Recent North Korean nuclear tests have incited palpable fear among the American people. While this fear is wholly understandable—nuclear weapons are scary—it’s misguided, and it has led to counterproductive U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula.
A nuclear armed North Korea represents an existential threat to the United States, or so the narrative goes, because Kim Jong-un is an irrational and unpredictable leader with an abiding hatred for the United States that stems from his feelings of inadequacy in the face of our greatness. It’s a narrative that brings cable news shows great ratings, gives politicians an opportunity to sound tough, and makes us feel good about being Americans.
But it’s also pure fantasy. Kim Jong-un’s decision to develop a nuclear program is a rational one made in the interest of preserving his regime. And he hates the United States because of, well, history. Kim Jong-un views North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a security blanket for his regime. He believes that nuclear deterrence is the only surefire way to prevent western powers, in particular the United States, from invading his country and toppling his regime—a belief based on historical precedent.
In 2003, U.S. forces invaded Iraq to overthrow, capture, and execute Saddam Hussein, a leader they had once covertly supported in multiple military coups. Their excuse was that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, which was, of course, not true. The irony is that if Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction prior to 2003, it might have prevented the U.S. invasion.
While war raged in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya signed an agreement with the U.S. and U.K., forfeiting his nuclear program in exchange for reduced sanctions. In 2011, U.S. and NATO forces invaded Libya to fight alongside rebels hostile to Gaddafi, and in a matter of months Gaddafi was dead and his government in shambles. Kim Jong-un is so protective of his nuclear weapons because he doesn’t want to meet the same fate.
Many American historians call the Korean War the “forgotten war” because, as the name suggests, most Americans have forgotten about it. But most Koreans certainly have not, including the North Korean dictator.
After World War II, the Korean peninsula, previously a Japanese colony, was occupied by the U.S. and Soviet Union. The two great powers competed over whose system of government would take hold in the nascent nation, a competition that soon devolved into an all-out war. The war killed nearly 4 million people, most of them Korean, and left the peninsula divided between the capitalist, U.S.-supported south and the communist, Soviet-supported north.
It’s impossible to divorce this history from the current political situation on the peninsula. To Americans, the idea that the U.S. would invade North Korea sounds ridiculous. To Koreans, it sounds familiar. Kim Jong-un is developing nuclear weapons because he understands that only well-developed second-strike capabilities will ensure that the U.S. never violates North Korean sovereignty again.
I want to make clear that I am in no way arguing that Kim Jong-un is a moral person or a good leader for his people. His regime is one of the most repressive in the world, and from all accounts, life for the average North Korean citizen is unimaginably horrible. The country would be far better without him. But he’s here to stay.
For all of Donald Trump’s bluster, I think even his administration understands that North Korean nuclear weapons are already sophisticated enough to make military intervention a truly terrible idea. And Kim Jong-un has made clear that keeping his weapons is non-negotiable. As such, it would make a lot more sense for the U.S. and its allies to build a diplomatic strategy that uses the stick of international sanctions and the carrot of shutting up about his nukes to pursue concessions from his regime that would improve the lives of the people of North Korea.
It’s also worth noting that nuclear weapons have been used twice in the history of the world, both times by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. And when the U.S. launched that attack, it was the world’s sole nuclear power. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons under Joseph Stalin. China had them under Mao Zedong. Both men were brutal beyond comprehension, possessed the world’s most powerful weapon, and yet, never used it. Clearly mutually assured destruction works.
There are currently nine nuclear armed nations in the world and at least three of them—the U.S., the U.K., and France—would be quick to retaliate if North Korea ever launched a nuclear attack. Kim Jong-un may seem irrational and erratic, willing to throw caution to the wind, but, in reality, every decision he makes is calculated, and the goal is always the preservation of his regime. He knows that using nuclear weapons would be a death sentence for his regime, so he will never do it.
My point in all of this, I suppose, is that you should rest easy—unless something else is keeping you up, in which case I can’t help you. But also, my point is that once we get over our fear of being bombed, we should turn our attention to the plight of the North Korean people, and encourage our government, the supposed defender of all that is good and free in this world, to do something smart and diplomatic to help them.