A Few Reasons Why North Korea Won’t Nuke Us
Gregg Brazinsky, RPI author and Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at GWU recently wrote in the Chicago Tribune:
The North Koreans are at it again. In the past few weeks, their erratic young leader Kim Jong Un, 30, has raised tensions in the Asia Pacific with a string of alarming actions and an almost incessant torrent of threats against the United States and its allies. He has vowed, among other things, to hit American cities with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, to turn Seoul into a sea of fire and to strike newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye with a “bolt of lightning.”
Although Kim’s vitriolic attacks are unprecedented in their intensity and sense of urgency, rhetorical bluster does not necessarily correlate with actions when it comes to North Korean foreign policy. The situation is not without its dangers, but Americans don’t need to stock the shelves in their fallout shelters any time soon. There are a few good reasons to think that the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea won’t carry through on their threats:
1) They can’t. North Korean propaganda regularly depicts Taepodong missiles destroying the United States or North Korean forces heroically reunifying the Korean peninsula. The reality is Pyongyang is not remotely capable of accomplishing either of these fantasies. The regime has carried out several nuclear tests in the last few years and, most recently, put a satellite in orbit. But North Korean weapons programs still have a long way to go before they are capable of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and placing it on a missile with enough range and accuracy to reach American cities.
The regime in Pyongyang also understands that if it initiates a full-blown war against South Korea it will lose. Although such a war will cost the Republic of Korea dearly, the combined military power of the United States and South Korea is more than sufficient to repel a North Korean invasion and topple the regime. U.S. and ROK forces are technically superior and have gone through extensive training exercises to handle anything Pyongyang throws at them.
2) They want to stay in power: The Kim dynasty seeks, above all, to maintain its control over a political system that is desperately beating its oars against the current of history. Its antiquated economic policies are designed to prevent any potentially destabilizing influences from the outside, even if they leave the country in dire poverty. And it maintains an extensive system of surveillance and repression to destroy any potential dissent. War would make it impossible for the regime to cling to power. Pyongyang must also realize that if it keeps rocking the boat it could trigger intervention by an increasingly nervous Beijing. North Korean leaders care about themselves too much to allow this to happen.
3) They need us: The North Korean regime derives no small portion of whatever legitimacy it has left from playing up the supposed danger posed by the United States. It keeps its citizens in a perpetual state of mobilization by telling them that they need to be vigilant against the possibility of attack by the “American imperialists.” Even if North Korea could obliterate the United States, America’s sudden destruction would not necessarily be good for Kim Jong Un and his cronies. It would eliminate one of the few sources of authority the regime has left.
4) They like us more than they’ll admit: Meetings with Americans — be they government officials, entertainers or scholars — still are viewed as a source of prestige by North Korean leaders. How else can the red carpet treatment recently afforded to former NBA star Dennis Rodman be explained? The Kim dynasty has long had a strange fascination with American culture, be it Kim Jong Il’s rumored collection of thousands of Hollywood films or Kim Jong Un’s affinity for Mickey Mouse and Nike sneakers. As much as he loves to hate us, somewhere deep inside the younger Kim likely craves more opportunities to get to know America.
Despite its bellicose rhetoric, North Korea likely feels more vulnerable and humiliated right now than anything else. It suffered a major loss of face when China — the only country Pyongyang might remotely consider an ally — joined the other nations on the U.N. Security Council in voting to impose harsh new sanctions. North Korean leaders now believe the rest of the world is ganging up on them. It has brought most of its problems upon itself. Nevertheless, Washington would do well to remember that Pyongyang is not acting out of a position of strength, but of weakness.