July 27, 2015

North Korea's saber rattling more worrying than Russia

While Iranian leaders prepare to pause on their nuclear program, Russia and North Korea appear locked in a contest for chief nuclear menace.

Both Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un are engaging in saber rattling to demonstrate their imagined willingness to go to the verge of nuclear war to extract diplomatic concessions, create fissures among risk-averse adversaries and sway domestic audiences. And while their goals and situations differ markedly, each unquestionably endangers international security.

Russia's latest taunt is bomber diplomacy. (Apparently submarine sightings off the coast of Sweden are deemed too subtle to frighten Europe and North America and to send the message that they should back off from opposing Russia's desire for a greater sphere of influence over its near abroad.) 

Having been sanctioned for annexing Crimea and intervening in Ukraine, Moscow dispatched Tu-95 H Bear bombers close to the California coast on American Independence Day. Other bombers have flown in European airspace in recent weeks, too, and now Russian defense ministry sources indicate that a squadron of long-range bombers may be being based in Crimea. The aim of this brinkmanship by bomber is not operational military necessity, but crude diplomacy designed to convince the rest of the world of Russia's absolute determination to persevere in muscling back control over some former Soviet space. 

Unlike North Korea, Russia owns massive nuclear capabilities. Although Russia "only" possesses thousands -- no longer tens of thousands -- of nuclear weapons in its stockpile, it is adding more than a dozen new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to its arsenal every year and has announced that it is buying 50 new Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.

In the meantime, Russia's repeated violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty underscore the reality that Moscow is bent on posing a nuclear threat to Europe and North America. Why? Because nuclear threats are aimed at creating space for Russia's thinly concealed intervention into Ukraine and general use of cyber and irregular warfare to prosecute its aggressive aims.

North Korea, in contrast, seeks to rattle its much smaller nuclear threat to equally ambitious effect. Pyongyang is judged to have sufficient fissile material to build 10 to 16 nuclear bombs, as well as the means of delivering nuclear warheads in the form of Nodong medium-range missiles and H-5 (Il-28) bombers. But despite recent claims to have mastered the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, there is no public evidence of this achievement. 

Similarly, while North Korea successfully conducted a three-stage rocket launch in December 2012, it has not yet tested it with a re-entry vehicle -- a critical step necessary to demonstrating an ICBM capability that could plausibly threaten U.S. cities. That is why reports from the Korean Peninsula that Kim may conduct another Unha-3 launch on or about October 10, to mark the Workers' Party 70th anniversary, are both plausible and worrisome.

What makes North Korea's potential ICBM so much more dangerous than Russia's massive arsenal of real strategic weapons is Kim's potentially precarious hold on the reins of power. 

Putin has an iron grip on his leadership position. One recent poll indicates that Putin's approval rating is nearly 90% -- an all-time high for the old KGB lieutenant colonel.

Unfortunately, North Korea is too opaque for us to see whether Kim faces genuine opposition, especially in elite circles. Having had his uncle executed in December 2013, Kim has reportedly ordered the execution of some 15 senior officials this year and repeatedly replaced his defense minister. All of these actions suggest that Kim is having difficulty fully consolidating his power, particularly with the military. 

Doubling down on nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles is thus a possible means of securing greater legitimacy from the military -- one of North Korea's three pivotal institutions (the party and the security services being the other two to have propped up the Kim family dynasty over the decades).

Nuclear saber rattling and brinkmanship make for dangerous statecraft. But North Korea's uncertain stability and potential for sudden leadership change make its nuclear saber rattling even more unnerving than Russia's.

  • Commentary
    • East Asia Forum
    • July 4, 2021
    Time for US nuclear strategy to embrace no first use

    No first use is the most meagre of many measures needed to restrain US presidential authority in the nuclear realm....

    By Van Jackson

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • October 15, 2018
    If You Want Peace, Prepare for Nuclear War

    In a little under three decades, nuclear weapons have gone from center stage to a sideshow in U.S. defense strategy. Since the 1990s, the United States has drastically reduced...

    By Elbridge Colby

    • Commentary
    • March 29, 2016
    Trump's nuclear views are terrifying: Column

    The contours of Donald Trump’s foreign policy are becoming disturbingly clear. Newspapers have labeled his thinking on international affairs "isolationist” and “unabashedly no...

    By Mira Rapp-Hooper

    • Congressional Testimony
    • November 3, 2015
    Elbridge Colby before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces

    Elbridge Colby testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on adapting U.S. nuclear strategy and posture to a more contested and competitive wor...

    By Elbridge Colby

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia