On Tuesday, President Trump ratcheted up tensions with North Korea and its young leader with a statement issued from his golf club: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” (This was after an earlier North Korean statement that said, “Packs of wolves are coming in attack to strangle a nation. They should be mindful that the D.P.R.K.’s strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilization of all its national strength.”)
This all came after a week of North Korean military maneuvers. Most ominous was the July 28th launch of the Hwasong-14 ballistic missile 2,300 miles into space at a steep trajectory that ended with a splash down in the Sea of Japan. Experts believe if the missile had been given a flatter (horizontal) trajectory, it could have reached as far as Chicago. With only a modest performance boost, New York and Washington D.C. would be within range.
Any missile crashing down on an American city is a terrifying prospect, but North Korea is also working at top speed to arm its missiles with nuclear warheads. From 2006 to 2016, North Korea conducted five successful nuclear tests. It is currently estimated to have eight to ten nuclear bombs. North Korea, a remarkably unstable country, is about ready to join the ranks of countries with a global nuclear reach.
How did we get here?
1948 – Two Koreas are born
In the early 20th century, Korea was a colony of Imperial Japan. After World War II ended, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to divide liberated Korea into two halves, split at the 38th parallel. The division was supposed to be temporary, but Cold War tensions made agreeing to a new unified Korean state impossible. Instead, the United States established a pro-Western dictatorship in the south, under Syngman Rhee. The Soviets created their own communist regime in the north, led by a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader” (1948-1994)
Kim Il-sung attempted to solve the problem of Korean disunity by invading South Korea. His June 1950 surprise attack came close to succeeding, but American reinforcements stopped his advance. Three years of grinding warfare ended with the border between the two Koreas almost back where it started. There was no peace treaty for the Korean War, merely a temporary cease-fire, which has been in effect for 64 years. The “demilitarized zone” between the two Koreas is the most militarized area on the planet, with an estimated one million North Korean troops facing 600,000 South Korean and 28,000 American troops.
In the years after the Korean War, Kim Il-sung created a cult of personality. Pictures of the Great Leader were in every public building and every home. Kim Il-sung preached an ideology called “Juche” (meaning “self-reliance”) and claimed that North Korea was the best country in the world.
Juche did not work well for the North Korean people. While South Korea’s economy boomed in the Seventies and Eighties (while its government transitioned to democracy), North Korea maintained a Stalinist command economy that kept the country poor.
Both China and the Soviet Union, North Korea’s main communist allies, found their relationship difficult, particularly because North Korea refused to behave like a normal country. There was, for example, their habit of kidnaping foreign nationals. In the Seventies and Eighties, North Korean commandos would land on Japanese beaches and kidnap random Japanese citizens (primarily, it seems, for their language expertise). South Koreans were also victims of this kidnaping spree, with hundreds being kidnapped after the Korean War. Kim Jong-il, the Great Leader’s son, orchestrated the 1978 kidnapping of South Korean film star Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok in order to jump-start the North Korean film industry. The two kidnap victims made a Godzilla-like monster movie called Pulgasari before escaping in 1986.
Kim Il-sung asked for nuclear weapons technology from both China and the Soviet Union. Both refused. The Soviet Union did provide aid in building a nuclear power plant at Yongbyon. In the Eighties, North Korea began trying to manufacture its own weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Soviet aid to North Korea stopped. The North Korean economy suffered. Electrical output plummeted and agricultural productivity also declined. (Some North Korean irrigation systems depended on electrical pumping.)
Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader” (1994-2011), and North Korea’s first bombs
An already paranoid and isolated regime became even more so under Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il. Nicknamed the Dear Leader by the North Korean propaganda machine, the younger Kim was a more flamboyant figure than his father; he was known for dating North Korean movie stars and dancers. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korea became even poorer. Without Soviet or Chinese aid, North Korea was forced to live on its own. Self-reliance sometimes meant starvation. A famine in the late Nineties killed as many as 500,000.
No longer needed as a Cold War ally, threatened by the growing wealth of the vastly richer south, Kim Jong-il accelerated North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Military strength would substitute for economic strength. Enrichment of radioactive materials was increased, and was noted by outsiders. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, reported that North Korea was probably hiding increased production of weapons-grade plutonium.
The United States, supporting South Korea, made efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear efforts with a combination of carrot and stick. During the Clinton presidency, a deal called the Agreed Framework was negotiated. The United States agreed to help North Korea build two light-water nuclear reactors – which are not ideal for making – and provide much needed resources like oil, if North Korea agreed to cease constructing weapons capable reactors and accept international inspections. IAEA inspectors visited Yongbyon and set up security devices to make sure the plant could not be used to produce weapons-grade radioactive materials.
The Agreed Framework fell apart under President George W. Bush. There was some evidence that North Korea may have continued engaging in nuclear weapons research, even acquiring nuclear technology from Pakistan. Hard-liners in Bush’s administration, doubtful of diplomacy’s efficacy, used this as an excuse to clamp down. Western oil shipments to North Korea were halted in late 2002. North Korea responded by expelling IAEA inspectors and restarting the plant at Yongbyon. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Clinton deal had slowed, but not stopped, Kim Jong-il’s nuclear plans.
North Korea set off its first nuclear bomb in October 2006. Seismic readings suggested the bomb was significantly smaller than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Further negotiations with the United States, China (now North Korea’s main trading partner), South Korea, Russia and Japan led to a new agreement by North Korea to again stop developing nuclear weapons in return for aid, including much needed food supplies. This agreement broke down in 2009. Shortly afterwards, in May of that year, North Korea set off its second bomb.
