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CHINA AND NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR AND MISSILE TESTS AND IMPACT OF KIM JONG-UN’S ILLNESS

Report prepared by Ms Aastha Gupta, Research Intern

 

Speaker: Dr Roshan Khanijo, Assistant Director, CS3

Moderator: Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), Head CS3

Nuclear weapons have a significant role in International Politics and Relations. To discuss the implications of a possible nuclear tests conducted by China, North Korean missile test and the impact of Kim Jong-un’s illness on international affairs, the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3) at USI of India organised a discussion on 28th Apr 2020. The major takeaways from the discussion are given below.

China’s Nuclear Test

Assessment

An article in Wall Street Journal claimed that China might have conducted a low-grade nuclear test. The premise was the U.S. Executive Summary report from 2020 on the ‘Adherence to and compliance with Arms Control, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report)’. The report claimed that there was an increased activity in China’s nuclear test range -‘Lop Nur’ throughout 2019, (as reported by Satellite Imagery), as also it claimed that China was frequently blocking the flow of data from the International Monitoring Stations (IMS). Many strategists have refuted the claim based on the following:

  1. Firstly, the evidence is circumstantial without concrete and credible proof.
  2. Secondly, the narrative that the flow of data is frequently blocked has been negated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Preparatory Commission officers.
  3. Thirdly, China agreed to a moratorium on nuclear testing, in 1996 after its 45th test at Lop Nur, and is a member of CTBT (while it has not yet ratified the treaty).

However, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the activity captured by Satellite imagery may be due to Sub-Critical Tests. A Sub-Critical Test is an extremely complicated and technologically advanced test that produces no yield due to absence of a critical mass. The test may require computer stimulation, hydrodynamic experiments, inertial confinement fusion experiments, etc. The fact that CTBT allows Sub-Critical Tests makes this possibility more viable. Also, the purpose of conducting a Sub-Critical Test is to improve the weapon design enabling modernisation without explosive testing, and to address the problem of aging and maintenance of weapons. These tests aid in assessing if the fissile components – Uranium, Plutonium, will develop problems in future. China might have conducted such an experiment as it is seeking to modernise its weapons to build new hybrid weapons.

Options for India

In the light of Chinese experiments, India has three options:

  • To conduct its own full nuclear test: Owing to its voluntary moratorium this option remains highly unlikely as it would create adverse world opinion.
  • Not to doing anything is an option that is both the easiest and the weakest as it increases the technological gap. India could face maintenance issues in future as its weapons are also aging.
  • Conduct a Sub-Critical Test, for which the ability to conduct as it is in possession of super computers and Laser Inertial Confinement Fusion Facility at Indore.

North Korea’s Missile Test and Kim Jong-un’s illness

Missile tests by North Korea

In March and April, North Korea had conducted number of missile test. The nature of the test was more tactical in nature than strategic. Probably it tested KN-25 Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM), which are already operational, indicating a probable a test for training purposes. However, the test conducted on March 20th, was of KN-24, which is probably under development. The aim was likely to test if enhanced range of the missile was successful.

As of 20th March 2020, North Korea had conducted a total of 147 tests of which 119 has been under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. The nuclear yield has gone up from 2 kilotons in 2006 to more than 140 kilotons in 2017.

North Korea maintains a fair size of missile inventory which includes the KN-23,25 SRBM series, The Nodong series, KL-26 SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) etc. They are working on developing Hwasong ICBM series and space launch systems. The constant endeavour to upgrade its missile range suggests North Korea’s effort to increase and develop their nuclear capabilities, as a counter-balance for regime security. Hence, further increase in further testing under Kim Jong Un can be expected.

President Kim Jong-Un’s illness:

Various international reports are discussing and speculating on Kim’s state of health and which varies from him being dead, to being in a vegetative state, etc. In case of Kim Jong-un’s demise, there could be a period of domestic instability with constant push and pull in its politics. The dynamics of power shift could be as follows:

  1. The Dynastic rule continues. The frontrunner in this accession race to replace Kim, his sister Ms Kim Yo-jong. She has been accompanying her brother in various foreign trips and has become politically more active now. She was also made a member of Politburo, as also she is the head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the WPK. With North Korea, being a highly patriarchal society, could witness a collective leadership and taking help from Choe Yong-rim, a party loyalist and president of Supreme People’s Assembly.
  1. Military Coup. The other possibility is that of a military takeover.
  1. Role of China. The third scenario is that of China or Russia installing a puppet government in North Korea. China has a major interest as North Korea is considered as its buffer zone and has developed a historic strategic partnership with this nation since the Korean War. North Korea is economically dependent on China, giving China a leverage to use this tool off and on as per her convenience. Role of China could increase if the military takes over. 
  1. Role of Russia. Russia too has historical relations with North Korea. However, translating it into strategic relationship would not be easy.
  1. Role of South Korea and United States. A joint operation by South Korea and United States to secure the nuclear weapons though a possibility, but is mostly unlikely, due to non-acceptance of this move by China and Russia. It could lead to the nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the rogue elements of the North Korean Army.
  2. Reunification of South and North Korea is another unlikely scenario. The Chinese would like to maintain North Korea as its buffer zone. Also developing ‘one country two systems’ would not be a possibility as it has failed in Hong Kong. Also, neither would South Korea support a Communist Government nor would China prefer a capitalistic or democratic Unified Korea on its border.

However, the possibility of President Kim not being dead is the highest, as in the past too, he was found to be missing for long periods. Thus, if his reign continues then in such a case, brinkmanship will remain, and world may see more nuclear and missile tests. Its neighbours Japan and South Korea presently have a protective nuclear umbrella of U.S. and would not take the nuclear route. However, should this umbrella get weakened then they could exercise the option to conduct their own nuclear tests, since they already possess the technology to do so.

Closing Remarks:

Possession, development and control of nuclear weapons is a major underlying reason for the current power structure. With the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia is likely to expire next year. It could be a major reason for the U.S in using the pressure tactics to force China to become a signatory to the new treaty. On the other hand, at the centre of North Korea’s nuclear quest is Kim Jong Un, whose recent absence from public eye has raised questions of the future power dynamic in the region, but if he continues the instability will also continue and in both these instances China would have a major role to play.

 

Report prepared by Ms Aastha Gupta, Research Intern

 

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