Why This Time is Different: The North Korea Crisis and New Zealand’s Interests

Author: Steff, R.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2020

From 2014 to the end of the Obama administration in January 2017, the North con- ducted two more nuclear tests (bringing the tally to five) and its testing regime of short, medium and long-range missiles increased markedly. Furthermore, testing became more sophisticated, as it demonstrated mobile platforms, dispersed forces, improved targeting, tested ‘salvo’ launches to overcome missile defence systems, and pursued nuclear-armed submarines. In other words, testing was becoming more realistic and, while the majority of Pyongyang’s missile forces only placed regional targets in range, the test of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 in 2017, with potential ranges in excess of 10,000km and 13,000km, set alarm bells ringing in Washington, as it suggested the US mainland could soon be threatened by the DPRK’s nuclear-armed missiles.37

Even China’s leader, Xi Jinping, felt compelled after the DPRK staged its third nuclear test in April 2013 to reprimand the North by stating “no one should be allowed to throw a region, and even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gains.”38 A Chinese ban on export items that could facilitate the North’s nuclear weapons program followed.39 Additional evidence has emerged showing DPRK-Chinese ties have been tense for some time. In a cable dated 28 August 2009 (released by Wikileaks), the North’s former leader Kim Jong-il reportedly stated he did not trust China,40 another cable from April 2009 reported China’s Vice Foreign Minister told the US charge d’affaires in Beijing that Pyongyang was acting like a “spoiled child” by conducting missile tests to get US attention, and another from February 2010 reported that South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister told his US counterpart that younger Chinese leaders did not view North Korea as a reliable ally, and “The PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance’ – as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.”41It is likely that Pyongyang views these statements as additional evidence that its Chinese ‘ally’ was unreliable, as the Soviet Union was found to be in the 1960s.

Is North Korea an Irrational Actor?

It is worth pausing here to consider the case that North Korea is an irrational and un-deterrable ‘rogue state’.42 This stems from the idea that the DPRK’s leaders may be hell-bent on conquering and forcefully reunifying with the south no matter what. Additionally, they have no democratic polity to answer to and thus, without having to worry about their domestic popularity, could more readily pursue expansionist foreign policies.43 Does this characterisation apply to the DPRK? Would it risk suicide to re-unify the peninsula under its rule? Thus far, there is little indication that it would. The DPRK has acted aggressively (for example in March 2010 it sunk an ROK naval vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 seamen, and in November 2010 it bombarded ROK forces on Yeonpyeong Island) and periodically issues bellicose rhetoric but its strategy suggests it ‘acts crazy’ to strengthen a fairly weak position.44 To actually invade the ROK would be to risk regime suicide at the hands of the US military. The superior explanation is