*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on October 4, 2017. It can also be found online here.
A recent Gazette story on the risk of North Korean nuclear weapons included the opinions of a retired Air Force general who minimized the threat, calling it “nowhere near as scary as it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis” and “a hiccup in comparison” to the Cold War.
Having recently returned from a year’s service just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the North from South Korea, I can report that this characterization requires a little balance.
North Korea is a dangerous threat to our allies, the global economy, our interests and homeland. This is no “hiccup.”
It is true that North Korea’s nuclear program is not as advanced as the former Soviet Union’s, but just because some bombs aren’t as big as others doesn’t mean they aren’t threatening.
Small nuclear weapons can still kill lots of people.
Just ask today’s senior-most military commanders responsible for North Korea. Adm. Harry Harris, in command of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, has repeatedly said, “our most volatile and dangerous threat is North Korea.”
And a recent U.S. commander on the Korean peninsula, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, testified to Congress that, “Given the size of [North Korean] forces and the weaponry involved,” a war there would be “akin to the Korean War and World War II – very complex, probably high casualty.”
So what has them spooked? What makes North Korea, specifically its nuclear program, so dangerous?
First, it’s the spread of this immense destructive power. During the Cold War, nuclear threats typically had one return address: Kremlin, Moscow, Russia. Since then we’ve seen the nuclear technology genie come out of the Cold War bottle, granting the weapons wishes of several additional adversaries: Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. We no longer have the luxury of focusing on one nuclear state. Today, there are many, and tomorrow there will be more.
Also, during the Cold War we regularly engaged the Soviets through embassies and talks. In 1963, we even established the “red telephone” from the Pentagon to the Kremlin. These lowered the chances of miscalculation through misperception. If we didn’t understand what the Soviets were doing, we could ask.
We have none of this with North Korea. No embassy. Nothing. Consequently, the mistake risk is high. And with nukes, all it takes is one.
The one-mistake-is-too-many problem is compounded by the unpredictability of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Another retired general in The Gazette story said he was unsure whether Kim Jong Un is a rational actor. My view is that he is rational (and understands what certain destruction means), yet immensely unreasonable.
Either way, this is another comparison point: The Soviets were a frustrating and difficult adversary, but nobody questioned their fundamental grip on reality.
Because there was little to no trade with the communist Soviet Union, open conflict with them would have had relatively less impact on the global economy.
Today, the DMZ sits at the intersection of four great powers (the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia), and so an eruption of violence there would certainly mean an economic earthquake that would shatter the financial Richter scale and swell outward (e.g. Australia’s four top trading partners are China, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea; New Zealand’s top partner is Australia; and so on). This is the world’s most dangerous economic fault line.
Yet, perhaps the most important, least understood problem with respect to North Korea’s nuclear program is how cheap indiscriminate, mass devastation has become.
The Economist recently pointed out that North Korea’s economy is only half of what Americans spend per year on their pets. It is also roughly equivalent to the economic activity in the Colorado Springs region last year (just over $30 billion).
Our world’s worst weapons are now available at bargain basement rates to anyone willing to pay the price. That’s a problem when our defenses against these weapons are expensive, uncertain, and not-yet-mature.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons may not be as big or numerous as those of the Cold War. But they can still do their job. And if it comes with a nuclear aftertaste, even a “hiccup”-sized bomb can bring havoc. That’s why we should all be concerned.