by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Oct 2006, Mar 2007
On October 11th, 2006 North Korea issued a press release saying they had exploded a nuclear bomb underground. Seismologists around the world confirmed that there had been some kind of explosion in North Korea at the announced time.
The biggest difference between North Korea's Nuke announcement and the 9-11 Disaster is the element of surprise. North Korea has been threatening to develop nuclear capacity for decades, while the 9-11 attack came out of the blue. (this may not be clear in the future because of all the mythology building around 9-11 -- which is similar to the mythology that has built around the Kennedy Assassination -- but the 9-11 attack was a totally unexpected kind of attack, and totally out of the blue at the time it happened.)
This difference means that many people have had a lot of time to think about the North Korea Nuke, and that means that what happens in response to it will be "sports thinking" as versus the "panic thinking" that occurred in response to the 9-11 disaster. (See Roger's Thinking Stack for definitions of sports and panic thinking)
The really good news is: This means we should not expect American leaders, or world leaders, to act as stupidly with this North Korea crisis as they did with the 9-11 response (conduct the "War on Terror" civil rights trampling, trashing the airline industry, and invading Afghanistan and Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction.)
Why did Kim Jong-il have an explosion in October 2006?
For an answer we need to look mostly at Korean internal politics -- which I have no more access to than the average newspaper reader. But, reading newspapers over the last thirty years makes it clear that North Korea's leaders are habituated to getting handouts from foreigners when they make military threats. What has changed in the last decade is that North Korea has gotten so poor that it can't sustain a credible conventional military threat. In the 2000's when the North Korean government rolls tanks towards the border, South Korea just chuckles a bit. Tanks are now passé -- the North Korean military can hurt South Korea -- hurt it a lot -- but they no longer have any hope of winning a serious military engagement.
North Korea is now taking the approach that the US government took in the period between WWII and Vietnam, an approach at can be characterized as, "We can use nuclear weapons as a large part of our military threat to our neighbors." The principle advantage of switching military threat from mostly conventional weapons to mostly nuclear weapons is cost. It costs a whole lot less to maintain nuclear bombs than divisions of well-equipped, well-trained soldiers.
Cost reduction is probably the main compulsion behind North Korea's announcement, and its timing. If we could see their internal political workings, we would likely see that there is a serious fiscal crisis brewing, and Kim Jong-il is trying to defuse it by reducing his military costs, and by getting another foreign handout.
How well will Kim Jong-il's nuclear strategy work?
What the US found in the WWII to Vietnam era was that the nuclear threat didn't stop small countries, such as North Korea, from tweaking it's nose. One high profile example of this nose tweaking was the Pueblo Incident where the North Koreans brazenly captured a US spy ship in international waters. Another was the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran. In the Reagan era the US conventional forces were rebuilt and reorganized to take over most of the US's military threat offering ability. The result was a series of conventional interventions starting with Grenada and ending with the First Golf War. The US demonstrated convincingly that it could and would intervene with conventional forces, and those forces were much more appropriate than threatening nuclear intervention.
North Korea doesn't face the problem of having smaller neighbors tweaking its nose. It faces the problem of having larger neighbors tweaking its nose, and the problem of getting larger neighbors to give it handouts every five years, or so.
So, the question of how good this idea is for North Korea hinges on two issues, one external and one internal:
From the North Korean government's point of view, the best of all worlds is that North Korea can get regular, hefty tribute from it's neighbors by becoming a bristling thicket of missile silos, while reducing its conventional military expenditures to just enough to keep internal community security high. These two saving effects will allow it to develop a substantial economic surplus that will let it get its centrally-planned economy growing rapidly again, and it can once again be proud of calling itself a truly socialist, truly self-sufficient nation. (North Korea already calls itself socialist and self-sustaining, the problem is these days it's losing its pride in doing so.)
Is this best of all worlds going to happen? Not likely, but what will happen in its place is hard to say. What should happen is that China, not the US, should take the lead in resolving this crisis. North Korea depends more on China than any other state, and China will always be much more threatened by North Korean nukes than the US will.
I predict: Look for North Korea to be responding to Chinese initiatives over the next year.
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