13 May 2014
While it is tempting to brush off another round of North Korea's antagonistic rhetoric and military demonstrations, it would be irresponsible to downplay the risks of the situation.

Heather Williams

Former Chatham House Expert


The replicas of North Korean Scud-B missile and a South Korean Nike missile stand side by side at the Korean War Memorial against the background of Mount Namsan in Seoul on 26 March 2014. Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.
The replicas of North Korean Scud-B missile and a South Korean Nike missile stand side by side at the Korean War Memorial against the background of Mount Namsan in Seoul on 26 March 2014. Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.


North Korea is again drawing international attention with its military exercises and threats to conduct a fourth nuclear weapon test. Such behaviour fits into Pyongyang’s frequent use of military provocations to gain international attention and draw states to the negotiating table, where it then elicits fuel and food aid in exchange for increased transparency and a cessation of provocative behaviour, only to escalate tensions again later.

While concerns over such risky actions are often framed in terms of destabilizing the region and escalating into a military confrontation with South Korea, a recent Chatham House report highlights the risks these exercises pose for nuclear safety and security, even if North Korea is using them ‘only’ as provocations. 

What the study demonstrates is that probability, and subsequently nuclear risk, are higher than often portrayed, and prudent judgment and intuition, and the disobedience of individuals, has on a number of occasions prevented nuclear use. The consequences of a nuclear detonation are too severe for any complacency or relying solely on technical solutions for safety and security. Human beings are fallible, and ultimately decisions of nuclear use come down to human decision-making and responsibility.

Based on our findings, North Korea presents a nuclear risk for numerous reasons. Its use of exercises as a political tool, which historically have been a source of misperception in nuclear crises, such as the Able Archer incident in 1983, are cause for concern. Nuclear testing is also a political signal and can escalate tensions, as occurred in South Asia in 1998 when India and Pakistan both tested repeatedly in short succession. 

In addition, the lack of transparency and apparently small number of decision-makers in North Korea increase nuclear risks. North Korean decision-making is highly centralized with Kim Jong-Un: the execution of his uncle and close adviser, Jang Song-thaek, earlier this year suggests he may be attempting to isolate himself. This centralization and lack of dissenting opinion further risks misperception and exclusion of sound thinking in times of crisis. This prudent judgement is what saved the day in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis when a Soviet submarine commander misinterpreted US practice depth charges as a nuclear attack and called for a nuclear launch. Calm thinking by one of his colleagues prevailed, thankfully, and prevented nuclear use.

The international community as a whole should work to increase awareness of nuclear weapons effects and risks to inject a further sense of urgency to the Six Party Talks to disarm North Korea. There was hope of reviving the talks – discontinued in 2009 – this year, but South Korean President Park Geun-hye recently said additional nuclear testing by North Korea would make the talks ‘meaningless’.

The report suggests other steps for reducing risks in northeast Asia. First, it is believed North Korea keeps its warheads separate from missiles, which may buy time in crises, but until we know more about North Korean nuclear safety and control, we cannot know what additional steps can be taken to reduce risk of misperception in crises. This transparency can be part of any agreement in the Six Party Talks and China could work with North Korea to improve its nuclear safety.

An additional finding of the Chatham House report was the importance of an outside mediator. Historically, China has played this role due to its close political and economic ties with North Korea. However, the relationship appears to be deteriorating given that Beijing expressly asked Pyongyang not to test a nuclear weapon last year, which went ignored, and subsequently supported the strongest UN statement and sanctions against North Korea. If China loses its role as the one outside state with influence on the regime, then the lack of checks on the North Korean nuclear command become even more dangerous.

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