North Korea and the Paradox of Nuclear Weapons

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, North Korea launched a new type of
intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Analysis of the flight path and other data indicates that
the new model, called the Hwasong-15, can probably reach any point in the
continental U. S.   And last
September, Kim Jong-un ordered a successful underground test of a thermonuclear
weapon whose yield exceeded 100 kilotons of TNT, the standard measure of nuclear-weapon
power.  While North Korea has yet
to demonstrate the ability to deliver nuclear weapons with its ICBMs, that is
clearly its intention, and the latest ICBM test shows it is farther along that
road than many people thought.

The world has lived under the threat of nuclear weapons
since the first atomic bombs were exploded over Japan in 1945.  Fortunately for all concerned, the
threat has never been carried out since then, although the 1962 Cuban missile
crisis brought the U. S. and the former Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than
anybody ever wants to get again. 

Despite the best efforts of both the U. S. and the Soviet
Union to keep nuclear-weapons technology secret, the physics behind the bombs
is well known, and it was only a matter of time until more countries built
their own weapons.  As of today, at
least eight nations possess nuclear weapons, and probably nine (Israel has
never publicly admitted to having any, but is widely believed to have
components ready for rapid assembly and use in an emergency).  North Korea is both the newest member
of the nuclear club and the one that is most worrisome.

Since the development of the modern nation-state, the
question of what kind of defenses to use and what proportion of a country’s
wealth to devote to armaments have been perpetual issues.  During the Cold War era, many countries
such as Japan maintained only nominal armies and sheltered under the guarantee
of protection by the U. S.  But
since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, a sense has arisen that it’s
every nation for itself now, and North Korea has bought into that mindset

In individuals, the mental state known as paranoia can
be debilitating and lead to bizarre and even violent behavior.  I am neither a psychologist nor an
expert in international affairs, but paranoia at the highest levels of
government seems to account for many of North Korea’s actions better than most
other explanations.  Its rogue
actions and hyperbolic threats have isolated it to the extent that its people
are severely impoverished, but the nation’s governing class continues to devote
absurdly large amounts of money and resources in pursuit of militarization, and
in particular its nuclear arms race. 

A report on the latest ICBM launch on the Wired website says that North Korea
probably imported the rocket engines used in the latest launch.  Despite international sanctions,
critical military hardware such as rocket engines finds its way to North Korea,
and it’s probably vain to think that attempts to blockade such hardware could stop
their progress toward fully functional nuclear-tipped ICBMs.  Whoever sold them those rockets should
take a share of the responsibility for whatever disasters result.

The paradox of nuclear weapons mentioned in our headline
is simply this:  with the exception
of World War II, nuclear weapons have proved to be useful only to the extent
that they weren’t actually used. 
Even Kim Jong-un probably understands that if he were to launch an
unprovoked nuclear attack on the U. S., the consequences for his country, and
him personally, would be dire.  So
despite the heated rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang, there is probably a
practical endpoint to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions:  to have a few missiles poised and ready
to threaten whoever might offer to overthrow the regime.

In a way, it’s silly to worry about a potential nuclear
threat from North Korea that isn’t even real yet, when the leftover nuclear
weaponry of the former Soviet Union is still owned by Russia and numbers in the
thousands.  The difference is that
Russia does not seem inclined even to use its weapons as threats against the U.
S., preferring to interfere with our affairs by other means, while North
Korea’s leaders seem to thrive on the attention their country receives every
time they launch a new missile or explode a new bomb underground. 

The technology North Korea needs to become a
full-fledged member of the nuclear-ICBM club is probably only a matter of a few
years away.  Even Kim Jong-un would
probably not risk the international scorn he would get if he tried to
demonstrate an air burst from a nuclear-tipped rocket over an isolated part of
the ocean, but logically, that’s probably the only way he can convince the
world that he has a fully-operational system.  We may just have to take his word for it.

What then? 
Well, we in the U. S. have made it from 1949 (the year the USSR demonstrated
a nuclear weapon) to 2017 while living under the threat of thousands of nuclear
bombs, and a few more in North Korea probably won’t make much practical
difference.  If we demonstrate that
our anti-ballistic-missile systems could take down a North Korean missile
before it did any harm, and there is some evidence that this is true, it will
vitiate but not eliminate North Korean threats in this area.  The problem is that we’re fighting
probabilities with probabilities, and appearance in such a game can be more
influential than reality.

The consensus of historical opinion is that Ronald
Reagan’s Star Wars proposals played a significant role in the eventual demise
of the USSR from within.  The case
of North Korea is very different. 
Being smaller and more insular, Kim Jong-un can probably squelch any
signs of dissent before it turns into a major internal threat to his
regime.  But once he has
nuclear-capable ICBMs, he will learn that the power of nuclear weapons is best
used by not using them.  And that
won’t be nearly as much fun as developing them.  But even dictators have to grow up sometime.

Sources:  Wired’s
website published “North
Korea’s Latest Missile Test Was Even Scarier Than It Seemed” on Dec. 1,
2017 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles
on nuclear weapons states and the number of nuclear weapons owned by each

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