LONDON – “This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”
So spoke U.S. President Donald Trump in Iowa in January. North Korea flight-tested a ballistic missile on Sunday that landed off Japan’s west coast, so what will he do now? What can he do? And is North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong Un, really a maniac?
South Korea’s foreign ministry certainly thinks so: “North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong Un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development.” The same word was used a great deal after North Korea tested nuclear weapons in January and September of last year.
But why would it be maniacal, or even irrational, for the North Korean leader to want nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States? After all, the U.S. not only has nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach North Korea; it has enough of them to eradicate the country 20 times over.
If it is not maniacal for the U.S. to have them, why is it maniacal for the North Koreans? Because American leaders are responsible, they explain, whereas Kim is a maniac. Begging your pardon, but isn’t that argument rather circular?
The U.S. is the only country that ever developed nuclear weapons with the intention of using them. It was at the end of World War II, when tens of millions had already been killed, and moral restraints had largely been cast aside.
But the U.S. never used its nukes again, even when it still had a monopoly on them — and all the other known nuclear power got them in the name of deterrence: stopping somebody else from using nuclear weapons on them.
The Soviet Union developed them to deter the U.S. from launching a nuclear strike. Britain and France got them to deter the Soviet Union. China got them to deter all of the above. And Pakistan and India each developed them because they suspected the other country was working on them.
Only Israel developed nuclear weapons for use against enemies who did not already have them. But Israel got them out of fear that its people would be “driven into the sea” if it lost a conventional war, back in the 1960s when it was conceivable that it could lose such a war. The intention was still defensive.
So why can’t the rest of the world believe that North Korea is doing this in order to deter an American nuclear attack? North Koreans have lived 65 years with the knowledge that the U.S. could do that whenever it wanted, and it is not maniacal to take out a little insurance against it.
The North Korean regime is brutally repressive and given to foaming at the mouth over minor slights. But since it has actually kept the peace for 64 years (while the U.S. has fought three large wars and many small ones), it is hard to maintain that it is maniacally aggressive.
So why say it? Because if you don’t characterize North Korea as insanely dangerous, then you cannot justify forbidding it to have ballistic missiles (which several dozen other countries have) and nuclear warheads (which nine countries have, and another four had briefly before giving them up).
Since none of the great powers want North Korea to have them, and they control the U.N. Security Council, they have managed to get special United Nations bans on both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for North Korea. Maintaining that the Pyongyang regime are maniacs is part of the program, but it does frighten those who are not in on the joke.
It would be better if the ban worked, since the world has more than enough nuclear powers already. However, the ban is essentially unenforceable, and the heavens will not fall if North Korea does get a few nuclear-tipped ICBMs one of these days.
It will never have very many, and they will not be used for some lunatic “first strike” on countries that are tens of times more powerful. They will be for deterrence, only to be launched as an act of revenge from the grave. Just like everybody else’s.
What can Trump do about this? He could try bribing North Korea into suspending its work on missiles and bombs. That worked once before, but not for very long. There is really nothing useful to be done.
And what will he say about it? Nobody knows, probably including him.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian.
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