Monday, December 04, 2017

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 wholesale.

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 state.

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