The North-Korean nuclear crisis and global cyber warfare mean Europe has to rethink its defense.
Korea is too often considered as an aberrant relic of the Cold War. It combines the division of the peninsula on either side of the 38th parallel and the survival of one of the last remaining truly totalitarian regimes, headed by a dynasty of despots. The direction that Kim Jong-un’s paranoia is taking, as shown by the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, can have no outcome other than an internal collapse, just like the Soviet Union. This would essentially be a problem for Korea, or, at worst, for Asia.
Unfortunately, all this is wrong. The current rise in tension is creating an unprecedented situation that is weakening the global geopolitical system: it is calling into question the USA’s ability to guarantee the security of its allies, based on the nuclear deterrent; and it has an effect on the core of the relationship between China and the USA just when the American leadership is coming apart.
The first cause is the build-up of a nuclear arsenal with the ability to strike at the West Coast of the USA. Today, Pyongyang has between 13 and 20 nuclear warheads and has a potential of fifty or so by 2020. Five tests have been carried out in a decade and a sixth is being prepared, with the aim of perfecting the hydrogen bomb and miniaturizing it. At the same time, the regime has 200 conventional missiles lined up, with a range of 1,300 kilometers. Furthermore, North Korea is the most highly militarized nation in the world with a one-million strong army for a population of 25 million. The second cause is cyber warfare, whose clandestine and one-sided nature is being fully exploited by Pyongyang. North Korea is therefore being held responsible for the cyber attacks on South Korean banks in 2013 and for blocking hundreds of thousands of computers on all continents in the spring of 2017.
Increasing numbers of military incidents on the land and sea borders of South Korea, the regular firing of missiles off the Korean and Japanese coasts, the illegal pursuance of nuclear tests, the renewed threats on the 105th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth to have recourse to atomic weapons, the capacity to strike at US territory before the end of Donald Trump’s mandate, and repeated cyber attacks all mean that the status quo cannot be maintained.
What’s more, the options open to the USA are limited. Military strikes are regularly mentioned but hardly seem realistic. Firstly, because the North Korean arsenal is complex and weapons sites are many and well-protected. Also because the possibility of reprisals being exacted on South Korea and Japan would be catastrophic. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are entirely dependent on China, which accounts for more than 80% of North Korea’s foreign trade. And Beijing is more than a little ambiguous in its attitude to Pyongyang.
The crisis situation taking shape in North Korea is of direct interest to Europe. It is the manifestation of a strong resurgence of nuclear arms and nuclear threats, which were wrongly thought to have been buried when the Cold War ended. A general trend toward rearmament throughout the world also involves nuclear weapons. This is particularly true of Russia whose annexation of the Crimea and intervention in Ukraine are open violations of European nuclear arms treaties. The open violation of the Budapest memorandum signed in 1994, by which the Security Council guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for its denuclearization is the most powerful of incitements to proliferation. And nuclear rearmament is all the more dangerous because it is taking place alongside the removal of consultation procedures set up to prevent the use of atomic weaponry by the Cold War superpowers.
For all these reasons, the belief that nuclear weapons have been eliminated is a dangerous illusion. Europe must come to terms with this, at a time when the US guarantee of security is being weakened and when the very principle of deterrence is being discredited by the American president’s unpredictability.
After Brexit, this brings a heavy responsibility to bear on France, the only country in the European Union that has a nuclear strike force of about 300 warheads and total decision-making autonomy. It is therefore vital that the upcoming strategic review should take account of modernizing the two components of our nuclear strength, for which the budget of 3.5 billion euros will have to be increased by 1 to 2 billion euros a year as from 2020 over a period of 15 to 20 years. At the same time, thought should be given to extending French deterrents to cover Europe, and to building up the continent’s cyber defenses. Nuclear weaponry does not belong to the past. Cyber weapons already belong to the present. It is imperative for France and Europe to have them at their disposal.
(Column published in Le Point, 15th June 2017)