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North Korea: the sting in the tail

“They want to have a deterrence system that is like a scorpion’s tail,” said Prof. Kim Dong Yup, a former South Korean naval commander. “North Korea’s main purpose is not to attack but to defend themselves.” They want a “diversified deterrent capability,” and who could blame them?

It’s a welcome distraction from the daily warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even less likely to end in an actual war. North Korea test-fired seven different missiles in a month, US President Joe Biden retaliated with more sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s hermit state, and everybody got their war-horses out for a brisk trot around the track.

The reality, however, is that nobody in a position of authority is in the least excited by this little back-and-forth between Pyongyang and Washington.

The media speculate about whether North Korea’s tests are meant to influence the upcoming South Korean elections or to lure Biden into a Trump-style summit, but the likeliest motive is just what Prof. Kim said it was: a desire to demonstrate the efficiency of North Korea’s missiles. You know, the ones that carry North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang hasn’t tested any nuclear weapons since 2017, but it is believed to have 50-60 warheads by now. Neither has it test-launched its intercontinental ballistic missiles (the ones that can reach anywhere in the United States) since then. The January tests were of ‘hypersonic’ missiles, ‘intermediate-range’ missiles, cruise missiles and similar hardware.

Most of those missiles can probably carry nuclear warheads too, but only as far as South Korea or Japan, America’s local allies. It’s a formidable investment for a small, quite poor country (same population as Australia, but one-sixtieth the size) – but it’s not that extravagant when you consider that all these nukes are intended to deter the United States. 

No American diplomat or military officer will admit publicly that North Korea’s fear of an American nuclear attack is justified, but the more intelligent ones realize that the rules of nuclear deterrence are exactly the same for democratic superpowers and dwarf tyrannies. If your enemy has nuclear weapons, then to be safe you must have them too.

Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi learned this lesson the hard way, and Kim Jong-un has no intention of following in their footsteps. The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, as his fiefdom is formally known, has a military confrontation with South Korea that will never go away, as they are both part of the same divided nation.

North Korea’s army is twice as big as South Korea’s, although the latter has twice the population and ten times the wealth. South Korea keeps its military small because it can ultimately rely on its American ally to protect it – and that American ally has nuclear weapons and a proven willingness to use them.

From the perspective of Pyongyang, American nuclear weapons are a mortal threat, and nobody can persuade the North Korean regime that they would never be used against it unless it attacked first. Americans wouldn’t forego nuclear weapons if China and Russia made such promises, nor would they take America’s word for it. Too much is at stake to take a chance.

This is the universal dilemma of nuclear weapons. North Korea has just as much right to worry about it as the United States, and it will never give its own nukes up so long as the current confrontation in the Korean peninsula persists – 71 years and counting.

Any meetings or ‘summits’ between US and North Korean diplomats or leaders will be driven by North Korea’s perpetual desire to end UN and US trade sanctions and/or America’s futile quest to get Kim to agree to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Neither is going to happen, but there is no crisis either.

The North Korean regime is vicious, but it is not crazy. A reasonably stable cold peace has prevailed in the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953, guaranteed since the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006 by mutual nuclear deterrence between the US and North Korea. There’s no urgent need to ‘fix it’ or ‘shore it up’ now. 

The United States cannot bring itself to publicly acknowledge this fact, but the Pentagon and the State Department privately accept that by now it is the long established reality of the US-NK relationship. 

“They very much understand the significance of moving up the ladder on range,” a senior Biden administration official said on Sunday, implicitly recognizing that the North Koreans had not tested any new missiles capable of striking the American homeland. There really is a mutual understanding. They just can’t talk about it.

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