221: Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Threats

Chris Spangle, Greg Lenz, Jeremiah Morrel, Dakota Davis, and Tanner Perdue discuss the threats of nuclear war by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Show Notes

Why Does The Risk Of War With North Korea Seem To Be Increasing?

The UN Security Council has voted unanimously to impose new sanctions on North Korea including banning $1 billion in exports. The new sanctions are aimed at countering the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear programme following two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in July.

  • The UN Security Council Vote: The Security Council’s action has thrown the dictators of Pyongyang off their stride because it hits them where it hurts most:
  1. The hard currency the regime gets from its exports and the slave labor of the North Korean people. The resolution is the single largest economic sanctions package ever leveled on North Korea.
  2. It targets the regime’s exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood – the mainstays of its economy – and reduces them by about one-third.  It is the most stringent set of sanctions the United Nations has leveled on any country in a generation.
  3. Almost as important as the content of the sanctions is the fact that the Security Council spoke with one voice in imposing them.  North Korea’s neighbor, China, has a critical role to play when it comes to Pyongyang.
  4. Not only did the Chinese vote for the resolution, they worked cooperatively with the United States and other countries to bring the resolution to a vote.  Russia – another country that has favored North Korea at times – voted for the resolution as well. The UN’s action also puts a long overdue spotlight on the plight of the North Korean people.
  5. North Korea is facing its worst drought in sixteen years.  The regime has shamelessly begun to ask for international assistance, even as it plows its hard currency into nuclear development.


  • North Korea responded by threatening to take “physical action” — in the past 24 hours state-run news agency KCNA said its military was “examining the operational plan” to strike the U.S. island of Guam in the Pacific.


  • President Donald Trump had warned that if North Korea makes further threats against the United States, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It seems like a good time to take a deep breath and review the stakes, interests and strategies of both sides.
  • Much of the overheated rhetoric coming from the Trump administration about North Korea is intended to pressure China to finally do something on the issue, rather than accurately portray the threat from Pyongyang.
  • But this is risky threat-inflation. Scare-mongering contributes to the growing drumbeat for airstrikes against North Korea which could ignite a disastrous regional conflict, even though North Korea almost certainly does not intend to offensively strike the United States with its nuclear weapons.

What Would A North Korean War Look Like?

  • The clearest path to North Korean victory in war depends on a quick defeat of South Korean forces, providing the United States and Japan with a fait accompli that Pyongyang will expect Beijing to back.
  • The North Korean attack would likely involve a classic 20th century combined arms assault, using artillery to disrupt RoK defenses and soften up positions (as well as create civilian panic), infantry to break holes in the South Korean lines, and mechanized forces to exploit those gaps.  The North Koreans could well add special forces (potentially deployed to South Korea before the initiation of hostilities) and regular forces deployed by tunnel to South Korean rear areas.
  • The Korean People’s Air Force is ancient, and has received no significant infusion of Russian or Chinese technology in years.  The force has very little counter-air capability relative to the Republic of Korea Air Force, and its fighters would find themselves easy prey for well-trained South Korean pilots flying sophisticated aircraft.  The KPA can expect very little ground support, either on the tactical or operational scales, and would likely struggle under South Korean air attacks.
  • To remedy these problems, North Korea would likely reserve a large proportion of its land-attack cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles for attacks on South Korean air bases, in the hopes of destroying fighters on the ground and rendering facilities useless.
  • North Korean prospects in the war depend utterly on sidelining the United States in some fashion, either through the presentation of a fait accompli, or through high stakes deterrence.
  • The situation with Japan is more complex, but Tokyo views North Korea as sufficiently threatening that a war would almost certainly incur some kind of intervention, if not necessarily in direct support of RoK forces
  • The other scenario under which DPRK might decide to attack would come in anticipation of a major U.S.-ROK attack against the North.  In such a situation, the North Korean leadership might decide that it has little to lose. The military balance would, in such a context, strongly favor pre-emptive action on North Korea’s part.


Why is Kim Jong-Un Becoming Increasingly Aggressive?

  • Keenly aware of both internal and external vulnerabilities and North Korea’s relative weakness, Kim has grasped that nothing short of a nuclear capability will be sufficient to ensure his survival, and he has embedded himself in the global supply chain while increasing his political isolation. Having learned the lessons of Iran, Iraq and Libya, the young leader wants North Korea to be too nuclear to fail.
  • For Kim, nuclear weapons are a “treasured sword” and a silver bullet capable of keeping domestic and international enemies at bay. Kim cannot give up nuclear weapons without attaining equivalent and ironclad assurances of regime survival. Without such an arsenal, Kim has no means of drawing in the U.S.


What has been the US State and Defense Department Response to Kim’s Aggressive Rhetoric?