Kim Jong-un (2011-present)
Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death. Despite his youth at the time – per varying accounts, he was either 27 or 28 – Kim Jong-un quickly and brutally solidified his control. In December 2013, he had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, executed for treason. The official North Korean statement read, in part, “Despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.” South Korean intelligence reported that Jang’s body was torn apart by anti-aircraft guns before being roasted by flamethrowers. In February 2017, Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in Malaysia; two women sprayed a nerve agent in his face at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
In addition to having uncles and half-brothers killed, Kim Jong-un was known to be a fan of basketball. He invited Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters to visit North Korea, where they played the north’s national team in a game that ended in a 110-to-110 tie. Rodman called him “a friend for life.”
In 2013, a third nuclear bomb was tested, with two more tests in 2016. The last test (September 2016) was the largest of all, with an estimated power of 10 to 20 kilotons, roughly the size of the Nagasaki explosion. The morbidly addictive Nukemap website estimates that a 20-kiloton surface burst on the Empire State Building would kill 350,000 people in New York City. (It estimates that a strike on the Lincoln Memorial would kill 23,000 in the less densely populated Washington, D.C.)
The last technical hurdle for North Korea is placing a bomb in a missile. First, the bomb must be small enough to fit. North Korea is believed to have already achieved this goal. The bomb’s triggering mechanism must also be able to survive the stresses of blasting off into a ballistic orbit and coming back down to earth. North Korea probably hasn’t solved this final technical issue, but is likely to be close. A fully functional North Korean ICBM is probably due to arrive between 2018 and 2020.
What can be done?
The short answer: not enough.
The time to stop North Korea’s nuclear program was back in the Nineties, or even the early 2000s, when it had not fully committed to becoming a nuclear power. Now North Korea has the weapons and the missiles; all it has to do is make them work together.
The United States has long seen China as key to stopping North Korea’s bomb. China is North Korea’s main trading partner and they share an 800-mile border. After a May missile launch, President Trump tweeted, “North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile…but China is trying hard!”
Tweets aside, China is only willing to try so hard. Although the Chinese are often dissatisfied with their troublesome ally, they are not eager to see North Korea badly destabilized. If North Korea collapses because of outside pressures, the most likely result is that it would merge with South Korea, much as East Germany merged with West Germany after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989. This would put a pro-American Korea right on the Chinese border: not a result the Chinese government is eager to bring about.
The United States could use force. In April, Trump tweeted, “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.” This tweet did nothing to stop North Korea’s July missile launches.
It is to be hoped that Trump’s tweet, and his more aggressive statements this week, were merely about saber-rattling. A military response is a nightmare scenario. North Korea has over a million troops on the South Korean border, with more in reserve. It has thousands of artillery and non-nuclear missile sites within miles of Seoul, South Korea’s bustling capital, with 25 million people living in the metro area. A war would lead to tens of thousands killed within hours, or hundreds of thousands if North Korea is able to launch its nuclear bombs.
A second way to get North Korea to stop is to apply economic pressure. The United Nations Security Council just agreed, on August 5th, to impose further restrictions on North Korean trade. The vote was unanimous, with China joining in, suggesting North Korea’s only ally may have lost patience with its strange protégé. Economic pressure has had some effect in the past, and it might succeed again.
Finally, there is diplomacy. Using a combination of implied threats, economic sanctions for bad behavior and promises of economic aid for good behavior, it’s possible Kim Jong-un’s regime can be made to cooperate. This is probably the least bad of all the bad options the United States and the world can choose from; there is no guarantee it will work.
Nuclear weapons may be rational for Kim Jong-un
From Kim Jong-un’s point of view, nuclear weapons may make sense. Saddam Hussein gave up on Iraq’s nuclear program, and then Iraq was invaded and Hussein overthrown. Libya gave up on its program in 2003, and Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Countries with nuclear weapons are feared and respected. For a pariah nation like North Korea, a nuclear deterrent seems a guarantee that the ruling regime – meaning Kim Jong-un – will stay in power.
In theory, as long as Kim Jong-un has nuclear weapons, a rational U.S. president must consider the risks attending any attempt to overthrow him as being too high. If America cannot be sure of taking out Kim Jong-un’s bombs – and it can’t – then any attack on North Korea risks a cataclysmic counterattack on South Korea, Japan and perhaps even the United States. Nuclear bombs, as crazy as this sounds, might keep Kim Jong-un safe. A variation of this way of thinking about nuclear weapons led to the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War: Both sides built so many bombs that they both knew war would be insane, and thus they avoided war.
Of course, the problem with this kind of thinking is that people are not always rational actors, and they can’t be sure their opponents are rational actors. If President Trump is convinced that Kim Jong-un plans to attack the Untied States, even though that would be suicidal, then striking first makes sense. Or perhaps he decides North Korea’s nuclear capability can be destroyed with a first strike, and so he orders one. At this point, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear umbrella becomes a horrible liability, and millions could suffer as a result. Sometimes in a game of chicken, neither car swerves.
To make Kim Jong-un give up on nuclear weapons, he has to be convinced it is in his – not necessarily North Korea’s – interests. He needs to be reassured that the United States does not plan to overthrow his government. Only then is there any chance of negotiating any kind of reduction in North Korea’s nuclear capability. Until that happens – and Trump’s recent words make that kind of reassurance seem unlikely – we will have to face the new reality of a small, paranoid nation wielding a giant nuclear stick.
President Donald Trump declared that if North Korea attacks anyone the U.S. cares about, they’ll “be in trouble.” Watch here.