A nuclear weapons state that no one can irritate
According to an Associated Press story, one middle-aged North Korean, commenting on his country’s recent 6-7 kiloton nuclear test, described his country as a “nuclear weapons state that no one can irritate.” To a large extent, he was right. Unfortunately, there are few things the outside world can do to influence the course of North Korea’s nuclear problem.
Does it really matter that the North Koreans have a slightly larger nuclear bomb then they used to? For the government of North Korea it matters a great deal. The reins of power lie primarily with the military, which controls the North Korean population through a combination of repression and nationalism. For the North Korean military, there is no bigger source of domestic prestige than the country’s nuclear weapons program.
Despite propaganda suggesting a desire to see major American cities in flames, the North Korean government, including its titular leader Kim Jong-un, are not suicidal. It has been said that “nuclear weapons are the only weapon you can’t use,” and this applies to North Korea as well. While North Korea is that to possess at least a half dozen nuclear weapons, the United States still retains over a hundred times that many. For the time being, North Korea is more than effectively deterred from launching a nuclear strike against the US or its allies.
The real problems with North Korea’s nuclear weapons involve the potential for proliferation and the prospect of regime collapse. In terms of proliferation, North Korean officials showed little restraint in aiding the Syrian government’s nuclear program in the past. In today’s world, however, the main viable suitor for North Korea’s limited technologies is Iran. With or without North Korea, however, it is likely that Iran has or will soon have the technology to build its own bombs if it so chooses.
The more important problem is longer term. North Korean dictatorship cannot last indefinitely, and the end of the regime will likely not be pretty. Facing the fall of their government, from inside or without, will Kim Jong-un and his associates lash out at South Korea, Japan, or the United States? Deterrence rests on the enlightened self-interest of the deterred parties, and it is not clear that facing their own demise that the cultish North Korean leadership would not discover their own millennial streak.
Even if North Korea’s weapons were never used against the outside world, in whose hands might such weapons wind up in the event of a regime collapse? The prospect of “loose nukes” already looms large in Pakistan; a country that is far from stable, yet, unlike North Korea, capable of evolving political stability in the long term.
In North Korea, on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how to avoid such a nightmare scenario. The smaller the North Korean nuclear stockpile, the more manageable the problem will be when the end comes. This suggests that as chaotic and scary a collapse in North Korea would be, the sooner it happens the better. The only country capable of speeding that day is Pyongyang’s main supporter, China. The US government should continue to pressure China to make life hard on North Korean leadership. There’s not much else that can be done.