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Kim's nuclear brinkmanship: Can Quad rise up to the Indo Pacific challenge?

Kim Jong-un's new strategy shifts the region's counter-reaction to a new level of risk that will invite changes in the dynamics of the military spectrum, writes Collins Chong Yew Keat for South Asia Monitor

Collins Chong Yew Keat May 27, 2022
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Kim's nuclear brinkmanship (Photo: Twitter)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's new strategy shifts the region's counter-reaction to a new level of risk that will invite changes in the dynamics of the military spectrum. Nuclear brinkmanship is seen and touted as more effective in restraining the countermeasures taken, at least the scale.  

The old dogma and line of deterrence by the coalition no longer hold water, at least for Kim’s new awakening. Past containing strategies are now being used by Kim against the three parties. Strategic ambiguity no longer remains a useful option. Regional and global geopolitical twists remain centred on the supremacy of national strategic interests and security as well as national survival. 

It is as much certain that Chinese President Xi Jinping will not give up Taiwan as will Kim not give up his powerful nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrence and exerting power, at least in the near term. Unless clear, collective and measurable assurances and guarantees are given, at the same time in terms that are not violating the long term survival of Kim’s regime, it is hard to foresee he will erode his only powerful deterrence. 

Nuke weapons 

Kim in his assertion for pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons and escalatory nuclear development with this major shift of strategic deterrence to first use preventive tools forms a new basis for him in disregarding the overtures by the West and the South. In strengthening Pyongyang’s nuclear tactical capabilities in the fastest time frame and with the threat to use it first if provoked, Kim desires to give a clear message and warning to Seoul in stopping its early counter-measures and precedence setting, with simultaneous messages to Washington that sanctions should and must be stopped along with the joint military drills. 

Additional capabilities continue to be strengthened by the theoretical ability to accommodate higher volumes of nuclear warheads in enabling the delivery of nuclear explosive power covering the entire continental United States, compared to geographical limitations in Alaska and Guam previously. While critics and analysts continue to be sceptical of the true capabilities of the Hwasong-17, Kim's new strategy shifts the region's counter-reaction to a new level of risk that will invite changes in the dynamics of the military spectrum. Nuclear brinkmanship is seen and touted as more effective in restraining the counter measures taken.  

During the attempts to straighten out the positions under Donald Trump, Kim foresaw the once in a lifetime opportunity to seal the ultimate breakthrough, but the cost-risk calculations were too lopsided for Washington to continue. While he calculates he can still rely on Xi and Vladimir Putin, he is observant that he is increasingly being used as an effective tool in their own strategic and calculated peripheries in their dealings with the West. Xi is increasingly pressured to play his greater part in reining in Kim and has had enough problems with Ukraine and Russia being used as the battering ram in further cornering his options and expectations. He would not want a further dilemma and, worse, an irrefutable excuse for the West to increase its foothold and justification in bringing the entire military might to its doorstep as a result of Kim’s erratic moves.

Needs West 

Kim wants to be different and to stem his own legacy in aiming for a final peaceful breakthrough. But he realises he needs Western nodding in giving him the face-saving transition and to portray to the nation that Washington somehow acknowledges the wisdom and strength of the Kim regime in coming to this compromise. In this regard, Kim believes he has time on his side unlike China’s Xi. 

The reality at hand does not seem to be rosy as in Kim’s projection, however. He faces both internal and external squeezes with the full-blown impact of climate challenges and a strengthened alliance of democracies and the Western order in threatening to upend internal food security and external survival. Rising inflationary pressure and reverberations will not escape the periphery of North Korea, no matter how isolated it claims to be.  As time drags on, there is only so much Pyongyang can prepare for the long ball game of withstanding the natural chain effects of the non-traditional threats that will persistently pose problems for his population more than him personally. 

There is also only so much momentum and progress that he could caulk up in sustaining effective and trusted first-strike capacities and at the same time stalling the second-strike readiness and capabilities in leaving them vulnerable to first strike countermeasures from Washington or even Seoul. This will render Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrence and its long-held first-strike threat to be less lethal and more obsolete, giving greater space for the West to act further. The prospects of deterrence and MAD (Mutually Assured Destructions) will also greatly diminish in the long run as Washington develops a better and more holistic interceptive capacity which will provide better first strike prevention and an enhanced second-strike impact that will render Pyongyang’s past mechanism to futility. This signals that time certainly is not on the side with Kim Jong-un and that the window for greater dialogue, engagement and diplomacy is fast closing in terms that will be beneficial for him in the long run. 

