Is There a Kind of Multipolar Security Spiral Now Taking Place in Northeast Asia?

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

I moderated the Davos dinner panel on "The Changing Military Calculus on the Korean Peninsula." There was a terrific, and frank, discussion (see Julian Glover's post, "Davos 07: five points about North Korea" for one summary of its major points, though I add that a number of these were quite controversial at the dinner). The point of the dinner, as I argued in my opening remarks, was to address a series of questions related to how regional powers around the Korean peninsula, the Koreas themselves, and the United States, are responding to one another's security moves and countermoves.

The great success of the dinner lay in its dynamic, respectful but ever-interesting and at times blunt exchanges among government officials and scholars from the region and beyond. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean participants agreed and disagreed with one another, listened to the replies, and took the conversation to the next level.

The authors of the program for the dinner listed a set of specific questions, such as how China views the U.S. missile defense program, or how Japan is reacting to the North Korean bomb test, or how the U.S. views China's growing military budget. (Exactly how these questions are formulated is a bit opaque to the participants in these panels.) The big question implicit in these questions that I chose to emphasize is whether the security situation in northeast Asia with respect to Korea (or more broadly) is becoming less stable, and if so whether wise statecraft can nevertheless prevent particularly bad outcomes. Political scientists talk about the "security spiral," in which one country takes a step to enhance its own security, but another then sees that step and feels it must respond--and so on, in a potentially dangerous escalation. Is there a kind of multipolar security spiral now taking place in northeast Asia?

With respect to North Korea, this is complicated by a further question: to what extent do the countries negotiating with North Korea share, as their highest objective, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula? Certainly the rollback of the North Korean nuclear program is an extremely high priority for the United States. But it is far from clear that China or the Republic of Korea (South Korea), for example, see this as the highest objective. My impression is that these countries' highest concern involves avoiding a catastrophic collapse of North Korea, but that of course was for the participants to address.

To set the stage for the conversation, it's valuable to remember a bit of the historical chronology and technical details:

1. The North Korean nuclear weapons program is primarily based on plutonium, one of the two routes (the other being high-enriched uranium, HEU) to the atomic bomb. Plutonium production in North Korea was frozen by the Agreed Framework (negotiated with North Korea by the Clinton Administration in close association with Japan and South Korea) from 1994 to 2002. During that time, North Korea probably had enough separated plutonium to make one or two warheads. With the collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002, North Korea was able to harvest additional plutonium, enough for perhaps 6-12 warheads, depending on their bomb design. By restarting a reactor shut down by the Agreed Framework, they are now able to produce about one bomb's worth of plutonium per year.
2. The North Koreans tested a bomb design in October 2006; the explosive energy was "only" about 1 kiloton, which may be compared with the (very roughly) 20 kilotons of energy released by the atomic bombs used by the United States in the Second World War. It is possible that the explosive yield was so low because North Korea made a mistake in their design or construction (a so-called "fizzle"--though one that would still excavate a hundred-meter crater in a major city), or it is possible that they were intentionally trying to build a low-mass weapon that they could put on top of a missile.
3. The North Koreans have evidently pursued an illicit HEU program as well; indeed this played a role in the collapse of the Agreed Framework. But it is very hard to tell how far along they are with this program. Probably North Korea is many years away from being able to produce enough HEU for a weapon.
4. North Korea has conducted a couple tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, both of which failed--though failure is typical in early missile test programs. It has perhaps hundreds of shorter-range ballistic missiles that could reach Japan.
5. Finally, in September 2005, the six-party talks (the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States) reached agreement on a number of points, including the ultimate goal of verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Since then, however, the talks have been moving very slowly--though they may be about to resume once more. This brings us back to the important question of just how high a priority ending the North Korean nuclear program really is for the various parties to the six-party talks.

With that stage-setting, we were off and running with our discussion. An interesting point about the list above is how the situation on the Korean peninsula is now a kind of slow-moving status quo. The North Koreans are only producing one bomb's worth of plutonium per year, and the difference between, say, eight, nine, or ten warheads is not great. They could change this dramatically were they to rebuild either of their other reactors frozen under the Agreed Framework; this could allow them to build ten or more warheads per year. But apart from that, they have already played many of their cards, and so far the security system in northeast Asia has stood strong. Despite the ICBM tests, despite the bomb test, neither South Korea nor Japan show much sign of moving toward a nuclear weapon of their own, or of abandoning the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. North Korea could still play the card--if that word may be used--of sharing nuclear weapons material or even a warhead with a terrorist group. But surely they understand that the detection of any such move would bring the rapid end of their regime.

I finish this entry having just heard Senator John McCain's remarks at the closing session of the World Economic Forum. McCain noted America's frustration over North Korea's development of the bomb yet the absence of strong international sanctions in response. But at our dinner, some participants suggested that the collapse of North Korea would pose a greater security risk for Korea or China than the bomb program itself. (Moreover, in the event of a collapse, there would be a scramble, with unclear outcome, to find the "loose nukes" that might suddenly be out of government control, somewhere on the North Korean peninsula.) A challenge for U.S. diplomacy is to bring an end to the North Korean program regardless of this divergence in priorities.

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