North Korea is to restart its Yongbyon nuclear plant, deactivated under the 2007 disarmament-for-aid deal. Assuming the facility can be reactivated, it could produce both enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. As wars go, this one is rather odd. In fact, North Korea’s war strategy is the same as its peacetime strategy, and can best be formulated as, “Give us food or we’ll keep hurting ourselves.”
North Korea has scrapped the armistice on a war that never officially ended, threatened nuclear war, actually stated that they are at war, and are now threatening to reactivate a facility that may be able to produce material that may be used in a bomb in a few years. They have threatened to target Guam, Hawaii, Los Angeles and, for some reason, Austin, Texas. Just how many steps can there be between war and actual combat?
The answer, apparently, is as many as they want, particularly since all this sound and fury has been met with little but strong language and the scheduled annual Foal Eagle exercise by the South and the United States. Sure, the US sent B-2 bombers and F-22s to participate, but that was it. Why isn’t the North being taken seriously in its tantrum?
Well, in a diplomatic sense, the answer is that it has proven an untrustworthy partner. There is very little appetite left to prop up North Korea with aid when it is clear that nuclear disarmament is not going to happen- particularly when the Chinese and the South are so obviously willing to help the DPRK undertake economic reforms and develop a Chinese-style economy. The Chinese have taken every visit by the North Korean leadership as an opportunity to emphasise the advantages of this path. And yet somehow, it hasn’t sunk in.
We can only speculate on the bizarre psychology of the situation. But in a military sense, it is clear that the North doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Nuclear war would be suicide. Conventional war would also be suicide, at least for the regime. North Korea’s armoured forces, though numerically impressive, are dominated by the 1950’s vintage T-54/55 and the 1960’s vintage T-62. The most recent indiginous design, which may incorporate more recent Russian and/or Chinese technology, has insufficient numbers to counter the K1 and M1 tanks of the South and the US. The DPRK Air Force is dominated by MiG-21 “Fishbeds”, the same aircraft faced by F-4s and F-8s during the Vietnam War, with around 120 newer MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s, and would prove little more challenging than the Iraqi Air Force in 1991. North Korea’s two advantages are numbers and a very dense air defence system, equipped with significant numbers of the modern SA-17 medium-range missile. Their chances, to put it mildly, are not good.
In summary, neither the Americans nor the South Koreans will be intimidated into perpetuating the cycle of nuclear blackmail at this point, and any follow-through on the DPRK’s threats would be both hopeless and tragic. The question is what Pyongyang will do next. Coming away from this encounter with neither face for the young leader nor desperately-needed aid, at what point will they feel forced to break out of their current futile paradigm- and in which direction will they go?