Crimea Crisis To Boost Hardline Nuclear Stance

BMI View: The Crimean crisis is likely to boost North Korea's hardline pro-nuclear stance, and vindicate Pyongyang's belief that only an atomic arsenal can guarantee the state's survival. North Korea will also view the US's limited response to the crisis as a sign of weakness, and may feel emboldened into staging a new military provocation.

Although the crisis between Russia and the West over Crimea and Ukraine is far removed from the Korean Peninsula, it nevertheless has implications for the North's geopolitical thinking. The main lesson is that North Korea would seriously undermine its own national security, if it complied with long-standing international demands that it give up its nuclear arsenal.

All evidence suggests that Pyongyang decided long ago that only nuclear weapons could guarantee the continued existence of the North Korean state in the face of external hostility. The Communist regime witnessed US-led air campaigns against Iraq (1991, 1998, 2003), Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001- ), and Libya (2011), and observed how these countries all lacked nuclear deterrents. The case of Libya is particularly instructive, for the former Qadhafi regime gave up its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003 in exchange for greater international trade and investment, and an end to its pariah status - all of which are being offered as incentives to Pyongyang to denuclearise. Meanwhile, the Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi was welcomed in international forums. However, at the first sign of domestic unrest in February 2011, the West abandoned Qadhafi and sided with Libyan rebels. The subsequent NATO air campaign against Qadhafi's forces helped the rebels seize power, and Qadhafi ended up being killed in the process. North Korea's leaders will do everything in their power to avoid this fate.

Ukraine's Woes Show Risks Of Denuclearisation

Ukraine's non-nuclear status and its current security predicament have direct relevance for North Korea. At the time of its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine possessed the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. However, Kiev agreed to give up these weapons in 1994, after the US, UK, and Russia pledged to respect Ukraine's sovereignty under the Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine also went on to receive substantial economic assistance. Yet, the subsequent 20 years have not been kind to Ukraine, with the country experiencing years of economic adversity and financial crises. In late 2004-early 2005, Western governments supported the 'orange revolution' uprising against the Ukrainian government, even though Kiev had demonstrated its pro-Western credentials by sending troops to Iraq in support of the US occupation of that country. More recently, North Korea will not have failed to notice that Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine would have been much more difficult - and perhaps impossible - if Ukraine still possessed a nuclear arsenal.

Above all, the Crimean crisis demonstrates to Pyongyang that any security assurances from the 'great powers' are largely meaningless, because they are based on goodwill, and this can change in an instant - as evidenced by the West's swift abandonment of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011.

North Korea most probably believes that it would receive no tangible benefits, if it were to give up its nuclear arsenal. For example, even if North Korea were admitted into the IMF, Pyongyang would find the lender's conditions - namely complete economic transparency, and market liberalisation - wholly unacceptable and detrimental to social stability. Meanwhile, significant foreign direct investment is highly unlikely to be forthcoming, because North Korea has one of the worst business environments on Earth. Furthermore, after a landmark UN report released in February 2014 compared North Korea's human rights abuses to those committed by Nazi Germany, there is now likely to be a far greater stigma associated with investing in the North.

Pyongyang Likely To Be Suspicious Of Beijing's Long-Term Intentions

Although North Korea publicly cites the US, Japan, and South Korea as its main enemies, and often threatens to strike all three countries, we suspect that Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal could be a subtle means of warning China, too, not to develop political designs on the North. Despite China being North Korea's number one ally and main economic lifeline, and despite mutual proclamations of warm ties, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are believed to be strained behind the scenes. North Korea resents its dependence on China and fears its rising economic dominance, while Beijing reportedly views Pyongyang's military provocations against Seoul as a destabilising factor in regional security.

Over the longer term, the Pyongyang regime is said to be worried about a Chinese-instigated coup in the North that completely subjugates the country to Beijing. Since the early 2000s, there has been speculation that China could deploy troops into North Korea and take over the country in the event that the regime collapses. Moreover, research by Chinese academics published in 2004 stating that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo (Goguryeo), which covered most of Korea and much of north-eastern China, was a Chinese entity, has been interpreted in both Koreas as signalling a possible Chinese claim on North Korea. (Koreans view Koguryo as an integral part of their history.) Therefore, in future Pyongyang may feel a need to be militarily strong not just against Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, but against Beijing too.

US's 'Weakness' In Crimea Likely To Embolden Pyongyang

Meanwhile, the West's relatively confused (at least initially) and mild response to the Crimea crisis is likely to confirm North Korea's perception that the US is weak. This view will already have been augmented by President Barack Obama's decision to back away from airstrikes against Syria (a North Korean ally) last September, despite accusing the Assad regime of carrying out a mass chemical attack against civilians - thereby crossing a 'red line' that Washington previously said would trigger American intervention.

The US's reluctance to countenance war with Russia in Ukraine - regardless of how prudent that may be - will probably lead Pyongyang to conclude that Washington would not risk taking military action against North Korea. This could conceivably encourage the North to carry out a new provocation, such as another long-range missile or nuclear test, or a clash with the South in the disputed maritime border in the West Sea. The latter would be especially risky, given that Seoul has tightened the rules of its military engagement after previous deadly clashes instigated by Pyongyang in 2010.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: North Korea, South Korea

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