The North Korean Nuclear Threat

Photo Courtesy of Eric Lafforgue (www.ericlafforgue.com)

North Korea has moved from threats and poorly made propaganda videos to actions that are significantly more sinister.

North Korea confirmed early Tuesday that they had conducted their third nuclear test. According to the New York Times, the office of the director of national intelligence issued a statement suggested that the explosion yield was approximately several kilotons. It is unclear how the explosion measured up to their 2009 nuclear test, which had an estimated yield of two to six kilotons (in contrast, the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was 15 kilotons). The test was widely condemned by international actors, including the US and the United Nations.

What is clear is that North Korea is advancing in its ability to make nuclear weapons, even if their specific capabilities are still ambiguous. Whether the bomb was made of plutonium or enriched uranium is unknown, and it still remains to be seen if the country could produce a rocket that would be capable of launching a warhead at all.

The US doesn’t have a lot of weapons left in its arsenal to use against North Korea. The country has been the subject of crippling economic sanctions, but as long as the Chinese are still willing to provide aid, the North Korean government won’t be left hurting. A naval blockade of North Korea could provoke actual armed conflict, which no actor would likely want to risk. Traditional “naming and shaming” is no longer a viable strategy, since the North Koreans are determined to pursue nuclear status regardless (or perhaps in spite of) international opinion. Unless China is willing to crack down on its client state, the options for halting the North Korean nuclear program are limited.

The test is no doubt alarming, and presents a serious foreign policy challenge that the US must decide how to react to. However, to assume that North Korea will turn into a nuclear bomb salesman to the world’s rogue states and terrorists is to ignore basic reason. Likewise, to believe that the North Koreans would drop a nuclear bomb on the US (whatever their propaganda might suggest) is preposterous.

North Korea seems unstable, but should be considered a rational actor. The statements made by North Korea in the past seem to indicate a rather straightforward desire for a nuclear deterrent. While rhetoric has escalated in recent weeks, it is irrational to believe that the first thought in the minds of the North Korean leaders is to attack the US. Any state’s first goal is to maintain its integrity, and North Korea is guaranteed that if it attacked the US (or any other country, for that matter), it would be all but annihilated, through a second strike or otherwise.

Likewise, a country that has struggled for years to create a single viable weapon is unlikely to go and sell it to terrorists or other rogue states. North Korea has been proven to care little for its economic viability as long as it has money to support its military program – money is clearly not the object here. If the North Koreans were to sell their weapons, they would lose the advantage of a newfound nuclear deterrent that in their mind, might be used to leverage the West.

The North Korean nuclear threat is serious, and should by no means be ignored. However, to assume that the North Koreans are going to one day arm the next Bin Laden or blow D.C. off the map is to make a fundamental mistake. While they may seem crazy on the surface, there is no reason to assume that they are anything but rational actors. The threat, like any nuclear threat, must be contained; however, the risk that such a program poses is no doubt being blown out of proportion.

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