Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship and power trap
By Collins Chong Yew Keat
Kim’s new strategy shifts the region’s counter-reactions to a new level of risk that will invite changes in the dynamics of the military spectrum. Nuclear brinkmanship is seen and touted as more effective in restraining the counter measures taken, at least the scale of them. Whether it is a worthy experiment or otherwise, it warrants a needed shot for Kim.
In other words, the old dogma and line of deterrence by the coalition no longer hold water, at least for Kim’s new awakening. Past containing strategies are now being used by Kim against the three parties. Strategic ambiguity no longer remains the useful option. Regional and global geopolitical twists remain centred on the supremacy of national strategic interests and security as well as national survival.
It is as much certain that Xi will not give up Taiwan as will Kim in not giving up his powerful nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrence and exerting power, at least in the near term. Unless clear, committee, collective and measurable assurances and guarantees are given, at the same time in terms that are not violating the long term survival of Kim’s regime, it is hard to foresee he will erode his only powerful deterrence at his disposal.
Kim in his assertion for pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons and escalatory nuclear development with this major shift of strategic deterrence to first use preventive tools forms a new basis for him in disregarding the overtures by the West and the south. In strengthening Pyongyang’s nuclear tactical capabilities in the fastest time frame and with the threat to use it first hands if provoked, Kim desires to give a clear message and warning to Seoul in stopping its early counter-measures and precedence setting, with simultaneous messages to Washington that sanctions should and must be stopped along with the joint military drills.
Additional capabilities continue to be strengthened by the theoretical ability to accommodate higher volumes of nuclear warheads in enabling the delivery of nuclear explosive power covering the entire continental United States, compared to geographical limitations in Alaska and Guam previously. While critics and analysts continue to be sceptical of the true capabilities of the Hwasong-17, Kim’s new strategy shifts the region’s counter-reactions to a new level of risk that will invite changes in the dynamics of the military spectrum. Nuclear brinkmanship is seen and touted as more effective in restraining the counter measures taken, at least the scale of them. Whether it is a worthy experiment or otherwise, it warrants a needed shot for Kim.
During the attempts to straighten out the positions under Trump, Kim foresaw the once in a lifetime opportunity to seal the ultimate breakthrough, but the cost-risk calculations were too lopsided for Washington to continue. While he calculates that he can still rely on Xi and Putin, he is also observant of the fact that he is increasingly being used as an effective tool in their own strategic and calculated peripheries in their dealings with the West. Xi is increasingly pressured to play his greater part in reining in Kim and has had enough problems with Ukraine and Russia being used as the battering ram in further cornering his options and expectations. He would not want a further dilemma and worse, an irrefutable excuse for the West to increase its foothold and justification in bringing the entire military might to its doorstep as a result of Kim’s erratic moves.
Kim wants to be different and to stem his own legacy in aiming for a final peaceful breakthrough, but he realises that he needs Western nodding in giving him the face-saving transition and the last say to portray to the nation that Washington somehow acknowledges the wisdom and strength of the Kim regime in coming to this compromise and peaceful conflict resolution. In this regard, Kim believes he has time on his side unlike China’s Xi.
The reality at hand does not seem to be rosy as in Kim’s projection, however. He faces both internal and external squeezes with the full-blown impact from climate challenges and a strengthened alliance of democracies and the Western order in threatening to upend internal food security and external survival.Rising inflationary pressure and the reverberations will not escape the periphery of North Korea, no matter how isolated it claims to be. As time drags on, there is only so much Pyongyang can prepare for the long ball game of withstanding the natural chain effects of the non-traditional threats that will persistently pose problems for his populations more than him personally.
There is also only so much momentum and progress that he could caulk up in sustaining an effective and trusted first strike capacities and at the same time stalling the second-strike readiness and capabilities in leaving them vulnerable to first strike counter measures from Washington or even Seoul. This will render Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrence and its long held first strike threat to be less lethal and more obsolete, giving greater space for the West to act further. The prospects of deterrence and MAD (Mutually Assured Destructions) will also greatly diminish in the long run as Washington develops a better and more holistic interceptive capacity which will provide better first strike prevention and an enhanced second-strike impact that will render Pyongyang’s past mechanism to futility. This signals that time certainly is not on the side with Jong-un and that the window for greater dialogue, engagement and diplomacy is fast closing in terms that will be beneficial for him in the long run.
The next step in further polishing Pyongyang’s nuclear fortitude and tactical capacity with the progress in launching methods from submarines and deepening ICBM capacity in the near future reflect Kim’s desire and strategy to move away from the cocoon previous dogma. The goals will be to outmatch and outrun its southern neighbour in particular in the impending arms race especially in ensuring that it remains the clear winner in the nuclear gap while at the same time forcing Washington to change its sanction-based deterrence and archaic dependency of ties with Seoul as the main framework of negotiating from the position of strength.
Like Putin, he has long tasted Western sanctions and retaliatory responses with seemingly little detrimental and hindering effects. He can still count on Xi and Putin for now, but as the cost-benefit fulcrum increasingly tilts towards jettisoning Pyongyang for their own national needs and survival and coupled with the inescapable multi-pronged challenges to his nation’s survival, he might recalibrate his strategic manoeuvres and to grab the opening for a stunning transformation twist which will stem his legacy in a different realm. Or he might be tempted to remain defiant and to stay on to the last straw of MAD. The rest of the world certainly roots for the former. Only time will tell.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.