No Laughing Matter

11 May

Blustering HeadWe live in a world where a state with an economy the size of Senegal has nukes.

Pyongyang’s weapons probably aren’t meant to carry out nuclear threats, analysts say, but instead to protect against perceived outside hostility while extracting diplomatic and aid concessions. Pyongyang insists that it needs nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. attack. Washington insists it has no such intention.

Here’s how one prominent analyst sees the future of Pyongyang’s atomic arsenal. North Korea’s leaders have been closely studying their nuclear history, and Pakistan, which helped Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear program and which built its own atomic arsenal outside international treaties, is probably an inspiration, said Hahm Chaibong, president of the conservative Asan Institute in Seoul.

With that model in mind, the goal then could be a “minimum operational nuclear capability” of 80 to 100 nuclear missiles, including some that could reach the United States, Hahm estimated. The weapons would be hidden around the country to prevent detection, in caves, tunnels, amid conventional missile stockpiles, in dense population centers and on mobile launchers, Hahm said in an interview. He speculated that such an effort could take five to 10 years.

One hundred warheads in five years is probably alarmist, Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear expert at Georgetown University, wrote in an email, but “it would be naive to assume that Pyongyang will keep a small and primitive arsenal forever. Rather, it is likely that they will rapidly move to expand their arsenal and means of delivery.”

Many analysts believe it has taken so long to come to terms with North Korea’s intentions because of a long history of chronic underestimation.

This may stem from the North’s poverty — it has a GDP rivaling Senegal — or from the images of goose-stepping soldiers and leadership-worshipping masses that can seem to foreigners to be frozen in the amber of Cold War stereotype.

“It’s not a pretend nuclear-strike capability,” said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “We’re past that point where you can just laugh it off.”

So, now that the jokes are done, can we get around to crafting a foreign policy that protects the U.S. without endangering Seoul or Japan, instead of the other way around?

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