Are we about to be vaporised by North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Given all the hysteria this week over its third underground nuclear test, one would certainly think so.
In reality, we are not about to be nuked by the North’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. But, like many heads of small nations, he really does get a big kick out of making the big boys go crazy.
The late Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein also used to enjoy this dangerous sport. But unlike Kim, they did not have four to six operational nuclear weapons - a lesson not lost on North Korea.
While everyone was fulminating against the North Koreans, there was barely any mention of US-South Korean-Australian war games near North Korea that Pyongyang claimed were training for a US-led invasion. Semi-annual US-led war games almost always cause North Korea to fire missiles and beat the war drums.
What’s clear is that North Korea is making steady progress in developing a smaller nuclear warhead capable of fitting into a nose cone, and developing a new long-ranged missile that may one day be able to strike North America. However, North Korea’s third nuclear test was less than half the explosive power of the bombs dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US. But Pyongyang’s description of a “smaller and lighter device” set off alarm bells in the Pentagon. Shortly before, in response to new US-led sanctions against North Korea after it launched a satellite into the orbit, Pyongyang threatened to target the US with its missiles.
That, so far, is empty talk. North Korea does not yet have a reliable, accurate ICBM that can threaten the US. It lacks assurance that the miniaturised nuclear warheads it is believed developing can withstand the high g-forces and heat of missile flight and re-entry - or that they will detonate.
North Korea’s relatively crude medium and long-ranged missiles are inaccurate and unreliable. Most require hours of liquid fuelling, making them sitting ducks for US pre-emptive attack. The North is also fast using up its supply of bomb-grade nuclear material.
North Korea lacks the ability to inflict a crippling blow on the US mainland. By contrast, the US Pacific 7th Fleet carries enough nuclear weapons to vaporise North Korea in a few minutes. This latest uproar over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons must be seen in the context of the bitter rivalry between North and South Korea. Typical example: in the Demilitarised Zone dividing them, South Korea put its flag on a high tower. The North immediately built a flag tower 50 percent higher.
North Korea says it is the only authentic Korea; the South, claims Pyongyang, is a US colony garrisoned by 28,000 US troops. In fact, the North greatly fears that the economically powerful South will swallow it up. Neither Japan nor China want to see a united Korea, so they give covert or overt aid to Pyongyang, while officially scolding it for nuclear tests.
Meanwhile, the same nuclear powers that denounce North Korea for building a nuclear arsenal are themselves in direct violation of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Under the treaty, the US, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China all pledged to quickly eliminate all of their nuclear weapons. They never have.
India, Pakistan and Israel all have built nuclear arsenals. South Korea was on the way to producing nuclear weapons until forced to abandon the secret project by the US. Japan is estimated to be able to assemble a nuclear device in only 90 days.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration and North Korea signed a deal to end the North’s nuclear production in exchange for food and oil. But the deal was derailed in 2002 by the neo-cons in the Bush Administration, who feared North Korea’s nuclear know-how and missiles might be sold to Israel’s foes in the Mideast. So back the US and North Korea went to their little Cold War.
Washington and Pyongyang can still make a deal. But it will require an explicit pledge by Washington not to invade North Korea and huge amounts of aid. The Republicans and neo-cons will bitterly oppose such a deal. American conservatives need foreign enemies. Right now, Kim Jong-un is the best they’ve got.
The writer is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. His articles appear in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Gulf Times, Khaleej Times and other news sites in Asia. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Lew Rockwell and Big Eye. He appears as an expert on foreign affairs on CNN, BBC, France 2, France 24, Fox News, CTV and CBC.