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Nuclear Threat from North Korea: Overblown?

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North Korea's Nuclear Threat
(Flickr/born1945) North Korea Nuclear Reactor

North Korea as a nuclear threat appears more frightening after its missile test Friday. This was the second successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile this month.

In response, the United States sent B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula as part of an exercise. The US military also successfully conducted a missile defense test. Naturally, all these moves have heightened fears over conflict.

Even before the recent missile test, Americans had been afraid of a war with North Korea. A mid-July poll showed 66 percent of Americans thought North Korea posed a “serious threat.”

However, I believe the nuclear threat is over-hyped. But the threat does exist.

North Korea’s Nuclear Threat

Nine countries are recognized to have nuclear weapons. Russia, the United States, France, China, and the United Kingdom are official nuclear weapon powers. Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea are unofficial nuclear weapon states.

North Korea is the latest kid on the nuclear weapons block. It is not part of any global treaty regulating nuclear weapons or missiles. The country has successfully tested nuclear devices. North Korea’s many missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads add to its nuclear threat.

The international community has attempted to contain North Korea’s nuclear capability, without much success. Even China and Russia, close allies of North Korea, have been unable to influence North Korea.

North Korea’s “unpredictable” leader, Kim Jong Un, also causes concern. The young leader makes provocative statements and issues threats to the United States and South Korea on a regular basis. He has clearly decided to spend the country’s scarce resources on the nuclear program. Does that mean he will use nuclear weapons?

An Overblown Nuclear Threat

Many in the West appear to think Kim is an “irrational” leader, and would, therefore, use nuclear weapons. I think the chances that Kim Jong Un would actually use nuclear weapons are minimal.

Countries develop and maintain nuclear weapons for two primary reasons: prestige and deterrence. Kim Jong Un probably sees nuclear weapons as a way of deterring attacks on his country.

Kim and his country remember non-nuclear North Korea’s history. The Korean war that ended in 1953 claimed about 14 percent of North Korea’s population. Tons of explosives devastated the country.

So North Korea knows the cost of war. It knows that if it launches a nuclear attack, the response would be devastating. Even if Kim survives, what is the point of being dictator of Hiroshima writ large?

Moreover, Kim’s chief ally, China, would hardly be pleased with a nuclear wasteland as a neighbor. No borders can repel radiation and waves of refugees.

This is not to say the world should not do something. Not only is North Korea itself a nuclear threat, but its export of nuclear technology is also worrying. As far back as 2010, a UN report asserted North Korean front companies were engaging in such exports. These exports were to Iran, Syria, and Myanmar.

Diplomacy and sanctions must continue to contain North Korea. Hyping the threat is not a realistic way to peace.