North Korea’s July 4 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has forced Americans to confront a possibility that was once unthinkable: Kim Jong-un armed with nuclear weapons and the ability to use them against the United States. While the spread of nuclear weapons is always a bad thing, it’s the nature of the North Korean regime that is truly terrifying. As one observer recently put it: “It isn’t the nukes that ought mainly to worry us. It’s the hands that hold them.”
These concerns are hardly unreasonable. After all, the Kim family has ruled North Korea in cult-like fashion for three generations. Along with over-the-top propaganda, the regime has maintained control through some of the most oppressive policies in the modern world, including the liberal use of forced labor camps that punishes dissidents and three generations of their family. While all of its neighbors have grown rich, the government’s gross mismanagement of the economy has impoverished the country and led to a widespread famine in the 1990s that killed as many as one million people. And although Pyongyang has been deterred from starting any general wars since the 1950s, the Kim regime has regularly committed lower-level aggression against more powerful countries like the United States, South Korea and Japan. To top it off, North Korea constantly make bellicose threats against these countries.
As terrifying as this is, there is at least one nuclear-armed leader who has Kim Jong-un beat on nearly every count: Mao Zedong.
To be sure, Mao was a transformational and historic leader who helped unite a China that had descended into war and chaos for decades. But from the moment he assumed power, his reign was nothing short of disastrous for the Chinese people. Abroad, he was a rogue leader’s rogue leader who took a cavalier attitude towards nuclear war.
For many Chinese, the first years of Communist rule were hardly different from the brutal civil war that preceded it. One of Mao’s first orders of business was land redistribution. As the eminent historian Frank Dikötter tells it in his fantastic book on the time period: “Violence was an indispensable feature of land distribution, implicating a majority in the murder of a carefully designated minority. Work teams were given quotas of people who had to be denounced, humiliated, beaten, dispossessed and then killed by the villagers, who were assembled in their hundreds in an atmosphere charged with hatred. In a pact sealed in blood between the party and the poor, close to 2 million so-called ‘landlords’, often hardly any better off than their neighbours, were liquidated.”
The worst was yet to come. In 1958, Mao turned his sights on the economy by ordering a huge collectivization effort called the Great Leap Forward. The stated goal was to modernize the country in record time. Dikötter again has the best account of this era, having gained unprecedented access to Chinese archives. As he tells it, the Great Leap Forward turned Mao into “one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction.”
This debacle was too much for many Chinese leaders, and Mao briefly lost absolute power over the party. To win it back, he launched one of the most tumultuous and bizarre periods in modern history: the Cultural Revolution. Beginning in 1966, Mao unleashed the masses—and especially the youth—against party leadership, intellectuals and other “class enemies.” Chaos quickly spread as students turned on teachers, children turned on parents. Millions of people, including Deng Xiaoping and a young Xi Jinping, were forced into the countryside to perform menial work. There were mass killings in the cities, as factions of Red Guards and the military turned on each other, and even reported bouts of cannibalism. All told, roughly one million people died, although estimates range from five hundred thousand to eight million.
Mao left a similar legacy abroad, where he regularly fought with the superpowers, as well as neighbors like India. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, China had barely been at peace for a year after over a decade of nonstop war. That did not stop Mao from ordering three hundred thousand Chinese “volunteers” into battle. By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, China’s military had suffered six hundred thousand casualties.
China’s revolutionary leader did not let persistent hostility with the United States get in the way of picking a fight with his country’s most important patron, the Soviet Union. Sino-Soviet tensions built up over many years because of issues like disagreements about how to export communism, Khrushchev denouncing Stalin and myriad other disputes. The dispute reached its apex in 1969, when Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards, killing fifty soldiers. Once again, Mao was risking war with a much more powerful and nuclear-armed country.
Arguably the most terrifying aspect of Mao was his views on nuclear weapons, which Beijing first tested in 1964. Initially, the Soviet Union had agreed to help China build its own nuclear weapon, but later cut off all assistance, in part because of concern over Mao’s seemingly cavalier attitude about nuclear war. And indeed, Mao did say the darndest things about nuclear war. In 1955, he told the Finnish ambassador in Beijing:
The Chinese people are not to be cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail. Our country has a population of 600 million and an area of 9,600,000 square kilometers. The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the U.S. atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.
Even more troubling, he seemed to welcome a nuclear holocaust as a means of promoting communism worldwide. At one point, Mao confided to Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru: “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist; in a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more.” This was not the only time Mao made such an argument. Little wonder, then, that both the United States and the Soviet Union seriously considered launching a preventative attack on China’s nuclear program.
Ultimately, neither side pulled the trigger, and China became a nuclear-weapons state with Mao at the helm. Deterrence held. That is not to say that the United States shouldn’t be extremely concerned with North Korea’s rapid nuclear progress. Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Nonetheless, the Mao example does suggest that the United States shouldn’t rule out the deterrence option simply because of the nature of the Kim regime.
Zachary Keck is the former managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.