  • Secretary Tillerson: Washington wants to use pressure through international economic sanctions to drive Kim back to the negotiating table and to denuclearization. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has issued assurances that the United States does not seek regime change, collapse of North Korea, rapid Korean reunification, or to move U.S. troops into North Korea while trying to crank up the pressure dial to force Kim back to talks.


  • Late last month, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats called North Korea’s nuclear weapons program a “potential existential threat to the United States.” Coats hedges a bit by throwing in the modifier “potentially,” but he has spoken this way before. Unless he has spectacular secret information, this is woefully inaccurate.


How Big Of A Threat Does North Korea Pose?

  • North Korea is a growing threat to the United States with its nuclear missile program, and it is indeed an existential threat to South Korea and Japan. But the threat Pyongyang poses to the United States is not actually existential as, for example, Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals are. And is unlikely to become so.
  • Language is important here. North Korea is a indeed a threat to the United States, but it is a greater threat to America’s regional allies. Pyongyang’s ability to strike the United States with a nuclear warhead is, after all, still hotly disputed.
  • Hitting the United States with a missile is not the same as hitting the it with a reentry-survivable nuclear warhead that could evade U.S. missile defense. Nor, even, does one or two or a dozen North Korean nuclear strikes on the American mainland constitute an “existential” threat.
  • Large numbers of civilian casualties, even in the millions, and the loss of several American cities is not existential. Horrible, yes. A dramatic reorientation of American life, absolutely. But not the end of America.
  • In fact, the United States is actually well postured to survive, or ‘ride out,’ in nuclear war parlance, a nuclear strike. The United States is a large country, with a widely dispersed population. According to the Census Bureau in 2015, it has only ten cities whose populations exceed one million people. And 20 percent of its population lives in rural areas.
  • Finally, long-term U.S. political stability suggests socio-political resilience. Assuming again that North Korea strikes Washington and America’s other large cities, it is not obvious that the United States would then fall into some manner of political anarchy or revolution. America is a wealthy, stable state with the world’s longest running constitution (230 years). It’s population has never had any meaningful political traditions besides liberal democracy. There are no serious revolutionaries waiting for social chaos to strike, like in Tsarist Russia or Weimar Germany.


What Good Would A Nuclear Strike Do North Korea?

  • In the most extreme possible scenario, where Pyongyang used nuclear weapons against Seoul to facilitate a successful invasion, the devastation in the South would be so awful, that one wonders why North Korea would want to invade at all. Due to the peninsula’s mountainous terrain, only a few areas of South Korea are easily habitable for large numbers of people.
  • Nearly 75 percent of the population lives on 30 percent of the landmass. Those small areas—basically the South biggest cities—would be targets of Northern nuclear weapons in any such war. If North Korea were to win that conflict, it would then inherit those irradiated, blasted population zones, in addition to scarcely usable mountains. What would be the point of winning then? Of fighting at all?


  • Similarly, North Korean nuclear use against the South—or Japan or the United States—would lead to devastating American nuclear retaliation. South Korea and Japan have been treaty allies of the United States for decades. These relationships are about as robust as any in the U.S. alliance network. Countless secretaries of state and defense have pledged to protect Seoul and Tokyo.
  • American nuclear retaliation would almost certainly follow any Northern offensive nuclear strike. North Korea would inherit an apocalyptic wasteland in the South, while absorbing punishing nuclear retaliation at home—so punishing in fact, that the regime itself might collapse under the weight of the social chaos unleashed by American nuclear strikes

If North Korea Launched A Strike or Invaded South Korea, What Would Happen?

  • One could easily imagine China attacking North Korea if Pyongyang offensively used nuclear weapons. China may tolerate North Korea’s nuclearization, but it is hard to imagine Beijing tolerating North Korea using such weapons to start a war.
  • Some fear North Korea might ‘hand off’ a weapon to rogue groups, but no states have done this yet. Others suggest nuclear weapons might be a method to bully South Korea into subservience or permanent subsidization. But so long as South Korea remains allied to the United States, it is not clear why North Korean nuclear blackmail would succeed. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons level the playing field in the peninsula rather than shift it against South Korea.
  • In short, North Korea’s possible use of its nuclear arsenal is highly constrained. It fits the profile of other state’s nuclear weapons—great as an ultimate guarantee of national defense and sovereignty, great for national prestige, but hugely risky for the offense.


Lessons From History: What Is The Appropriate Response To North Korean Provocation?


