The Silver Lining in North Korea’s Plutonium

For years, North Korea has made threats against South Korea, Japan and the United States. And for years, those threats weren’t taken too seriously. It’s been a family tradition of the Kims to threaten their neighbors and the United States for the last 60 years.

So why all the hand-wringing over the latest round of bombastic threats from the crazy young scion of the late crazy scion of the nation’s first communist leader?

It’s because previously North Korea was a nation run by autocratic maniacs armed with a conventional army. Now the ante has been upped since it’s a nation run by a maniac with nuclear weapons, and that’s what’s making the world nervous. Nukes are the game changer for this reclusive totalitarian state. North Korea isn’t only rattling sabers; it’s rattling nukes. It’s the world’s worst nightmare come true — a rogue state with nuclear weapons that’s threatening to use them.

As if North Korea were a crazed individual holding a grenade without a pin next to the head of a hostage, leaders around the world are urging calm. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “It’s important that the international response, including our response, must be clear, united and calm.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a plea for calm. U.S. Defense Secretary Charles Hagel canceled a Minuteman 3 missile test from Vandenberg Air Force Base because he didn’t want to make the North Koreans jumpy.

Urging calm in a hostage situation is a reasonable strategy. Often, the hostage-taker will decide to put down the grenade, release the hostage and surrender. The risk, however small, is that the hostage taker will be suicidal and decide to blow up both himself and the hostage. That’s a risk that law-enforcement officials often feel is worth taking.

Unfortunately, that’s an unacceptable risk when it comes to nuclear weapons. While North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is considered small, “small” in the taxonomy of nuclear weapons means the equivalent of thousands of tons of TNT, or enough to easily wipe out a city the size of Seoul. Besides nuclear weapons, North Korea possesses a lethal chemical weapons arsenal that’s as deadly as its nuclear one. Calling for calm is a terrible strategy if Kim 3.0 is crazy enough to use nuclear or chemical weapons. Inhaling deeply won’t make Kim less dangerous.

It would be gratifying to believe that North Korea isn’t suicidal, that its leadership is fully aware that the use of nuclear weapons would generate a devastating response from the U.S., decimating its own population. The problem with that theory is that the North Korean leadership has shown a profoundly callous disregard for the welfare of its people and whether they live or die.

During the 1990s, it is estimated that several million of the country’s citizens died of famine because its leaders diverted billions of dollars from purchasing grain to spending on an unprecedented military buildup. UNICEF estimated in 2006 that 37 percent of North Korean children are undernourished. The life expectancy of a North Korean, at 63 years, ranks 169th in the world.

Governments are calling for tighter sanctions against North Korea in the hope that economic pressure will coerce the government to surrender its nuclear program. That strategy, which the West has been pursuing for more than a decade, is doomed to failure. Economic sanctions work well when imposed against non-autocratic governments. When the citizens of a democracy suffer through sanctions, they in turn pressure their leaders to negotiate a settlement. Sanctions don’t work in a society like North Korea, where expressing discontent leads to a firing squad.

Without the weapon of sanctions and economic isolation, the West now has few options. If it decides to use conventional forces, North Korea would easily overrun the South with its tremendous military might. If the U.S. opts for the more devastating choice of using nuclear weapons, North Korea will certainly unleash its nuclear and chemical arsenal against South Korea. Either situation would be horrific. What we have here is a classic case of nuclear blackmail.

The positive aspect in this crisis is that it serves as a stark illustration of what happens when a rogue nation gets its dirty hands on weapons of mass destruction and has the ability to commit nuclear blackmail. North Korea was the prototype of what we are witnessing with Iran. Years of a carrot-and-stick approach to North Korea by the U.S. led to a lot of carrots for North Korea, but not much of a stick.

At the end of the day, North Korea has nuclear weapons and now has the ability to intimidate much of the Asian continent and the U.S. The same will be true of the Mideast if the Iranian negotiations are allowed to drag on without any commitment by Iran to dismantling its nuclear program. One rogue nation in the world armed with nukes is more than enough.