Xi playing games? 

Xi will be happy for now to play the dual role of both keeping Kim in check to preserve its obligations as the regional hegemon in maintaining regional order, while at the same time keeping the opening in dictating Kim’s next moves as an effective cat and mouse game with the West. For as long as Kim is seen as toeing the line and adhering to the grand bargain and strategic projection of Xi, he will be given the lifeline and implicit legitimacy in continuing the same tactic of escalation for de-escalation. All these will not be a static dependence, however, as potential backfiring in the form of an escalating hardline stance by the affected parties in doubling down their demands and ultimatums to Pyongyang will only create further risks of miscalculations and bringing American and Japan offensive capacities ever closer to Beijing in using Pyongyang threat as the excuse and pretext. 

The persistent threat from the THAAD installation in the South and the risks for greater penetration of Beijing’s increasingly solid anti access and area denial (A2/AD) capacity by the US through the combined power from the new integrated deterrence approach especially in synergizing capacities with Japan.  Pyongyang is increasingly becoming a thorn rather than an effective long term kryptonite for Beijing in stalling the containment manoeuvres by the West. Xi is trapped in another paradox of gaining the needed trust and support in its own version of inheriting regional and global dominance transition while grappling with the risks involved in ensuring internal and national survival through the explicit measures that are also desperately needed. 

Xi realizes that for as much as Kim will be able to delay and distract Tokyo and Washington in coming up with the right and effective approach in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Kim will face the ultimate fate of losing the long term confrontation. This current mechanism is unsurprisingly expensive and unsustainable for Pyongyang to sustain, without risking further irreparable damage to its economic and national survival, now further in the doldrums following the explosion of Covid-19 outbreak. 

The numbers game has always been asymmetric in nature, and there is no viable path for Pyongyang other than the previous dependable first strike deterrence. Kim is fully aware that if he really were to go ahead with striking the first nuclear missile, he would also practically sign the death warrant to his regime with the subsequent unmatched retaliatory second strike responses by Washington. 

Quad 

Current brinkmanship threats are defined from the lenses of exerting greater chips and cards and extracting greater concessions from the South and the US for now. While deemed as not a potential systemic and structural competitor and a long-term threat to the survival of the current regional order unlike China, it remains a stubborn headache and Achilles heel for the West and its diplomatic and military allies keen to refocus their efforts on an assertive China. 

The Quad will likely maintain its laser eye on China for as long as Kim is able to keep his composure and not overstep the red line. The four-nation group will need the structural and systemic justification in expanding its membership and role. Already facing greater countermeasures from China in stalling its regional outreach, Quad will need further impetus to break the deep-rooted economic entanglement and grip Beijing has enjoyed for years among regional players in order to create openings for the pivot. 

If Kim decides to up his ante and oversteps his own charted strategic lines, Quad will have to perforce take on a leadership role in both the de-escalation and crisis management measures with Pyongyang. If push comes to shove and prospects of deterrence impact continue to deteriorate, the Quad will likely still be the last dependable front in salvaging the order and status quo of the Indo-Pacific, with the persistent moves by Beijing to prevent both the expansion of Quad and the formation of a new pact. 

Outmatching South 

The next step in further polishing Pyongyang's nuclear fortitude and tactical capacity with the progress in launching methods from submarines and deepening ICBM capacity in the near future reflect Kim's desire and strategy to move away from the cocoon previous dogma. The goals will be to outmatch and outrun its southern neighbour in particular in the impending arms race especially in ensuring that it remains the clear winner in the nuclear gap while at the same time forcing Washington to change its sanction-based deterrence and archaic dependency of ties with Seoul as the main framework of negotiating from the position of strength. 

Like Putin, Kim has long tasted Western sanctions and retaliatory responses with seemingly little detrimental and hindering effects. He can still count on Xi and Putin for now, but as the cost-benefit fulcrum increasingly tilts toward jettisoning Pyongyang for their own national needs and survival and coupled with the inescapable multi-pronged challenges to his nation’s survival, he might recalibrate his strategic manoeuvres and grab the opening for a stunning transformation twist which will stem his legacy in a different realm. 

Or he might be tempted to remain defiant and to stay on to the last straw of MAD. The rest of the world certainly roots for the former. Only time will tell.

(The author is a strategic and security analyst who has been with the University of Malaya for more than nine years. Views are personal. He can be contacted at 
collins@um.edu.my) 

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