Thinking Differently About North Korea (Updated)

(Originally posted on 11/14/2017, updated 06/11/2018)

What’s the difference between North Korea potentially pointing 30 to 60 nuclear missiles at America and Russia or China pointing 7000 much more powerful missiles at America right now and for the foreseeable future? According to former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster:

“[T]he classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea? A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people? A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction? A regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of his own family, using sarin nerve gas in a public airport?””

“It’s Time To Accept That North Korea Is A Nuclear State” | Gary Wetzel | Foxtrot Alpha | 7/04/2017

By now words like these are tiresome echoes:

“We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon,” [Condoleezza Rice] told me. “And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought — maybe six months from a crude nuclear device.”

Dr. Rice then said something that was ominous and made headlines around the world.

“The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

“Search For The Smoking Gun” | CNN | Wolf Blitzer | 01/10/2003

The musty bouquet of another National Security advisor’s scare-mongering not withstanding, surely the difference between Russia’s or China’s gun sights and the DPRK’s can’t be how crazy Kim Jong-un must be. Yes, he’s a megalomaniac. And how many times have we heard “brutal dictator” attached to his name? But crazy?

Like a fox. Consider his calculus:

“… America talks about military options, but they are not going to start a war with us. Not on purpose anyway. If they did not attack us when we didn’t have nuclear weapons and a missile that could reach them, they are not going to do it now. The world’s largest economy is not going to risk it all to destroy little ol’ us. And South Koreans are rich. They won’t let the U.S. attack if it means their destruction. If we just keep pushing ahead step by step, we can continue to perfect our weapon systems and we can then start to think about that deal they seem to want so badly.”

“Why Kim Jong-un Isn’t Afraid of Donald Trump” | Politico | Jon D. Wolfsthal | 8/29/2017

This is exactly what appears to have happened. Kim Jong-un has played his hand as well as a nuclear David can against a much more nuclear Goliath. It’s the end result of a fifty-year project started by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Over the decades the DPRK’s program has been much more sophisticated than any we’ve seen in Iraq, Libya, or Iran. But notice that as soon as the world learned the number of warheads produced, and which American cities could be targets, Kim Jong-un suddenly seemed photogenically cuddly, ready to open the Hermit Kingdom to the world. Thus, “Rocket Man” rings more like an endgame than an insult.

In this sense he’s already won something, just as the Bad News Bears won something simply by stepping on field at the Houston Astrodome.

While South Korea has been a smooth operator since late 2017, the regime here in America has not seemed as rational nor as realist as it should be. The Trump administration’s demands and expectations have sometimes been so high (“complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID) and then suddenly so low ahead of its summit in Singapore (human rights won’t be discussed, the summit will last only one day, Trump and Kim Jong-un will meet one-on-one in private) that there are just a handful of outcomes with which it can claim any real, immediate success. Just what “denuclearization” means alone could take months to clarify while Kim Jong-un maintains his grip on his country and gains more stature on the world stage.

What should we rationally expect over the future of USA/DPRK affairs? Near term, we should expect President Trump to over-hype even the most modest gains or clarifications in Singapore. And we should continually hope for a world with fewer nuclear bombs and nuclear states. Longterm, however, history tells us that no nuclear power with missiles it can fire has ever totally denuclearized of its own free will. The total costs of spent capital and consumed resources are too high to ever be truly recouped. South Africa, for example, voluntarily dismantled its program, sending $400 million (in 1994 dollars) down the drain. Expect Kim Jong-un to ask the world. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll play for time. Trump has another two to four years. Kim Jong-un has the rest of his life.

Thus, it’s enlightening to remember the history of American reactions to adversaries achieving atomic weapons. We knew the Soviets were working on the bomb as early as 1942. But our response to the Sputnik crisis in 1957 was politically and culturally more strident than their first nuclear detonation in 1949. However, we went bonkers at the news that Chairman Mao and The People’s Republic of China had joined the club after its first bomb test in 1964. What we said about Mao back then eerily parallels what we’ve said about every leader of the Kim regime.

And then we got over it. I’m getting ready for history to repeat itself…eventually.


IMAGE: By Michael Day (North Korea is best Korea) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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