Why America Shouldn't Buy North Korea's Empty Threats

A Republic of Korea Airman during ROK/U.S. Combined Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Field Training Exercise. Flickr/Department of Defense

Firing short- and medium-range rockets into the Sea of Japan is hardly evidence Pyongyang can strike the Western Hemisphere.

Similarly, the Kims are not nihilists. They are dangerous norm-breakers, prone to violent outbursts, and have little concern for other people’s lives. But there is much evidence that they value their own lives and use their positions at the top of North Korean society to live quite indulgently. Indeed, suicide bombing is a frightening element of the war on terror, but there is little to suggest that that applies here. In fact, the Kims are quite crafty and tactical—pushing when they can, pulling back when they must, playing their neighbors against one another for gain and so on.

This is not a suicidal, ideological, ISIS-like state bent on apocalyptic war but rather a post-ideological gangsterish dictatorship looking to survive.

Northern Nuclear Weapons are for Regime Security, Not Offense

The best way to guarantee the North’s survival is nuclear deterrence. North Korea is globally loathed. Even China and Russia worry and would like to see it reform along the lines of post-communist Vietnam or China. Surrounded by enemies, and occasionally threatened by the United States, which has supported regime change in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and so on, nuclear weapons are in fact an excellent Northern (read: Kims and elites) strategic choice. It is a rational decision, given Pyongyang’s goals to not change internally and not be attacked externally.

Hawks occasionally suggest North Korean nukes could be used to force unification on Northern terms. Barring their use in a war, I do not see how that is possible, especially given the U.S.-South Korean alliance. And if the North did use them in a unification war, U.S. nuclear retaliation would obviate their value. Indeed, China might well invade an offensive, nuke-launching North Korea just out of sheer terror. Finally, it is hard to see North Korea’s ossified feudal system absorbing a larger, modernized people accustomed to liberal democracy. It is far more realistic to suggest that the North simply wants to hold what it has and sees nuclear weapons as an ultima ratio to do so.

This is not ideal of course. It would be better to have a de-nuclearized North Korea. But denuclearization is highly unlikely at this point. South Korea and Japan have already slowly accustomed themselves to living with the Northern threat over the decades. And the United States, after the hysteria of the Cuban Missile Crisis, learned to live with Soviet and Chinese capabilities to strike the homeland with nuclear weapons. Whether the United States can also adapt to a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile is one of the great geopolitical questions of the next decade. Alarmism does not help.

Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found at his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.

Image: A Republic of Korea Airman during ROK/U.S. Combined Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Field Training Exercise. Flickr/Department of Defense