We sure are scared of guys with bad haircuts these days. Like Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un alternates between being an apocalyptic menace or a laughing stock depending on the tone of conversation or day of the week. But North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities are making it a little harder to laugh at his middle-parted mane lately. So what’s the deal with this newly “imminent” threat from North Korea? Should we be in panic mode or are we being duped a la Iraq again?
For millennials, it’s hard to remember a time North Korea wasn’t on our radar as at least a somewhat real, somewhat comical threat. We all remember Team America: World Police or at least one news story where Kim Jong-Un or his dad said something crazy. That makes deciding what to make of all the recent alarm bells from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about potential preemptive strikes even tougher to parse. Why now? Was this sort of stuff on the table before the new guys took over the White House? To some extent at least, apparently it was.
There’s undeniably been an uptick of concerning behavior from the country recently. Last year, the country claimed to conduct a successful hydrogen bomb test, managed to put a satellite into orbit (they’d need to do something similar to get an ICBM to hit its target), developed warheads small enough to fit on top of ballistic missiles and detonated a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead. So far this year alone, they fired off a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan and, a month later, sent four of the same such missiles into the same Sea over the course of a single day. Within the last couple days, they successfully launched a long-range rocket they claim to be for civil rather than military purposes. The US assesses the rocket could possibly be used to propel a long-range missile but further analysis is needed to see how soon or certainly the country could use it for such purposes.
There’s no doubt things are pretty tense right now and even more so than usual. The language of WMDs, of ‘existential threats’ to the US are back in common discourse. The main difference between now and then is the question is not about whether Kim Jong-Un has these weapons. He does. It’s whether he has the capability to use them in such a way that they threaten the US and/or our allies and whether he would want to exploit that capability. If the answer to those questions is yes, then we can begin asking whether preemptive strikes are advisable or how the United States would respond in the event of an attack. But first, it’s important to ask how we got here in the first place.
How we got here
On the one hand, it’s somewhat consoling North Korea took this long to get where they are. From declaration of intent to the actual testing of nuclear weaponry, it took the United States six years to build such a weapon, Russia seven and China ten with extensive Russian assistance. All of this happened between the years 1939 and 1964.
It took North Korea nearly fifty years to somewhat successfully test a nuclear bomb in 2006. Another ten years were required to ready a bomb yielding 20 kilotons of nuclear energy. To put this even further into perspective, the “Fat Man” bomb we dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 had the same yield as the latest nuclear technology from North Korea. Obviously, any sort of nuclear attack would be catastrophic but the US, China and Russia all possess nuclear technology yielding thousands of times more nuclear energy and potential deadliness and all of them want to denuclearize North Korea, even if China specifically may be a little softer on the country.
Since the Korean war, Russia, China and the US have all assisted North Korea in developing some nuclear technologies while consistently refusing to provide assistance in developing nuclear weapons. The country signed a Non-Proliferation Treaty in the ‘80s and pledged to dismantle their nuclear facilities after former President Bill Clinton promised he would give them $4 billion to aid with energy development. It wasn’t until 2002 that it was announced they’d been developing nuclear weapons covertly all along and President Bush included them in his “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and Iran.
In 2005, six nations—Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, the United States—convened to reach an agreement about denuclearization. The US promised to keep nuclear weapons outside of the Korean peninsula, help develop energy facilities and not attack the nation. South Korea agreed not to seek a nuclear program for itself. North Korea tentatively said they would renounce nuclear weaponry but reserve the right to develop nuclear energy.
The talks became fraught with discord once the US froze funds in a Macao bank allegedly tied to money laundering by North Koreans and North Korea wound up doing their first test of a nuclear bomb. After mounting economic pressures, they returned to the negotiation table and promised they’d denuclearize by 2007. Surprise: they didn’t denuclearize by the end of 2007.
After denying weapons inspectors access to their facilities, they tested another nuclear bomb in 2009. Talks resumed and the US said there would be a moratorium on North Korean nuclear weapons development in 2012. Come 2013, Kim Jong-Un said they’d resume tests in hopes of one day attacking the United States and the third nuclear test happens in February of that year. In 2015, the claims start pouring in from North Korean officials that they do have the technology to attack the continental United States and will if provoked. Further testing occurs in 2016 and we’re about back to now.
