After a deal was reached with Iran, it appears that the Russia and North Korea are now the main threats to world nuclear security.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are both partaking in bouts of nuclear saber rattling. The thinking behind their nuclear threats is not entirely clear, but it may be designed to strengthen negotiating positions, divide the international community and demonstrate strength to their respective populations, writes Patrick Cronin for CNN.
Russia engages in bomber diplomacy
While both leaders have their own aims and agendas, such nuclear grandstanding constitutes a serious threat to global security. As the economic situation in Russia continues to worsen, Putin’s latest roll of the dice involves so-called bomber diplomacy.
Previous efforts to frighten the U.S. and its European allies by sending submarines near to the Swedish coast were apparently not obvious enough. Bombers are the new envoy of choice for Moscow. Tu-95 Bear bombers flew close to the Californian coast on Independence Day, and others have recently been detected in European airspace.
Sources within Russia recently revealed plans to deploy a squadron of bombers in Crimea, and many questioned their utility. However their usefulness in combat missions is not the main point of their deployment. Instead Moscow may want to show just how far it will go to reassert its influence in Eastern Europe.
Russia versus North Korea: which poses the greater security threat?
On paper, it may seem that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is more dangerous than North Korea’s. Moscow commands thousands of nuclear weapons, and is adding more each year. In addition, officials recently announced plans to buy 50 more Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.
Russia is also accused of repeated violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Cronin believes is evidence of a desire to pose a nuclear threat to Europe and the U.S. Such a threat provides some breathing space for Moscow to pursue its other strategic aims.
Although North Korea may possess far fewer nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is attempting to use them to similar effect. Experts believe that Kim Jong-un’s regime has enough fissile material for 10-16 nuclear weapons, deliverable via the Nodong medium-range missile and H-5 (II-28) bomber.
So far Pyongyang has not demonstrated its ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, despite claims that it has done so. Other claimed technological advances have not been fully tested either. A successful three-stage rocket launch was performed in December 2012, but a fully functioning ICBM which could hit U.S. cities depends on a re-entry vehicle, which Pyongyang apparently does not yet have.
Kim’s quest for legitimacy makes North Korea dangerous
Recent reports of a new rocket test to mark the Workers’ Party 70th anniversary on October 10 are worrying, given the fact that it may include a re-entry vehicle this time around. Other factors also make North Korea a dangerous nuclear power.
Whereas Putin seemingly maintains a choke-hold on power in Russia, a recent poll put his approval rating at almost 90%, Kim Jong-un may be more vulnerable in North Korea.
Outside observers cannot be sure whether there is significant opposition to Kim’s rule in North Korea, but his purges may have provoked dissent among elite officials. Kim executed his uncle in December 2013, and reports claim that 15 other officials have been executed this year.
Purges of officials, and the repeated appointment of new defense ministers, would appear to suggest that Kim is struggling to keep a hold on power. Problems in the defense ministry may suggest a lack of control of military matters, and Kim may feel that developing nuclear weapons and ICBMs is one way of gaining the respect of the armed forces.
Unpredictable situation worries observers
The Kim family dynasty has been maintained by the military, the party and the security services for decades, and the loss of support of one of the three pillars could be disastrous. Were Kim to be deposed, there is no clear successor in place. The legitimacy of the Kim regime is based on the direct family line, and problems could arise if one of Kim’s siblings took power, let alone if a military government took the reins.
Nuclear brinkmanship is not a stable form of diplomacy for any nation, and Russia’s current aggressive posture is certainly worrying. However the combination of nuclear capabilities and a potentially unstable government makes North Korea a greater threat to security.
If Kim believes that the development, threat and potential use of nuclear weapons is a viable method to shoring up his own grip on power, the situation may soon deteriorate. A successful test of an ICBM that can reach the United States would be a game-changer for relations between the two nations, and it must be hoped that Pyongyang cannot develop the necessary technology.