LONDON – “American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about his country’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday. And indeed Americans are not happy about it, although it would be overstating the case to say that panic is sweeping the United States at the news that North Korea’s ICBMs can now reach America.
One reason for the lack of public panic is that Alaska is not a central concern for most Americans, and Alaska is the only part of the U.S. that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile can actually reach.
Another reason is that the U.S. authorities insist that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are too big and heavy to fit on its ICBMs. (It’s not clear whether they have actual intelligence that confirms this, or are just whistling in the dark.)
And a third reason might be that Americans are secretly embarrassed by the sheer hypocrisy of their own government’s position in this affair.
Well, no, not really. The vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware that there is any hypocrisy involved in demanding that North Korea refrain from getting what the U.S. has had for the past 72 years. So is the U.S. government.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was being entirely sincere when he said that North Korea’s ICBM test “represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region and the world.” Wrong, but entirely sincere.
He is obviously aware that the U.S. has had nuclear weapons since 1945, and has even dropped them on Japan. He knows that his country has had ICBMs since the 1950s, and still has hundreds ready to launch on short notice. How is the American posture different from the one that North Korea aspires to?
Two differences, really. One is that the U.S. has at least a hundred times as many nuclear weapons as North Korea, and delivery vehicles at least two technological generations further down the road. Another is that the U.S. has a clearly stated policy that says it might use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Weirdly, this just makes American ICBMs sound more dangerous than North Korea’s.
That’s not really true. The U.S. used its first nuclear weapons as soon as it got them in 1945, but despite all the wars it has waged in the 72 years since then it has never used them again. Nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they actually force the people who possess them to think seriously about the consequences of using them.
Pyongyang has obviously been thinking hard about the grave implications of nuclear weapons too, because it never actually threatens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s always about deterring a nuclear attack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blusters a lot, you can believe it about this.
North Korea will probably have ICBMs that can reach big American cities in three to five years if it keeps up the current pace of development and testing. That would buy North Korea a limited degree of safety from an American nuclear attack, because one or more of its missiles might survive a U.S. first strike and be able to carry out a “revenge from the grave.” That is how nuclear deterrence works, at least in theory.
But even full-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the ability to launch a nuclear attack on America (or Japan, or South Korea) without being exterminated in an immediate, massive nuclear counterstrike. So you can probably trust the North Korean regime not to do anything so terminally stupid — unless people like Kim are literally crazy.
That’s why American diplomats work so hard to convince everybody else that the North Koreans really are frothing mad, impervious to logic and not even interested in self-preservation. Only then can they argue that the North Koreans should be denied nuclear weapons even though Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, French, Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis can be trusted with them.
There is no evidence the North Koreans really are crazy. In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War they have never risked a war, and they are extremely unlikely to do so now. And while there is a rather erratic leader in Washington, there are probably enough grown-ups around him to avoid any fatal mistakes on the American side either.
So North Korea will probably get its nuclear deterrent in the end, and we will all learn to live with it — like we learned to live with mutual U.S.-Russian nuclear deterrence, mutual U.S.-Chinese nuclear deterrence and mutual Indian-Pakistani nuclear deterrence.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian.