The Myths and Realities of a Nuclear North Korea

Political commentators, politicians, and concerned citizens have been in a state of relative panic in light of recent events in autocratic North Korea (DPRK). In early March, the sole state-run North Korean news agency broadcasted a photo of Kim Jong Un standing next to what they claimed to be a miniaturized nuclear warhead, meaning it is small enough to be attached to a long range missile. On February 7, Pyongyang celebrated launching a satellite—the first step in the process of preparing intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities (ICBM). In recent weeks, the hermit kingdom has caused a stir by making (since refuted) claims to having conducted a hydrogen bomb test. In the same time frame they also test-fired several missiles, one of which dove uncomfortably close to South Korean territory in protest of joint United States-South Korean military exercises, in clear violation of international rules. All of these acts of muscle-flexing follow a familiar pattern in the history of North Korean relations with the broader international community. Nonetheless, the closer Kim gets to long range or ICBM capabilities, the less safe the rest of the world feels. Conventional wisdom in dealing with the North Korean government holds that their claims and threats are rarely legitimate. As politicians engage in one-upmanship regarding strength or effectiveness in dealing with North Korea, much rides on the actual facts on the ground and separating truth from DPRK news fiction.  Keeping in mind that it is unwise to underestimate the veracity of North Korean claims ranging from their nuclear capabilities to what they plan on doing with said abilities, it is important to understand the unserious myths and stark realities that the United States and international community will face regarding a nuclear North Korea.

Kim Jong Un standing next alleged miniaturized nuclear bomb

Myth—North Korea Has Long Range Missile Capabilities That Could Reach the United States

While Pyongyang has claimed on several occasions that they could strike the continental United States with a nuclear warhead, the truth is that their missile range is limited to short and medium range missiles which could strike legitimately strike Japan. The exception to this is the Taepodong missile, which began as a reverse-engineered Russian SCUD missile, with a capability to reach the Aleutian island chain beneath Alaska, but it has never been successfully tested. One crucial element in a long range nuclear missile is possession of a warhead small enough to fit on one. The aforementioned photo of the ‘Supreme Leader’ standing next to a miniaturized warhead, though the warhead is probably fake according to Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute, does add some credibility to North Korean claims. Ultimately though, their alleged ability to be able to strike the United States remains unsubstantiated according to most experts. This does not mean, however, that Pyongyang is not working tirelessly to achieve these ends.

Estimated maximum range of some North Korean missiles

Fact—The Government in Pyongyang Has Hardly Faltered in Their Pursuit to Expand Their Arsenal and Range Capabilities

Neither North Korea’s closest ally, China, nor its sworn enemy, The United States, have seen success in their diplomatic and economic dealings aimed at deterring Kim’s grandiose vision of an awe-inspiring nuclear design. In reality, “they’ve paraded two different ICBMs through Pyongyang, conducted four nuclear tests, showed us a compact nuclear design sitting next to a modern reentry vehicle in front of one of those ICBMS, and hung a giant wall map of the United States marked with targets and titled ‘Mainland Strike Plan’.” Surely, denying outright any North Korean nuclear claim comes with the risk of encouraging the administration to do more to get our attention. But admitting to what we do know is true about the capabilities of their arsenal means potentially causing our allies in Japan and South Korea to panic—something the US administration wants dearly to avoid. What is necessary, regardless of whether or not the United States decides to verify certain North Korean assertions, is to determine the implications of a nuclear North Korea and how best to deal with it.

Myth—North Korea Will Likely Attack Japanese, South Korean, or Potentially US Territory

The United States and its nuclear allies far outnumber North Korea and its partner China, who of late offers only tenuous support and begrudgingly tolerates the DPRK’s nuclear and political posturing. The fact that Kim still has not met with Chinese President Xi Jinping is the best evidence of a souring relationship. An alliance with North Korea is simply not lucrative as brazen flouting of international law becomes problematic for a liberalizing China; the prospects for their long-run relations are bleak. Some partisan critics of current, past, or future administrations in America may say that North Korea will call our bluff and that a US president will not push the button if an ally or even the US itself is attacked. While there is no reason to believe this considering the only nuclear attack in history has been by an American president, even if Kim perceived a US president as little more than a tough talking welcome mat, he would have to perceive weakness in all of our nuclear allies as well to justify an attack. But this argument hinges on the idea that Kim is a rational actor.

Fact–Kim Jong Un is Tyrannical, But Far from a Madman

The temptation to classify enemy tyrants as power-obsessed lunatics has not been resisted by many in the West. Since his father Kim Jong Il took office in 1994, negative perceptions of Pyongyang’s leaders have endured. Every declaration of war, nuclear test, and diplomatic move is a calculated one for both Kims. When China improved relations with South Korea in 1991, North Korea was adept in cozying up to the Russians, and worked in earnest to get back on China’s good side when Obama sought to punish them for Weapon of Mass Destruction tests. Treating Kim as an unstable psychopath may be easy or beneficial politically, but it is not in our long term interest. Acknowledging his rationality may be a comfort to those who fear that North Korea would be just looney enough to incite global nuclear holocaust at the drop of a South Korean hat. In dealing with a rational agent then, we must admit to the abilities Pyongyang does have, and eschew the notion that sanctions have worked or ever will. Doing nothing and waiting for political revolution in the streets of North Korea is also a bad policy, considering that there is little reason to believe Kim is not widely adored. A policy of containment and multilateral diplomatic talks seem to be our only valid course of action, as uncomfortable as it might be.




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