I’m not wanting to write much today, nor about anything that might turn into a runaway rant, so I’m going to choose to clarify some of the scary rhetoric that’s going around, regarding North Korea’s ICBM. As the story goes (As you know…) North Korea has finished prototyping and is ready to test their Taepodong-3 (heh…dong) intercontinental ballistic missile.* This has been interpreted by our President-elect and by the media as North Korea preparing to nuke America!
Um, not so much.
Incidental to this clarification is the point that the Taepodong-2 test failed. North Korea’s space and nuclear programs have encountered a lot of failures, partially due to the culture of personality that declares (pretty much by fiat) that Kim Jong-un (or any Kim Jong-??) is an expert on everything. So that if Kim Jong, during his many tours of production and manufacturing, suggests to a master pastry chef that his strawberry tarts need a touch more salt, the poor chef is obligated to increase the salt content of his tarts. If this adjustment makes the tarts inedible, well, that’s the way the Peerless Leader likes it. So one suggestion from KJ on the development of a launch vehicle or a nuke can…well, force a lot of North Korean engineers to take to drink. Heavy drink.
That said, North Korea’s last nuclear test was shrouded in secrecy after a long string of dirty bombs. A dirty bomb is when some of the fissile fuel doesn’t fiss before the kaboom blows it apart, scattering the unused material. When someone intentionally makes a dirty bomb, we call it a radiological dispersal device, but nuclear scientists call it sloppy. Because who wants to spread around your radiologicals when you can convert that stuff to pure energy and awe the planet? The 2016 test was declared to be a hydrogen bomb, yet only produced a third of the yield of Trinity. We in the US have designed smaller-sized nukes of this sort to better fit into smaller-capacity delivery systems or to smack someone with a nuke without wrecking their entire city. (We toodled around with nuclear depth charges for a while.) But these are harder to make than the big strategic weapons to be delivered by bombers to large Soviet cities. It’s unlikely that KJU’s overworked engineers have been able to develop such a masterpiece.
What’s going on here is the same old North Korea game: It needs to rattle its saber a bit and pretend its going to be a menace so we (that is the US and China) send them enough foreign aid to feed their people, keep KJU in diamond-coated disco pants and get them to shut up a bit longer. Because China doesn’t want to invade and take responsibility for North Korea (yet) but they don’t want us to do that either (which is why there is a North Korea, and not just Korea that looks a lot like South Korea. It’s also why the US still won’t sign any global accords to ban landmines). So…KJ’s little dictatorship is a problem we keep tabling until the next year, which is why the Kim Jong dynasty still has an old school Soviet-era dictatorship to rule while wearing diamond-coated disco pants. (KJI according to his biographers, averaged five holes-in-one per golf game and was a world-acclaimed writer and performer of musicals, so disco-pants wearing is actually a low bar when it comes to family ambitions.)
Is North Korea a nuclear threat? Only in the desperate terrorist sort of way. That is to say, if KJ was willing to give up his life, his family and his sweet deal ruling a nation just for the chance to nuke America — and all his tech worked — he could. And he’d go down in history as having dropped a nuke somewhere in the US (with about the accuracy of a falling meteorite). And North Korea would be a nuclear wasteland because of good ol’ Rebel-yellin’ Bomb-ridin’ American might. (Our ICBMs are accurate enough to hit a phone booth.) And not even China would stop us.
This is, incidentally, why Iran isn’t going to nuke anyone either. As we discussed this before the Iran deal, once you build The Bomb, you have to eat at the grown-up table and listen to Uncle Jordan talk about his archeological digs. (Which is actually quite interesting, but no giggling.) But it means your interests in expansionism, or ambitions to ever shift your borders around a bit, ceases. On the other hand, Israel has nukes (which the US sold to them) and Iran might choose to develop nukes just to cause tension. (The controversial legitimacy of Israel aside, it is notorious for not playing nice with its neighbors.) And if any nuke ever did fall into the hands of mad terrorists, all eyes would look to Iran.
It could end…poorly.
As for North Korea, and the Kim Jong dynasty, it is doomed to end unwell. Not necessarily nuclear unwell, but still unwell nonetheless. And so KJU is very motivated to convince the US and China that cleaning up North Korea would not be impossible but tedious, and perhaps it would be less tedious in a few more years, and we should just pay him a ton of cash to behave and be quiet for yet another year.
* Also called the Unha-3 (Unha = Galaxy) ICBM … or space launch vehicle. This thing could be loaded with a nice satellite or space probe. I don’t know what Taepodong means. Tae means enormous…