Earlier this month, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (PDRK), most commonly known as North Korea, conducted its third underground nuclear test since 2006, and the second since 2009, when it became commonly accepted that the North Korean regime had indeed achieved nuclear power status. This month’s test registered a 5.1 on the Richter scale, and estimates of the blast-yield range from 6 kilotons of TNT (a kiloton being equal to one thousand pounds of dynamite) and 20 kilotons. By way of comparison, “Fat Man” – the American atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 – yielded between 20 and 22 kilotons. It is widely assumed that North Korea is in possession of six or seven functional nuclear warheads, and their uranium enrichment program is apparently robust, which means that the production of additional weapons is likely.
In acknowledging this month’s test, the North Koreans claimed to have deployed a lighter warhead, though they provided no details or proof. If true, it is a worrisome development and an important step toward the development of a weapon that could threaten the United States. So why isn’t the North Korean nuclear arsenal, such as it is, a present threat to the United States? In a word: delivery. A nuclear weapon is no good unless it can be delivered to its target. In this case, unless North Korea develops an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States while also managing to devise a way to create a warhead small and light enough to fit on that missile, the threat is not realistic. Moreover, once those two objectives had been achieved, there would be a need to develop a guidance system capable of accurately putting the weapon on target. At present, North Korea’s delivery options are gravity, or the dropping of a bomb by plane – the same tactic used by the United States at the end of the Second World War – or short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which they have been testing for years, with mixed results. Both of these options fail to meet the threshold of threatening the United States directly.
The same can’t be said for Japan – including the huge American military base at Okinawa – and South Korea, both vital US allies and important players in the global economic system. Even with its current delivery capability, the PDRK is a threat to both of those countries. For that reason alone, their ongoing nuclear program has the potential to be deeply destabilizing to the entire region. The situation is made even more complex by the looming presence of China, which has acted as North Korea’s patron for over 60 years. The Chinese vigorously protested Pyongyang’s test this month, but in the absence of concrete punitive measures China appears to have lost some leverage over the North Korean regime, adding to regional fears of a nuclear arms race in the Sea of Japan – something that was unthinkable even a decade ago.
So how should we look at this situation? First, we should remember that when discussing North Korea, we are really talking about a tiny group of people at the very top of their system, perhaps as few as a dozen. These include Kim Jong-un, the titular “Supreme Leader” and principle of unity in North Korean society. The group also includes a half a dozen or so senior military and political advisors, some of whom have been in power since Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, ruled. The group likely also includes several members of Kim Jong-un’s family, including his uncle, sister, and brother-in-law.
Second, we should not automatically assume that this group is acting irrationally. It’s easy for outsiders, especially Americans, to project a kind of psychosis onto the Kim Jong-un regime. And in fact, by all objective standards, what goes on in North Korea appears to be quite literally insane, from the weird personality cult of the Supreme Leader to the near-starvation and co-dependent oppression of the population, and now to its apparently insatiable appetite for nuclear weapons. But it would be a mistake to conflate what is objective madness with subjective irrationality. From the point of view of the regime – again, perhaps a dozen people – all of this can be viewed as quite rational, even predictably so.
The leadership’s first priority is to maintain its power, and yet it has nothing to offer either its own people or the rest of the world. Within North Korea, the regime has deliberately created an atmosphere of pervasive paranoia: a worldwide conspiracy, led by the United States, aimed at destroying the North Korean state and people. According to this story line, the regime is the only thing standing between the people and annihilation. That role buys them a kind of acquiescence, if not legitimacy. For the outside world, North Korea has created a different story, one of an unpredictable regime ready to loose the nuclear dogs of war on East Asia. Again, this is objectively mad, but when one considers that it may be merely a gambit for more food aid, foreign currency, and the lifting of sanctions – all necessary for the preservation of the regime’s power – things start to seem a bit more rational.
So, would North Korea actually launch a nuclear war against its neighbors? Against the United States? In this writer’s opinion, it’s doubtful. The regime knows that the outbreak of nuclear hostilities would spell its doom. If it chose to, the United States could turn Pyongyang into a glass parking lot in a matter of hours, if not minutes. What about a conventional war? Could the North Koreans strike south? Again, it is unlikely in my estimation. China is desperate to establish political and military dominance over East Asia, and would not look kindly on a move that would embroil the United States in another war on the Korean peninsula, thereby guaranteeing another fifty or sixty years of American presence. They would be likely to immediately impose an economic cordon around North Korea, choking off its supplies of everything from food to ammunition. And in a worst-case scenario, the Chinese would send the People’s Liberation Army across the border to topple the regime and install a new, more pliant, less volatile satellite government.
None of this is reason for taking an irenic view of the North Korean nuclear program, of course; it should be countered by all means short of war, including doubling down on the diplomatic and economic isolation of the regime. If, as I believe, these are calculated moves designed to wring concessions out of the world community, they must be disabused of the notion that such tactics will ever work. The world cannot allow itself to be blackmailed by Kim Jong-un and his tiny cadre. But neither can it succumb to the paranoia they have tried to create and preemptively launch a second Korean War, which would have disastrous consequences for the region and the entire international system.