How Kim Jong-un Saved the World from North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the Masikryong ski competition-2016

Kim Jong-un gains security and stability by threatening to use his new ICBM, but he loses everything if he actually uses it.

Pyongyang’s successful test of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) got the world talking. If and when—with the emphasis on when—the North Koreans develop the capability to couple their more and more powerful missiles with nuclear warheads, Kim Jong-un will be in a position to launch a nuclear strike against the United States.

Kim Jong-un’s recalcitrance and unpredictability would seem to make an ICBM-armed North Korea the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares. But before engaging in a gloomy calculation of ballistic trajectories, we should also consider the historical legacies of the world’s most powerful missiles. After all, we have survived for six decades now with the unpleasant sense of wondering if someone out there, intentionally or by mistake, was about to push the figurative button and reduce our lifespans to half an hour or less.

Indeed, it may well be that Kim’s new ICBM portends an era not of chaos and apocalypse, but stability and peace. The possession of nuclear missiles have historically had two overarching effects upon states. First, they provide a kind of existential sense of security, because states understand that no other nation is likely to launch an attack, particularly in a war of conquest, when the response could be even one nuclear retaliation on a city. The costs aren’t worth it.

Second, ICBMs tend to make states wary of going to war at all, at least with other nuclear states and their close allies. Now that it has a nuclear missile, the North Korean regime faces the fact that a war that brings in the United States could become a nuclear war, an event that would mean the violent and immediate end of the Kim dynasty and its grim regime. Without a nuclear weapon, North Korea could fight the United States or another major power, much as Vietnam or Afghanistan did, for years. The stakes now have become infinitely greater.

These two factors—the security of deterrence, and the existential danger that looms if it fails—make nuclear states very interested in stability. Thus, the ICBM, in the greatest irony of all history, has so far been a force for peace. Indeed, the late international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz once suggested that it should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

When the first ICBM was successfully tested, sixty years ago this week, the unpleasant feeling was a lot more pronounced. This was because we knew so little about the intentions of the “other side.” The fist-slamming, shoe-banging Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a mystery to the West. A zealous advocate of a deeply hostile ideology, Khrushchev headed a military superpower that was locked in a life-or-death struggle with the United States.

The first such missile, codenamed R-7 (SS-6 Sapwood in NATO’s classification), was launched on August 21, 1957 from the Baikonur test range in what is now Kazakhstan, landing thousands of miles to the east, in Kamchatka. It was a further three years before the first of these ICBMs entered service with the Soviet armed forces but the promise of the dreadful future was there to behold only weeks after the first test when, on October 4, a modified R-7 carried the first man-made satellite into a near-earth orbit. As the Sputnik beeped menacingly in the dark skies, it not only inspired awe at the accomplishment of the human mind but engendered, among many Americans, a hitherto unknown sense of vulnerability.

The initial response in the United States was one of panic. Here was the Soviet Union, a nation formally bent upon the violent overthrow of world order and the defeat of American imperialism, now deploying a rocket that could destroy U.S. cities in a matter of hours. In the aftermath of Sputnik, Sen. Henry Jackson called for a “week of national shame and danger.”

But other Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, understood that the Soviets saw their new rockets as defensive weapons designed to deter a possible American attack. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev grasped this almost immediately. “We estimate, that the [two] blocs presently possess such means of destruction as to make war unthinkable, if not impossible,” Khrushchev announced in his famous “Peaceful Coexistence” speech of February 1956. It was either a peaceful Cold War “or the most destructive war in history,” Khrushchev said. “There is no third way.” Wasn’t war still possible? Khrushchev believed that nuclear weapons ruled that out. “The danger of a military conflict is absent,” he explained in July of that year.

Khrushchev was so certain that his new weaponry would protect the USSR and make war insane that in December 1959 he opted to unilaterally reduce the size of the Soviet conventional army. The military brass were not amused but Khrushchev believed that in a nuclear age conventional weapons were little more than “old junk, scrap metal, which hangs like pounds of weight on the necks of the people, distracting millions of working hands from creative labour.” Khrushchev argued that large armies were simply redundant, for “how can any country or group of countries in Europe invade us when we can literally wipe these countries off the face of the earth with our atomic and hydrogen weapons and by delivery of our missiles to any point on the globe?”