Pulpit Bulls

Policy, Politics, and What's In Between

A New Member of the Nuclear Family

Posted by gregoryholmes on June 2, 2009

There has been quite a bit of chatter this week about North Korea’s second nuclear test and what the United States should do about it.

First of all, even though North Korea is testing a nuclear device on par with Fat Man and Little Boy, I believe that this development ultimately changes little in terms of the balance of power in East Asia for the same reason that North Korea is allowed to develop nuclear technology.  To illustrate my point, look at what happened to Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.  In both cases, these countries were attempting to develop nuclear technology but in both cases their programs were taken out by precision air strikes because neither country had any credible capability to execute a serious reprisal, whereas North Korea has the military capability to instantly strike against Seoul and inflict thousands of casualties.

As long as there are 23 million South Koreans living within instantaneous reprisal distance of missiles and artillery aimed at them from right across the demiliterized zone, North Korea has a credible threat hostage and can continue its nuclear program.  We can tighten sanctions, but sanctions are already about as tight as they can go.  We can attempt a military strike but, without the ability to instantly suppress the entirety of the North Korean military, (a task that would require something as powerful as a nuclear weapon) we would have to be prepared with immediate war on the Korean penisula and thousands of South Korean casualties.

The reality of the situation is that there is no way to put pressure on a self-sufficient military dictatorship without putting millions of South Koreans at risk.  North Korea is the most isolated nation in the world and trade sanctions are only likely to hurt the civilians, not encourage them to revolt.

Without the ability to instantly take out both the North Korean program and suppress the military response to such a strike, North Korea has free reign to continue its research.  The good news is that, while it has the bomb, it is not nearly as close to developing the requisite technology to build accurate mid to long range missiles.  ICBMs are some of the most advanced technology that mankind has developed, and their development was the byproduct of an arms race between two superpowers.  North Korea is not a superpower and its development is not going to continue as such.  Moreover, North Korea knows that any use of such technology would result in their ultimate destruction.

At the end of the day, the North Korean nuclear technology does not change the balance of power on the peninsula.  It does make North Korea more of a threat but only to South Korea, which is nothing new.

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