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Challenges of North Korean Instability

November 23, 2016


Beth Do

A model of the "Unha-9" missile on display at a floral exhibition in Pyongyang Photo credit: Steve Herman / VOA News 26 July, 2013 Pyongyang

Beth Do, a student in the Master’s in Applied International Studies program at the Jackson School, writes about a recent public event on North Korea featuring The RAND Corporation. The event was sponsored by the Center for Korea Studies at the Jackson School.

Over 100 students, faculty, and interested community members gathered on Thursday, November 10, to hear an appraisal of the North Korean state, the role of nuclear weapons and potential scenarios and interventions.

Revisiting the subject of a nuclear North Korea felt particularly timely given the recent American elections.

The Korean Peninsula Forum began with opening remarks from Moon Duk-ho, the Consul General of the Republic of Korea, who reiterated his appreciation for American military support and emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

Dr. Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at The RAND Corporation and the event’s guest speaker, began his lecture addressing the common belief that the United States’ strategy in regards to North Korea has been one of “strategic patience.” He disagreed with this assessment, asking “why would we be foolish enough to let Kim Jong-un build up his arsenal?”

By one estimate, he noted, North Korea is projected to have 80 nuclear weapons by 2020. If desperate, he said, North Korea would use these weapons as a solution.

Senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Bruce Bennett. Photo credit: Beth Do

Senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Bruce Bennett. Photo credit: Beth Do

Dr. Bennett spoke about the role of North Korea’s political ideology in maintaining an arsenal of nuclear weapons and in provoking the international community by aggressively ramping up ballistic testing, which has increased in recent years.

Though each test violates multiple Security Council resolutions, he emphasized the lack of a consistent and effective international response has proven to the North Korean regime that they will be able to continue without fear of retaliation.

He provided several possible future scenarios:

  • A nuclear South Korea, which would jeopardize the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
  • An escalation where either the North or South attacks
  • A collapse of the North Korean regime

Dr. Bennett suggested flooding Yongbyon Center, a North Korean nuclear facility, with leaflets promising financial support and research opportunities for defectors.

Senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Bruce Bennett. Photo Credit: Beth Do

Senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Bruce Bennett. Photo Credit: Beth Do

The featured panelists, Jackson School professors David Bachman, Clark Sorensen, Kenneth Pyle and Yong-chool Ha, challenged the premise that the North Korean regime is more unstable. They  questioned if total denuclearization is a realistic possibility.

They also raised the “loose nukes” scenario, the role of trilateral efforts, and the importance of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

Event moderator, Professor Emeritus Don Hellmann, an Asia expert, concluded the panel discussion with a reminder that the challenge of North Korea is not only multidimensional, but inherently complicated and likely would not be solved in a night.

Click here to watch the full event video