Kim Jong Un’s rationale
North Korean leader’s key concern is staying in power
Although global warming poses the planet’s greatest long-term danger, nuclear weapons are the major short-term threat. North Korea’s recent acquisition of nuclear weapons is perilous and deplorable, but it’s not Kim Jong Un’s fault alone. It’s an inevitable consequence of the failure of the nuclear powers, including us, to work toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.
Like many physicists, I have spent time understanding nuclear weapons because physicists invented these horrible devices. I spent a sabbatical at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, published peer-reviewed articles in journals such as “Science and Global Security,” co-authored “The Future of Land-Based Strategic Missiles” (American Institute of Physics, 1989), served on the board of the foreign policy-oriented Federation of American Scientists, and edited the national newsletter “Physics & Society” for nine years.
Kim is not crazy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and many experts testify to his sanity. Kim is a vicious dictator who will murder his own family members, but his nuclear programs are rational given his aim of maintaining power.
Kim will not use nuclear weapons against us or anybody else unless he is attacked, because our response would incinerate his nation and, most importantly for Kim, remove him from power. North Korea’s nukes are good for only one thing: deterrence. Kim has studied US regime-change operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria. He knows his nukes will force us to think long and hard before attacking him as we have attacked others, because his retaliation could destroy American cities. His nukes are a rational response to a real U.S. threat.
The clinching argument for the purely deterrent nature of Kim’s nukes is that North Korea has gone to considerable lengths to develop land-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers. It’s not easy to launch from a movable vehicle. After all, we developed ICBMs by 1958, but fielded mobile launchers only in 1991 following nearly a decade of development. Mobility is a pointless drawback for a nation that plans to attack first. It’s useful only for deterrence, because mobile launchers are likely to survive the other side’s first strike.
Experts such as the Institute for Science and International Security’s David Albright estimate North Korea to have between 14 and 48 fission bombs, each carrying the energy of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although they are still working on details such as a bomb that can survive high-speed re-entry through the atmosphere, it appears that within a year they will have a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of annihilating Los Angeles, Chicago, or other cities, just as many other nations have today.
President Trump has asked the Chinese to pressure North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons, but China’s interest is quite different from ours. They surely recognize the purely deterrent nature of North Korea’s nukes, and the current stalemate is probably fine for them. They in fact would not want a weak North Korea, for this would invite U.S. regime-change operations, creating refugees, and possibly destabilize China.
We currently surround North Korea with 23,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, 39,000 in Japan, numerous military bases, and incessant military exercises, not to mention a state-of-theart South Korean military establishment capable on its own of defeating North Korea, although not without incinerating the entire peninsula.
President Trump has said he will not allow North Korea to obtain an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear warhead to an American city. But it appears we cannot prevent this without unilaterally and massively attacking North Korea during the next year. This would be a monumental mistake and a disaster for the planet.
The USA will have to accept North Korea as a new nuclear power. Pressure, whether it’s military, economic or diplomatic, will only drive Kim to cling more tightly to a survivable deterrent force that can guarantee his own survival.
We need to turn down the temperature. Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at South Korea’s Troy University, asks “Why are people panicking about North Korea? It’s secular, they want to survive, and they are very cognizant of power balances. They are not suicidal.” Recalling President Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy to China, my own pet idea is to send the Harlem Globe Trotters to entertain Mr. Kim. He loves American basketball. Why must we push around every nation with whom we disagree? Whence comes this desire to remake the entire world in our own image?
The real insanity here lies not in Kim Jong Un. The insanity is the current nuclear arsenals of the so-called “great powers.” It’s time to abolish them.
Art Hobson is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.