What do we do now?
It’s pretty scary these people managed to get a hold of nukes even when every major power didn’t want them to have them. But, as hinted at above, as far as unwanted nuclear programs go, this one still remains fairly unimpressive.
They were screwing up missile launches as recently as last year. Claims of a successful hydrogen-bomb test in January 2016 were disputed by multiple experts in the field, despite the country’s spokesmen saying this very same bomb could “wipe out the whole territory of the US at once.” On the flip side, the Taepodong-2 rocket could potentially be modified for use as an ICBM that could hit anywhere in the United States. Still, they’ve got a ways to go before the threat can realistically be described as ‘existential.’ Experts differ on when exactly it’ll become such a problem; the most concerned think it may even be before the end of the year.
As for our own missile defense, we could be better off but we’re doing pretty well. Despite spending $84 billion on missile defense over the last decade, our Groundbase Midcourse Defense system failed three of four interception tests. Luckily, the most recent test was the successful one. This hasn’t stopped the US from vowing they’ll shoot down any attempt to use such a missile against the homeland or any of its allies. Despite the failures of the aforementioned GMD system, there are multiple other missile defense systems more likely of fending off an attack. We’ve sent our THAAD system to South Korea and it’s proved far more successful and effective. Our defense is undoubtedly more sophisticated than their offense.
Missile defense aside, all three major powers have are opposed to nuclear weapons proliferating in the Korean peninsula. While China, Russia and the US are all skeptical of each others’ deeper motives, they’re unified behind the idea Kim Jong-Un is a royal pain in the ass and needs to be dealt with somehow. Should we be wary of a nuke from North Korea? Of course. But it would be absolute suicide for Mr. Middlepart to deploy one. The firepower still lies in the hands of others.
Their closest ally will play a decisive role in whatever ends up happening to handle this situation. China is necessary for North Korea’s survival. They are their main trading partner, their big brother, the main reason they haven’t been totally discarded. Regardless, even China is growing tired of the regime. It’s possible this North Korean nuclear scare may wind up being their way of trying to extort some concessions out of the US for more conducive policies toward their own People’s Republic. The same goes for the US manipulating this situation to their own advantage against China. In the meantime, both major powers are willing and able to work together to curtail Kim Jong-Un’s most errant character traits or disastrous misjudgments.
As with so many other events on the world stage right now, the situation with North Korea is doubly frustrating. First as a palpable threat and second as a possible distraction. There’s no doubt the situation should give us all cause for concern. For God’s sake, a prominent North Korean defector says his boss wants to nuke LA even if it means suicide. Who the hell wouldn’t be afraid?
But we’ve all lived through some shit by now, haven’t we? We all know what it’s like to be through trumped-up threats, to get caught up in hysteria only to realize it was just one more way to get us looking away from the men behind the curtain. Our superior defense, the unification of disparate power structures against such an attack and Kim Jong-Un’s egomania all lead me to believe this may not be quite as pressing a national security concern as we’re being told. That doesn’t stop me from getting anxious over this though. I may be cynical about US foreign policy but I’m as freaked out as anyone by rogue nations run by crazy leaders with nuclear weapons.
That’s the problem with history, especially as it leads to war or the ultimate avoidance of conflict. It’s really easy to see the con in reverse, the bigger forces behind the Gulf of Tonkin or the invasion of Baghdad, but even the slightest hint of danger is still enough to drive even the most coolheaded among us to rational fear.
I’m not going to tell you not to be afraid. I’m worried by what North Korea may be able to do and by what the US may do without probable cause. There’s a whole lot we don’t know about Kim Jong-Un and his country or what goes on behind closed doors in our own. What I do know is history has taught us to be cognizant of external threats, cynical towards the most powerful among us—hint: it’s not North Korea in this situation—and always, always, always skeptical of chubby men with bad hair and character. It’s okay to be worried as long as you laugh and question along the way.