North Korea’s ICBM

The Western Star - - Editorial - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

“Amer­i­can bas­tards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 an­niver­sary,” said North Korean leader Kim Jongun about his coun­try’s first suc­cess­ful test of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM) on Wed­nes­day. And in­deed Amer­i­cans are not happy about it, although it would be over­stat­ing the case to say that panic is sweep­ing the United States at the news that North Korea’s ICBMs can now reach Amer­ica.

One rea­son for the lack of pub­lic panic is that Alaska is not a cen­tral concern for most Amer­i­cans, and Alaska is the only part of the United States that North Korea’s Hwa­song-14 mis­sile can ac­tu­ally reach.

An­other rea­son is that the US author­i­ties in­sist that North Korea’s nu­clear weapons are too big and heavy to fit on its ICBMs. (It’s not clear whether they have ac­tual in­tel­li­gence that con­firms this, or are just whistling in the dark.)

And a third rea­son might be that Amer­i­cans are se­cretly em­bar­rassed by the sheer hypocrisy of their own govern­ment’s po­si­tion in this af­fair.

Well, no, not re­ally. The vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans are bliss­fully un­aware that there is any hypocrisy in­volved in de­mand­ing that North Korea re­frain from get­ting what the United States has had for the past 72 years. So is the US govern­ment.

US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son was be­ing en­tirely sin­cere when he said that North Korea’s ICBM test “rep­re­sents a new es­ca­la­tion of the threat to the United States, our al­lies and partners, the re­gion, and the world.” Wrong, but en­tirely sin­cere.

He is ob­vi­ously aware that the United States has had nu­clear weapons since 1945, and has even dropped them on Asian cities. He knows that his coun­try has had ICBMs since the 1950s, and still has hun­dreds ready to launch on short no­tice. How is the Amer­i­can pos­ture dif­fer­ent from the one that North Korea as­pires to?

Two dif­fer­ences, re­ally. One is that the United States has at least a hun­dred times as many nu­clear weapons as North Korea, and de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles at least two tech­no­log­i­cal gen­er­a­tions fur­ther down the road. An­other is that the United States has a clearly stated pol­icy that says it might use nu­clear weapons first in a con­flict. Weirdly, this just makes Amer­i­can ICBMs sound more dan­ger­ous than North Korea’s.

That’s not re­ally true. The United States used its first nu­clear weapons as soon as it got them in 1945, but de­spite all the wars it has waged in the 72 years since then it has never used them again. Nu­clear weapons are so ter­ri­fy­ing that they ac­tu­ally force the peo­ple who pos­sess them to think se­ri­ously about the con­se­quences of us­ing them.

Py­ongyang has ob­vi­ously been think­ing hard about the grave im­pli­ca­tions of nu­clear weapons too, be­cause it never ac­tu­ally threat­ens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s al­ways about de­ter­ring a nu­clear at­tack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blus­ters a lot, you can be­lieve it about this.

North Korea will prob­a­bly have ICBMs that can reach big Amer­i­can cities in three to five years if it keeps up the cur­rent pace of devel­op­ment and test­ing. That would buy North Korea a lim­ited de­gree of safety from an Amer­i­can nu­clear at­tack, be­cause one or more of its mis­siles might sur­vive a US first strike and be able to carry out a “re­venge from the grave.” That is how nu­clear de­ter­rence works, at least in the­ory.

But even full-range nu­cle­artipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the abil­ity to launch a nu­clear at­tack on Amer­ica (or Ja­pan, or South Korea) with­out be­ing ex­ter­mi­nated in an im­me­di­ate, mas­sive nu­clear counter-strike. So you can prob­a­bly trust the North Korean regime not to do any­thing so ter­mi­nally stupid – un­less peo­ple like Kim Jung-un are lit­er­ally crazy.

That’s why Amer­i­can diplo­mats work so hard to con­vince ev­ery­body else that the North Kore­ans re­ally are froth­ing mad, im­per­vi­ous to logic, and not even in­ter­ested in self-preser­va­tion. Only then can they ar­gue that the North Kore­ans should be de­nied nu­clear weapons, although Amer­i­cans, Rus­sians, Chi­nese, Bri­tish, French, Is­raelis, In­di­ans and Pak­ista­nis can be trusted with them.

There is no ev­i­dence that the North Kore­ans re­ally are crazy. In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War they have never risked a war, and they are ex­tremely un­likely to do so now. And while there is a rather er­ratic leader in Washington at the mo­ment, there are prob­a­bly enough grown-ups around him to avoid any fa­tal mis­takes on the Amer­i­can side ei­ther.

So North Korea will prob­a­bly get its nu­clear de­ter­rent in the end, and we will all learn to live with it – like we learned to live with mu­tual US-Rus­sian nu­clear de­ter­rence, mu­tual US-Chi­nese nu­clear de­ter­rence, and mu­tual In­dian-Pak­istani nu­clear de­ter­rence.

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