Kim Jong Un’s ra­tio­nale

North Korean leader’s key con­cern is stay­ing in power

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Art Hob­son

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 ahob­

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