Back in January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a respected academic journal collating the world’s leading thinkers on global security and threats, altered their ‘Doomsday clock’ (initially established upon the founding of the agency in 1947), setting it to two and a half minutes to midnight. Midnight, of course, meaning: it’s over.
I am astonished the re-setting didn’t get more pertinent media coverage. This is, after all, the most respected journal on nuclear affairs, and any warning signal given by specialists in the field should be treated very seriously indeed.
The clock has been this late before, I should inform readers. The atomic analysts set it to two minutes to midnight back in 1953, upon the ending of the Korean War and heightened hostilities between the world’s two superpowers.
This morning I went back and read their reasonably short and concise report in light of the geo-political movements of recent days. It can be read here, for anybody interested.
Particularly fascinating are the following two passages, which can be found on pages 3 and 7 respectively, precisely because they articulate North Korea’s role in both the intensifying of friction between nuclear powers and the adjusting of the Doomsday clock:
“North Korea conducted two more nuclear weapons tests, the second, in September, yielding about twice the explosive power of the first, in January. Pyongyang also relentlessly tested missiles, achieving a rate of about two launches per month in 2016. In his 2017 New Year’s statement, Kim Jong-un declared he would soon test a missile with an intercontinental range.”
“The United States, China, Russia, and other concerned nations engage with North Korea to reduce nuclear risks. Neighbours in Asia face the most urgent threat, but as North Korea improves its nuclear and missile arsenals, the threat will rapidly become global. As we said last year and repeat here: Now is not the time to tighten North Korea’s isolation but to engage seriously in dialogue.”
I have thought for a while that North Korea, not ISIS, would prove to be Donald Trump’s biggest foreign policy challenge. This was primarily because, towards the latter stages of the previous United States administration, ISIS lost a lot of ground both in Syria and Iraq, whilst North Korea ramped up their nuclear development program. One threat seems to have leapfrogged the other.
The world appears to be inching towards nuclear conflict and an increasing proportion of hostilities are being driven by officials in Pyongyang. But we didn’t necessarily have to have arrived here. It is worth examining historical records.
In 1994 the United States and the DPRK signed what was coined in Washington as the ‘Framework Agreement’. The deal prescribed that the U.S withdraw hostile, pre-emptive military acts in the Korean peninsula and embark upon comprehensive trade and diplomatic relations, in exchange for an easing on economic sanctions and a halting to the development of North Korean nuclear weapons.
The agreement was successful, until about six years later when George W Bush became U.S president. He immediately dismissed the deal and re-imposed harsh sanctions, before labelling North Korea as the third wheel in what he referred to as the ‘axis of evil’.
Richard Perle, the former chair of the Defense Policy Board which advised the Bush administration’ Defense Department, said of the 1994 Framework Agreement that “the basic structure of the relationship implied in the Framework Agreement…is a relationship between a blackmailer and one who pays a blackmailer.”
In the mind of President Bush, Perle had painted the nature of the Clinton administration’s agreement with North Korea in a misleading fashion, and it may have resulted in a warping of Bush’s attitude towards dealing with the North Korean problem. So US-DPRK ties soured and North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons program.
But, a few years later in 2005, a new agreement was proposed. Pyongyang asked Washington to cease engaging in hostile military acts, to bring an end to crippling economic sanctions (effectively a non-aggression pact) and to enact provisions over a system to provide North Korea with low-enriched uranium for scientific purposes. In return, they promised to suspend their nuclear weapons program. I think this, much like the 1994 Accords, was a reasonable proposal.
Bush did not accept the agreement; something we now know to be a mistake. If we look at the situation now it appears as if, by flouting openly their nuclear progress, North Korea are beckoning for the United States to offer them some kind of deal.
They know that if they want something from the global hegemon, developing weapons is the only action they can carry out that will garner its attention and lure it into a dialogue. In a perverse way it is actually extremely sensible.
No longer can they wholeheartedly rely on the Chinese, too. China has grown increasingly frustrated with its communist neighbour, understandably tense parked next to a promiscuous nuclear state on the Asian continent and worried about a large-scale build up of refugees on the border that the two countries share (this could very well be why the Chinese have warned the US about war escalation).
The concern for the region now is a question of how far Pyongyang is willing to go with its nuclear program. Is it merely trying to attract the attention of the United States, as it has done so repeatedly over the past two and a half decades, with its long held aim of creating nuclear missiles capable of reaching continental America?
If the United States is to act quickly, it will have three options: intensive discussion starting soon, pre-emptive military strikes (which I think will happen) or harsher economic sanctions, which have been tried time and time again and usually result in strengthening Pyongyang’s intransigence in developing nuclear weapons.
John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Seoul University, wrote recently for Foreign Affairs: “North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction. And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia.”
I think he is correct. Pyongyang seeks reassurances, and will continue to pursue them aggressively. Kim Jong-un has already proven himself to be more forceful than his predecessor, conducting 35 missile tests and four nuclear missiles in his four years at the head of the North Korean regime. Jong-Un will also want to present his country as a force so as to incentivise his neighbours to act in ways that will calm his regime. There certainly seems to be a Machiavellian motive to all this.
Washington, on the other hand, is once again bemused. It is trying to figure out what its approach ought to be towards the DPRK. I fear we will see yet another display of Trumpist unilateral bombing, irrespective of China’s desperation for North Korea to remain as stable as it can possibly be.