North Korea has been getting better and better at launching missiles of increased accuracy, and greater range. Experts disagree, but if there is a consensus, it’s that North Korea is now very close to being able to deliver a credible nuclear device to the continental United States.
It’s less likely to use nuclear weapons against South Korea, because they are, after all, fellow Koreans. Where it talks about using nuclear weapons against South Korean territory, its statements tend to focus on the US bases there – and also on the ports, to disable the United States’ ability to reinforce South Korea in the event of a conflict.
Whether it would ever use nuclear weapons against the United States, we don’t know. And we don’t know, because North Korea has made a policy of keeping everybody guessing. It is, however, dangerous to assume that it won’t. You frequently read analyses saying that North Korea is not suicidal, and therefore would not deliver a nuclear device to an American city. It’s not quite that simple.
“You frequently read that North Korea is not suicidal and therefore would not deliver a nuclear device to an American city. It’s not quite that simple.”
You get into the kind of computations we used to go through in the Cold War. You would need to know whether the North Korean leadership believes that the United States would in fact retaliate against a nuclear strike. It is believable that the North Korean leadership believes that the United States is now so cowed by the awesome majesty of North Korea that they would not dare to counter a North Korean nuclear attack. Or, putting it more simply, that the United States, having lost, say, San Francisco, would hesitate to put Los Angeles also at risk by sending a nuclear missile back. The North Korean nuclear arsenal may or may not be vulnerable to a massive counter-strike. If it isn’t, then the United States ends up losing two cities rather than one.
Also, we need to know whether the North Korean leadership itself thinks that it could survive a nuclear strike on the United States. This is not a regime that is going to worry too much about a North Korean city here or there being obliterated. What they worry about is their own skins. Their bunkers may well be deep enough that they believe they could survive a counter-strike, and fight another day. Or, possibly, it’s: let’s all go out in a massive blaze of glory. North Koreans do not necessarily see death in the same way that westerners do.
“It’s possibly 'Let’s all go out in a massive blaze of glory'. North Koreans do not necessarily see death in the same way that westerners do.”
It’s hard to know exactly what they think about that, because nobody talks about it. This would mean the end of North Korea and the end of regime, both of which are taboo subjects in North Korea. But the way that North Koreans tend to think, about the honour, the splendour, the awesomeness of the regime, especially if they were in a conflict with testosterone pumping through them, it’s not inconceivable that they’d do it. But we don’t know – and we don’t know because they keep us deliberately guessing. This is a core part of North Korean strategy. Make yourself mysterious, make yourself unpredictable, do not be transparent.
The problem is that the international community is rapidly running out of nice ways of dealing with this. Just the other day I read a detailed set of recommendations by the American Council on Foreign Relations, who produced somewhere between a pamphlet and a book on what do about North Korea, and effectively they say: we don’t know, we’re stuck. To prevent North Korea developing its nuclear weapons and its missiles to the point where it has confidence that nobody is going to attack it, you are looking at some quite heavy actions, like collapsing its economy, or a military strike. The easy options, I’m afraid, have all gone.
John Everard is the author of Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat In North Korea.