10 May 2022 17:59:20 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

North Korea, feeling left behind, begins to rattle sabre again

Kim Jong Un with the officers and soldiers who took part in a celebration of the 90th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in North Korea

It is precisely what the world did not need. A warning from America that North Korea plans to test-launch a nuclear missile. "The US assesses that the DPRK is preparing its Punggye-ri test site and could be ready to test there as early as this month," State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict enters its third month, the signs of World War III are being felt everywhere. The West is sending advanced artillery and tanks to the Ukrainian theatre. Russia has cut off gas supplies to Poland even as Europe has announced plans to completely wean itself off Russian energy, an arduous task.

Russian and Ukrainian exports of wheat, fertiliser, and soybeans have come to a grinding halt causing hunger in many parts of Africa and the poorer countries of West Asia. From Peru to Sri Lanka, rising prices have triggered violent street protests.

Western sanctions have created havoc in Russia, which has lost access to more than half of its foreign reserves. Wimbledon, overruling ATP and WTA protests, has banned Russian and Belarusian tennis players from competing, ensuring that the war extends its impact on sports and culture as well.

Strategy behind

So, what is happening in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital?

The impoverished country is run by Kim Jong Un, the third-generation fanatical grandson of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founder and first supreme leader from its establishment in 1948 until he died in 1994. Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong-il, was the country's second supreme leader from 1994 to 2011.

While the two senior Kims were ruthless, the current leader, at just 38 years old, has an additional dimension to his character. He has nursed nuclear ambitions for over a decade.

Since January alone, North Korea has conducted 14 weapons tests. One month into the Russia-Ukraine war, North Korea test-fired its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) toward the sea. NPR reported that according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ICBM fired from the Sunan area traveled 1,080 kms and reached a maximum altitude of over 6,200 kms.

It was deliberately fired at an angle to avoid reaching the territorial waters of Japan. The US has treaties with Japan to defend the island nation, and Kim clearly did not want to invite retribution from the US.

North Korea has been under UN sanctions since 2006 for attempting to develop nuclear arms. No UN member nation can sell weapons of any kind to North Korea, so the country's technological progress, all home-grown, is impressive while also dangerous.

The West has little foresight into the capabilities of weapon systems until after weapons are tested. North Korea is a closed nation with a brutal security regime that makes it nearly impossible for western intelligence agencies to gather vital on-ground information.

For the last eleven years Kim has been in power, he has demanded that the UN lift its crippling economic sanctions. The West has countered that it is willing to welcome North Korea into the world of nations if it forsakes its nuclear ambitions altogether and de-weaponises fully — conditions anathema to Kim.

Testing times

The powerful military may have tied Kim's hands too. Any concessions by Kim could lead to a coup by the top military brass, who enjoy an elite lifestyle while millions of ordinary peasants in the nation toil to survive.

Kim's strategy has been consistent. Pressure the West into accepting that North Korea is a nuclear power, give it the respect it deserves, remove sanctions, and allow it to trade with the world and not interfering in its ability to cultivate weapons that it deems fit for its security. If the eight established nuclear powers — the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, France, and Britain — can own and maintain weapons, Kim's reasoning goes, why can't North Korea do the same?

What Kim fails to understand is that the world's nuclear weapons and peaceful uses of nuclear energy are governed by the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), first adopted in 1970. NPT's objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology and achieve complete nuclear disarmament over time. India, Pakistan, and North Korea are not signers of the NPT. North Korea actually signed the NPT but withdrew in 2003.

NPT is why the world is fighting hard to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. NPT is the driving force why even Russia and China, traditional rivals of the West, have worked with the West to contain Kim. Both countries are close friends of North Korea and share a land border to boot.

Each time Kim test-fires a missile, it causes anxiety in the entire Northern Pacific. South Korea, which shares a land border with North Korea across the tensest demilitarised zone in the world, constantly lives in fear of what Kim could do.

Japan, the only country in history decimated by two nuclear weapons, does not ever want to expose its citizens even to the slightest prospect of nuclear war.

Curiously, Kim did not rattle his sabres as badly when Donald Trump was in office. The two leaders met thrice, and while no eventual agreement came about, Kim never test-fired a weapon after 2018 until Trump left the White House. Over 18 months, Kim held nine other summit meetings: five with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and one with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

US President Joe Biden will visit Japan and South Korea later this month to further shore up their support for Ukraine and the West's actions in the Russia-Ukraine war. Pyongyang will be high on the agenda too.