeler using their pit-bull to do the sniffing .
    Wikileaks is mentioning some tention between the U.S. and China back in 2007
    that was about a too relax attitude to Iranian/North Korean trade exchange of missile components .
    there also was some bitching about China itself
    “The cable refers specifically to Iran’s attempts to obtain tungsten-copper alloy plates from China’s Dalian Sunny Industries.”

    What use would be this alloy , if any ?

  5. P.E.T. (History)

    Nukes ain’t for fight’n, there for bully’n.

  6. Magpie (History)

    What fool would escalate the situation by implementing an aggressive board-and-search policy on NK shipping in this environment?

    So if they wanted to move something out of country, this would be a good opportunity, yes?

    • joshua (History)

      They probably wouldn’t do that in any case. And NK has lots of ways of getting stuff out of the country.

    • Magpie (History)

      Oh yeah, it’s drawing a hell of a long bow, but I’ve been trying to come up with something for the recent activity beyond simply pushing boundaries (which is the most likely explanation, just not the most interesting).

      If they were looking at shipping something substantial out of country, and worried that foreign intelligence might get a sniff of unusual activity, there’s a certain buffer that high tensions would give them. A greater level of certainty that would need to be surpassed before any intercept could occur.

      Anyway, yeah, it’s pure speculation.

      Far more likely they’re just making claims about their capabilities, true or not. And if their objective was to show the strength of their position, they’ve judged perfectly so far.

      As for timing – maybe they’re feeling a little insecure with US deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan winding up. They’re still cut about that whole “axis of evil” thing…

  7. M Lemon (History)

    I’m sorry, I don’t buy any of this. N Korea conducts aggression purely and simply because it is a totalitarian regime that requires external enemies to maintain internal stability and therefore to keep the regime in power. It’s pursuit of nuclear weapons within it’s overall military program is the result of this, not the cause.

    • joshua (History)

      None of which explains the absence of major incidents for two decades starting in the late 1980s.

    • Lemon (History)

      Major incidents are not necessary, just simmering tension.

    • Magpie (History)

      That’s the point. Incidents like these haven’t been necessary for 20 years. Why now? What’s changed and what’s the intent?

      These guys aren’t cartoon characters. They don’t shoot stuff because they’re coloured evil. There’s been no sign of internal instability that I can see, and no indication that the succession is going to be a serious issue. Nothing to suggest any need to “[conduct] aggression … to keep the regime in power”.

      It’s the same country it was five years ago. They didn’t need to create incidents like this then.

      So I think Joshua’s hypothesis that NK is making a statement about their ability to defend themselves – whether bluff or not – makes a lot of sense.

      Particularly (IMO) now that US forces are coming home from two recent invasions, and particularly now they’ve got a (barely) credible nuclear deterrent. It might well be prudent for them to make sure no-one thinks they’re a soft target, and elbow themselves some room to move.

      “Look”, they can say in 2013, “we’re not shooting anything like we were a couple of years ago. Don’t invade me, bro!”

      Hell, maybe they’re worried Palin will get in. 😀

    • joshua (History)

      What I mean to suggest is that the North Koreans chose to unveil their nuclear capability for defensive reasons, but now find themselves able to take advantage of it for offensive purposes.

      A similar argument could be made about Pakistan since 1998.

    • rwendland (History)

      Rodger Baker of STRATFOR offers a reason for the “absence of major incidents for two decades”, or at least why the NLL issue became much more important for NK in the early 1990s.

      With the end of the Soviet Union they needed economic change, and they wanted to establish a special economic zone and international port at Haeju, their southern deepwater port. However with the NLL enforced, shipping access to Haeju meant going along North Korean coast, often within 3nm of the shore, for 65 nautical miles, and adding over 100 nm each way for southern voyages. Effectively that made Haeju useless for large ships, so the perceived the NLL as seriously impeding economic development.

  8. Sean (History)

    “Tungsten-copper alloy” is likely to be Hevimet, which is 90% W, 6% Ni, 4% Cu. The alloy is much easier to machine than pure W. Still quite dense and I suspect having a similar melting temperature to pure W.

  9. jeannick (History)

    One can’t escape feeling that North Korea has existential problems .
    the leadership is totally inbred ,
    their world vision is pretty much atrophied
    and for those who can travel and see , it’s a pretty dismal sight .
    successions seems to accelerate , rather for the worst
    and China is wondering if they are more an asset than a liability

    let’s face it , their nuclear program is a secret scream

    On alloys and Hevimet , thanks for the info
    here is where you can get some recycled stuff

  10. rwendland (History)

    Does the following Institute for Far Eastern Studies release indicate China is helping NK build the LWR? If so, maybe the 2012 operational target isn’t so unlikely.

    Could this be part of what is behind Obama phoning Hu Jintao today?

    Posted Date : 2010-12-03 (NK Brief No.10-12-3-2)

    … The second- and third-largest imports were listed as “nuclear reactor, boiler, and machinery” (127,000 USD) …”

    • joshua (History)

      Wow. Nice catch.

    • rwendland (History)

      We’re entering wild speculation country here. But it could explain why NK has decided now is the moment to start demolishing the rusting 50MWe Magnox GCR. Any deal for LWR help would probably go with NK fully disabling the plutonium production facilities. Maybe a sort-of mini Agreed Framework reborn!

    • joshua (History)

      I’m still trying to track this down. Not being familiar with Chinese trade statistics, I’m not finding it so easy. At this point, I can’t even confirm that the report is accurate. But it occurs to me that we might be looking at a broad category of goods here, which could include non-nuclear technology.

      As an aside, the NKs told Hecker they plan to maintain the 5 MWe gas-cooled reactor. He believes they are capable of restoring it to functioning in about six months’ time.

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