North Korea will soon achieve its goal of posing a nuclear threat to its opponents, according to a Report by the House of Commons Defence Committee, and is unlikely to abandon its quest for a nuclear arsenal so close to fulfilment. Its ruler, Kim Jong-un, "is ruthless, like other Communist dictators before him, but he is rational" and "can be dissuaded from the use of nuclear weapons, by means of a policy of deterrence and containment".
Within the next six to 18 months, North Korea is almost certain to be able to reach the UK with Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) though its ability to arm them with nuclear warheads has yet to be proven. The United Kingdom is more likely to face further cyber-attacks from North Korea; adverse consequences of nuclear proliferation by North Korea; and calls for regional assistance in the event of allies coming under attack by North Korea.
North Korea has made significant advances in its nuclear weapons development programme, with an unprecedented series of missile launches and nuclear tests over the past two years. It is possible that North Korea can already strike the United Kingdom with ICBMs, which could potentially carry and deliver nuclear warheads. It is almost certain to achieve this range within the next six to 18 months.
However, "North Korea has not yet publicly demonstrated that it has mastered either nuclear warhead miniaturisation or re-entry", and a North Korean nuclear strike against the UK seems "highly unlikely", given its primary focus on threatening the United States mainland.
According to the Committee, "It is obvious to North Korea that launching such weapons would lead inescapably to devastating military consequences". By contrast, it is "far more likely that the UK will continue to suffer from reckless North Korean cyber-attacks, such as Wannacry", on account of the regime's "utter lack of concern about who gets hurt by such attacks". There is also "a definite danger that North Korea would have few, if any, qualms about promoting nuclear proliferation to other states, or even non-state actors", and the government is asked what action it will take to prevent North Korea from selling on its nuclear technology.
Successive United Nations reports also show how North Korea has been able to bypass sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear weapons programme, often assisted by lax enforcement on the part of certain countries. The Committee recommends that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should set out what steps it has taken to encourage other countries to enforce—in full—the agreed sanctions against North Korea.
Amphibious capabilities in a possible conflict
If there were a conflict in the region, the UK would have no legal obligation to provide military assistance. Yet, in the event of North Korean aggression, the Committee considers that it is unlikely that the UK would stand aside. It could provide significant offensive cyber-capabilities or relieve US forces from commitments outside the region.
UK forces would also be needed to evacuate UK citizens in the region, but the report states that there would be almost insuperable challenges for any evacuation to succeed if the UK further reduced its amphibious capability, as has been threatened this year. The Committee calls for the government to give a categorical assurance that, as part of its Modernising Defence Programme, it has fully understood the essential role of amphibious capability in conducting civilian evacuations, as well as inserting troops from the sea.
"The nuclear and cyber threats posed by North Korea are typical of the new and intensifying dangers confronting the UK. Yet, new threats require extra investment—not the usual process of simply balancing the books by sacrificing conventional capabilities which are still needed to deal with ongoing older threats. There is cross-party consensus that we need to invest much more than the NATO minimum of 2% of GDP. A target nearer 3% is essential to fill existing holes in the defence budget and counter re-emerging state-based threats from Russia and North Korea."
Click here for the full report (38 PDF pages) on the UK Parliament website.