It’s a common misconception that we are, at any given time, vulnerable to a nuclear strike from North Korea, the radical nuclear state. The success of their missile test on the Fourth of July last year sent waves of concern across the world, as experts deduced that the Hwasong-14 has an estimated range of 6,500 miles, just shy of New York City.
Such is only the first of many weapons in the North Korean arsenal; the Kim Regime continues to improve their intercontinental ballistic missiles, while simultaneously developing nuclear bombs. September saw the first successful test of a thermonuclear bomb, more commonly known as the hydrogen bomb—1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that killed 129,000 Japanese civilians during World War II. In late November, North Korea increased their range to about 8,000 miles with the Hwasong-15, placing essentially the whole world within reach.
However, as despairing as these statistics are, the chances of North Korea striking the U.S. preemptively is laughably miniscule; not because Kim Jong Un is incapable of it, but rather that he will never choose to launch missiles at the United States. Contrary to popular belief, North Korea is not irrational, nor unpredictable. They immerse themselves in a militant mindset that most of the modern world left behind in the Cold War; they are hostile and dangerous, yes, but only in that they possess raw power and they are not an ally. This alone, however, does not mean they will actively seek out war—especially nuclear war—with the world’s hegemony on military power, because Kim Jong Un, though violent and ruthless, is not suicidal.
Mutually Assured Destruction is a Cold War construct, but it has not stopped working. Given that the U.S. is about 80 times the size of North Korea, given that the U.S. has 6,800 nuclear warheads while at most North Korea might have 60, given that the U.S. has countless missile interceptors stationed around the world (THAAD in South Korea, GBI in Alaska, Aegis and Patriot in Japan) while North Korea has none—if Kim Jong Un shoots a missile at us, he can guarantee neither successful landing on the U.S. mainland nor dramatic impact on the U.S. government. He has no way to obliterate the entirety of North Korea to stop the U.S. from striking back. What he can instead guarantee is a retaliation that will result in his obliteration. Kim Jong Un killed his own brother to acquire his position and daily forces his people into poverty to stay there; it would be rather counterproductive to destroy himself, or at the very least the country he controls.
Yet, I insert a disclaimer here. Until North Korea signs the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, we must not let down our defenses. Simply existing in a stalemate is precariously dangerous; a throwback to the horror of the Cold War. Denuclearization must remain the objective for all parties, but how we approach this issue will be key.
Look forward to the next issue on nuclear theory for just how experts believe we may coax North Korea out of their Cold War mindset and embrace modern standards.