North Korea is not going to launch a first strike on America or its allies with nuclear weapons.
To understand this, you don’t need to know anything about the history of U.S.-North Korea relations, or the throw weight of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or even where North Korea is. All you need to know is human history. And history says that small, poor, weak countries tend not to start wars with gigantic, wealthy, powerful countries — especially when doing so will obviously result in their obliteration.
So what exactly is the “crisis” involving North Korea?
The answer is simple: We’re not worried that we can’t deter North Korea. We’re worried because a North Korea that can plausibly strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons will likely be able to deter us from doing whatever we want. For example, we might not be able to invade North Korea.
When they go on TV, U.S. officials pretend there’s some chance that North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un will wake up one day and persuade all the people who help him run their bleak kakistocracy that they should commit mass suicide. But backstage, in government memos and think tank reports, America’s foreign policy mandarins have explained the issue clearly, over and over again.
One lucid example can be found in “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” a well-known paper by the Project for a New American Century. The U.S., it explained, “must counteract the effects of the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction that may soon allow lesser states to deter U.S. military action. … In the post-Cold War era, America and its allies, rather than the Soviet Union, have become the primary objects of deterrence and it is states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea who most wish to develop deterrent capabilities.”
And we’re not just talk: Iraq and Libya both surrendered their unconventional military capacity, and we then invaded them. North Korea’s rulers definitely noticed that and have clearly explained why they have no intention of following Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi into oblivion.
So take a look at these basic facts about the U.S. and North Korea, and ask yourself: Who exactly is plausibly going to attack whom?
None of this means, of course, that North Korea having nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is a good thing. It’s terrible. The Cold War was full of examples of nuclear war almost breaking out by accident at moments of high tension. But there’s nothing we can do to avoid that with North Korea except by talking to them and trying to reduce conflict whenever possible.
It’s also unsettling to imagine the fate of North Korea’s weapons when the regime finally dissolves. Moreover, it’s not impossible that people in North Korea’s chain of command would find it tempting to sell one of their warheads to terrorists. But that ship has sailed; any attempt to reduce the risk of those things to zero would have certain consequences far worse than the risk itself.
So let’s concentrate on the good news: We definitely have it in our power to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons on us. All we have to do is not attack them first.