JACQUES E.C. HYMANS, associate professor of international relations, USC Dornsife.
This op-ed originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.
The dismal failure of North Korea’s April 13 long-range missile test — it broke into pieces after 81 seconds of flight time — has also exposed the poverty of standard proliferation analyses. In the days leading up to the test, most commentators apparently took Pyongyang’s technological forward march for granted. Even the more sober voices evinced little doubt that this test would go at least as well as the country’s 2009 effort, which managed to put a rocket into flight for about fifteen minutes before it malfunctioned. Meanwhile, other technical experts regaled readers with tales of the “emerging” bona fide North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile force, which might soon be able to target the continental United States. And there were renewed calls for the United States and its East Asian allies to embrace the “Israeli option”: pre-emptive military strikes against North Korean strategic weapons facilities. The actual results of the test, however, demonstrate that the analysts’ nightmare scenarios were hardly more credible than North Korea’s own propaganda volleys.
To be sure, a single technical failure need not condemn an entire strategic weapons program. Pyongyang’s missile mishap, however, was not a lone failure; it was merely the latest in a long line of botched strategic weapons tests. The country’s long-range missile test record is frankly pathetic: a total failure in 2006, a partial failure in 2009, and a total failure in 2012. (A 1998 test of a medium-range missile that had been jerry-rigged to fly a longer distance was also a partial failure.) And its nuclear test record is almost as bad: a virtual fizzle in 2006, and a very modest blast at best in 2009.
Amazingly, the assumption that Pyongyang already owns the very weapons that it has consistently failed to demonstrate has long driven U.S. policy. The Clinton administration’s North Korea diplomacy was based on the belief that there was a “better than even chance” that Pyongyang had built the bomb. The George W. Bush administration then ripped up the Clinton-era policy because it thought that the North Koreans had cheated and built even more bombs than Clinton realized. Most recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone so far as to state that “we know” that Pyongyang possesses “between one and six nuclear weapons,” creating the impression that new leader Kim Jong Un could give the order to take out Seoul or Tokyo at any time. Given Washington’s blind certainty about the North Korean menace, it is little wonder that few analysts anticipated its latest belly flop.
Washington’s miscalculation is not just a product of the difficulties of seeing inside the Hermit Kingdom. It is also a result of the broader tendency to overestimate the pace of global proliferation. For decades, Very Serious People have predicted that strategic weapons are about to spread to every corner of the earth. Such warnings have routinely proved wrong — for instance, the intelligence assessments that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but they continue to be issued. In reality, despite the diffusion of the relevant technology and the knowledge for building nuclear weapons, the world has been experiencing a great proliferation slowdown. Nuclear weapons programs around the world are taking much longer to get off the ground — and their failure rate is much higher — than they did during the first 25 years of the nuclear age.
The key reason for the great proliferation slowdown is the absence of strong cultures of scientific professionalism in most of the recent crop of would-be nuclear states, which in turn is a consequence of their poorly built political institutions. In such dysfunctional states, the quality of technical workmanship is low, there is little coordination across different technical teams, and technical mistakes lead not to productive learning but instead to finger-pointing and recrimination. These problems are debilitating, and they cannot be fixed simply by bringing in more imported parts through illicit supply networks. In short, as a struggling proliferator, North Korea has a lot of company.
Admittedly, the North Korean saga is not over. Pyongyang is reportedly already preparing a new nuclear test. There is reason to be skeptical of these reports, since the country probably has very little weapons-grade plutonium to spare, and the widespread view that it is rapidly accumulating a highly enriched uranium stockpile smells like yet another wonky overestimation of its technical capabilities. But whether or not North Korea carries out a successful nuclear test in the near future, its institutional dysfunction indicates that any further progress toward an operational nuclear arsenal is likely to remain slow and halting at best. Among the various tigers that populate the East Asian region, this one is made of paper.