North Korea Stirs Cuban Crisis Memory, by Hui Zhang

In response to the latest United Nations sanctions over its February nuclear test, Pyongyang has become more provocative and unpredictable — scrapping the armistice that ended the 1950–53 Korean War; threatening a preemptive nuclear strike against the South and the US; and canceling non-aggression pacts with the South.

Those actions coincided with ongoing US–South Korean war games on the other side of the 38th parallel involving nuclear-capable bombers. In response, North Korea accused the US of preparing a military invasion with nuclear weapons, and threatened to attack US military bases on Japan and the Pacific island of Guam.

Over the past decade, past experience has shown that the more sanctions the international community places on Pyongyang, the more Pyongyang is motivated to respond defiantly. The longer the stalemate drags on, the more fissile material North Korea will produce, and the better weapons it will make. The North can also sell its fissile materials to anyone in the world seeking to buy it.

On the other hand, as more sanctions are imposed on Pyongyang, the more desperate of a threat North Korea will seem to its two nuclear hostages: South Korea and Japan. The resulting escalation could ultimately lead to a Cuban missile–type crisis, a nuclear conflict in no one's interest. To avoid such a result, Washington must be willing to negotiate a compromise: a reliable security assurance including no regime change and a peace treaty.

At this point, Pyongyang's nuclear capability can no longer be doubted. With three nuclear tests under its belt, Pyongyang should have more confidence in its capability to combine its warheads with medium-range missiles capable of reaching all of South Korea and Japan. While North Korea currently lacks the ability to deploy a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the US, last December's long-range rocket test and the recent nuclear test show it is seeking such a capability and, could have it within several years.

US intelligence agencies estimate that the recent test yielded an explosion of "several kilotons", much more powerful than past detonations. A several-kiloton bomb is not as powerful as the 15- and 20-kiloton bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it could cause greater casualties given the significantly higher population densities of South Korea and Japan today, especially in their capitals of Seoul and Tokyo. Such a bomb could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths from the blast, burns, and ensuing radiation.
Washington apparently would like to facilitate North Korea's collapse through long-term isolation and sanctions. Yet, a cornered and desperate Pyongyang would almost certainly not go down quietly.

Pyongyang will undoubtedly continue to take provocative steps to escalate the crisis until it gets a security assurance from Washington. Kim Jong-eun is unlikely to give up his nuclear deterrent — the sole tool that props up his regime — unless he gets more cooperation from Washington.

North Korea has a long "playbook" of provocative actions, and we may not have yet seen all that is in that book. Elements within a desperate and collapsing North Korea could even sell highly enriched uranium (HEU) to the highest bidder. HEU is much more attractive than plutonium to terrorist groups in the market for nuclear weapons because it is easier to hide during transport and easier to make into a bomb.

Even if the probability of such a nuclear transfer is extremely low for any sane country, a nuclear armed and desperate North Korea might do so in a last-ditch attempt to save the regime. After all, North Korea is already appears to be selling missiles and missile technologies to Iran and others. North Korea reportedly helped Syria build a reactor that was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in 2007.
Of course, Washington will not tolerate such a nuclear transfer. Nuclear terrorism is, as President Obama has declared, "the single biggest threat to US security". Washington will attempt to intercept and interdict any such shipments from North Korea. However, Pyongyang states clearly that an attempted blockade of any kind by the United States and its allies will be regarded as "an act of war" and met with "a decisive military response".

Any military conflict could escalate to a full-scale war in which nuclear weapons could be used. Indeed, North Korea has threatened the South with "final destruction". To be sure, Pyongyang would understand that any use of its nuclear weapons would invite a devastating retaliation and the end of its regime. But, a cornered and desperate Pyongyang may implode its nuclear weapons before its regime imploded. No one wants to play a game of "chicken" with Pyongyang.

President Barack Obama and Kim Jong-eun could end up confronting each other "eyeball to eyeball", each with nuclear weapons on hair trigger, as president John F Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev did over five decades ago during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. However, the younger and less-experienced Kim of the smaller and isolated Kingdom might not behave as rationally as Khruschev.

To avoid a potentially catastrophic confrontation, the key to defusing such a crisis is an acceptable compromise. The only way to win this game is to prepare a large "carrot" — a package including security assurances and political and economical benefits, to induce Pyongyang to denuclearize, while the United Nations and others, including China, prepare "sticks" to enforce the deal. Attempting to prevail by a purely coercive strategy is too risky, and could yield catastrophic consequences.
Hui Zhang, a physicist, is leading a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom. His expertise is in both China's nuclear policy and nuclear arms control.

Author:  Hui Zhang,Senior Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Managing the Atom; Science, Technology, and Public Policy

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