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Written By: Laza Florina
In the past decades, North Korea has been developing its own nuclear arsenal and has been able to steadily increase the range of their missiles by doing numerous launching tests. So, between 1994 and 2007 North Korea did 16 missile tests and 1 nuclear test. From January 2008 to September of 2016 they did 80 missile tests and 4 nuclear tests. And experts say that, at this rate, they are going in 4 years of Trump’s administration to surpass 100 tests.
In reality, they are not just tests, but pawns in a boundless political game. They are meant to send a message to the outside world that North Korea is armed, dangerous and ready to retaliate. They’ve made a rapid progress in their missile development as they’ve demonstrated missiles that can destroy Seoul and Tokyo, hit USA basis in Pacific and reach Alaska, getting closer and closer to the USA borders.
It was confirmed by the US officials that on July 4, 2017, North Korea has successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, its first ICBM capable of reaching Alaska. It’s called the Hwasong-14 and it’s the newest member of North Korea’s arsenal. It reached a distance of about 930 kilometers, flew nearly 40 minutes, and successfully re-entered, splashing down in the Sea of Japan. Kim Jong-un named the demonstration a gift for the Trump Administration.
An ICBM is the kind of weapon that both USA and Russia have thousands of, and have used them to threaten each other during the Cold War. The North Koreans have been working on it for quite a while and now they appear to finally have one. But why did North Korea become so obsessed with building long-range missiles?
North Korea has had nuclear bombs since 2006, and they could definitely use them against their enemies, but they don’t have a good delivery system for distant targets as they could easily be shot down, and so, the most effective way it would likely be to attach it to a missile. North Korea already has a huge arsenal of short and medium-range missiles, but they did not have a working Long-range missile. And a big ICBM could hit a target up to 15.000 kilometers away. This long-range missile is actually made of multiple missiles stacked on top of each other and each missile is used one after another to push the warhead into space and once it’s over a target, this final 4th section re-enters the atmosphere and detonates.
This may sound easy, but it’s a very hard thing to do for engineers and previous tests for long-range missiles have repeatedly failed. Even Hwasong-14 is a relatively small ICBM, meaning it can’t carry a very heavy nuclear weapon and there is no evidence that they are capable of building a miniaturized nuclear warhead to fit on one of its long-range ballistic missiles. But this still has serious repercussions on international affairs and future geopolitical strategies, because it demonstrates North Korea’s determination to improve its own ICBM technology no matter the costs. But how did North Koreans get to this point?
During the Cold War, the North Koreans were helped by their ally, the Soviet Union, to build a nuclear reactor for energy which they will later be using it to reprocess plutonium in order to create nuclear weapons. At the time they were protected from their enemies, South Korea and the USA, through the massive nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the North Koreans were left armless and had to come up with new ways to protect its independence. And so, they announced to leave the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty that allowed international observers to inspect the countries’ reactors and took matters into their own hands.
The USA feared the prospects of a rogue state to have nuclear weapons, so 3 consecutive presidents tried different approaches in keeping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
President Bill Clinton tried to negotiate and promised to suspend some of the military exercises done by the US army together with South Korea. Also, he committed to replacing the Yongbyon reactor which was suspected to be used to create Plutonium with two light-water reactors and as a compensation for the theoretical loss, the Koreans were promised 500 thousand tons of heavy fuel oil each year. But the negotiations failed and it was revealed that North Korea had violated the deal and started working on another method of developing nuclear material through uranium enrichment.
President George W. Bush suspended negotiations and threaten them by putting North Korea on the Axis of Evil, rendering them as an enemy of the US. He decided to terminate the supply of fuel-oil and, in response, North Koreans kicked out International Observers and resumed their nuclear programs.
President Barack Obama used a different tactic from his predecessors, dubbed as Strategic Patience. In the hope of reducing international tensions, he didn’t threaten nor engage in talks and negotiations. Unfortunately, nothing worked and there’s a reason for that.
The Kim’s dynasty believes their only option to survive and to keep its independence is to become a nuclear power. They explained this during the negotiations with the US without even blinking: “You attacked Iraq because they didn’t have nuclear weapons. You attacked Afghanistan because they didn’t have nuclear weapons. You will never attack Iran. And you will never attack us.” Therefore, they’ve gone on to build an arsenal of missiles for their nuclear bombs.
The Nodong-1 is a medium-range ballistic missile that has a range of 1.500 km. Also, their SCUD missiles are highly effective within 1.000 km. This puts North Korea’s main enemies, South Korea and Japan, within range as well as the 62.000 US troops stationed there. In fact, North Korea wants to send a strong political message through this and it does so by successfully testing a lot of those short-range missiles.
As a result, South Korea and Japan wouldn’t attack North Korea, because they know that some of those missiles could potentially destroy some of their largest cities. Also, they don’t have nuclear weapons of their own. Only the US keeps them from attacking its sworn enemies. The US promised to protect them through a mutual defense treaty, meaning that any attack on them would summon an immediate US response. This puts North Koreans at a disadvantage because they can’t reach the US just yet. This brings us back to the first question I addressed in this article: why is North Korea trying so hard to build its own ICBM arsenal? This is the only way they can finally turn things around in their favor.
The North Koreans want to install fear and doubts in the minds of South Koreans and Japanese by suggesting that the United States are not willing to risk Log Angeles or Chicago in order to defend Seoul. And interestingly enough, in this tense context, at the Olympic Winter Games in 2018 in Pyeongchang, the two countries (South and North formally reunited) walked in together at the opening ceremony and have put together one combined Korean ice hockey team. Also, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un’s sister met for a diplomatic meeting where she invited the President to meet with Kim Jong-un in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang.
So, suddenly in charge of their own protection, South Korea, and Japan will have to find methods to potentially develop nuclear weapons of their own. Something that even Donald Trump said he was fine with. This could have an unexpected domino effect on the world’s stability by triggering a process called nuclear proliferation which is against the Non-proliferation treaty and something the US has been trying to prevent since the Cold War. Right now only 9 countries have nuclear weapons of their own, but if South Korea and Japan start to change their non-nuclear status, this might encourage other countries to do the same.
President Trump wants to completely isolate the country by pressing China to stop its diplomatic and economic relationship with North Korea which is the only thing right now that keeps the regime alive. So, if he succeeds to cut off China’s support, North Korea might decide to stop their plans, because they could not have enough resources.
But right now we stand at a cross point between negotiations, plans, political games, and ICBMs. While leaders are developing new political strategies the simple people are the ones that will suffer the consequences. Right now North Korean citizens have to survive every day with almost no food, little support, little liberties and constant oppressions and violations from a totalitarian regime obsessed with power.