  • As U.S. policymakers ponder how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, it is important to remember that we are not in uncharted territory. The United States found itself in a similar situation more than 50 years ago, when faced with the prospect of Maoist China going nuclear. Then as now, experts questioned if rational decision makers were behind the nuclear controls of a reclusive communist state and military options — no matter how risky — were seriously considered.
  • Despite initially having great fears about the prospect of a nuclear China, both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations came to realize that China’s modest nuclear arsenal failed to alter the underlying balance of power in East Asia or undermine the confidence of U.S. allies in the credibility of Washington’s security guarantees.
  • In December of 1960, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) warned that, “[China’s] arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor, and distorted view of the world may lead [Beijing] to miscalculate risks. This danger would be heightened if Communist China achieved a nuclear weapons capability.” Revolutionary fervor aside, the same assessment could be written about North Korea today.
  • The same rogue state description fit the profile of China in the 1960s. Throughout the decade, Chinese leaders routinely dismissed the dangers of nuclear war and would stress the inevitable victory of the “people’s war” against U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism. At the same time, Chinese leaders greatly exaggerated the capabilities of their own nuclear program and downplayed the risks posed by potential counter force strikes against the Chinese mainland.


  • Following China’s first nuclear test in 1964, Beijing also stressed three points:



    • China’s goal for developing nuclear weapons was “to break the superpower monopoly”
    • China holds a “no first use” policy
    • China supports the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.


  • Despite the cautious public stance, China was vehemently opposed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) and did not moderate its hostile position toward nonproliferation until its nuclear program reached a more mature stage in the 1970s. China’s record suggests that North Korea is purposely adopting a hostile stance to compensate for the overall weakness of the North Korean arsenal.
  • John F. Kennedy viewed a potential Chinese nuclear test as “likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s.” The Kennedy Administration was so concerned about the specter of a nuclear China that every measure from direct U.S. strikes to parachuting Chinese Nationalist commandos from Taiwan was considered. Kennedy even authorized officials to approach America’s archrival, the Soviet Union, regarding joint preventive action against China.
  • Kennedy was hardly alone in his fears that a nuclear China was the greatest threat to world peace. As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, the U.S. Navy was concerned that China would quickly gain submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) technology and would launch them in a way to fake a Soviet strike, triggering a global nuclear war.
  • To counter this putative threat, the Navy recommended the sinking of China’s first missile-armed submarine on its maiden voyage. Not only did these fears border on paranoia, they greatly exaggerated China’s technological capabilities. In the case of SLBMs, China would not test its first submarine-launched missile until 1982. The press was also highly critical of Mao possessing nuclear weapons and called for military action to curtail Beijing’s nuclear ambitions.
  • In reality, China’s belligerent rhetoric was a strategic bluff to compensate for the great disparity between China and the two superpowers in nuclear capabilities. When looking today at uncannily similar boasts by North Korean state press that their country is now “a strong nuclear power state” and has “a very powerful ICBM that can strike any place in the world” it is important to remember that North Korea continues to have a small nuclear arsenal, has no second strike capability, and will never be able to shift the military power balance in the region on its own.



  • North Korean saber rattling is a screen to deflect from the regime’s weakness and fear of the future.



  • Kim Jong-un has spoken about the importance of breaking the “nuclear monopoly” held by the United States. Pyongyang has stated that it has a “no first use” policy and that it is in favor of complete global disarmament. Despite the “no first use” language, North Korea has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in preventive strikes against either the United States or South Korea.
  • Americans are deeply worried about war with North Korea, and our pop culture routinely portrays Pyongyang as aggressive toward the United States. Even if it could win a war, North Korea’s decrepit, neofeudal, gangster state probably could not absorb the South Korean population—which is twice the size of the North and long accustomed to democracy and freedom.
  • North Korea’s nuclear weapons are unsettling, even frightening. But nuclear weapons have not been used for offense to date (barring WWII), and there is little to suggest that North Korea can escape the same ‘unusability’ trap other nuclear powers find themselves in. These weapons are almost certainly for defense and deterrence, so we should respond in kind with missile defense. That, not airstrikes and a consequent huge risk of Asian regional war, is the way forward.
  • Kennedy’s fears over the prospect of China going nuclear were not shared by everyone in government. The State Department’s Policy Planning Council produced an influential study that questioned the consequence of China’s nuclear test.
  • The study argued that the Chinese nuclear arsenal could not pose a major threat to the United States and would hardly alter the balance of power in the region. Moreover, China’s nuclear arsenal was vulnerable to a U.S. counter force strike. Hence, a nuclear China would not feel emboldened to further challenge the United States. Although initially controversial, proponents of this view eventually won out in the Johnson administration.
  • The report acknowledged that there could be some adverse political ramifications of a Chinese nuclear test (i.e., proliferation), but they could be addressed by U.S. reassurances to its allies. Indeed, even though in the wake of China’s first nuclear test Japan expressed a strong desire to develop its own bomb, the Johnson administration was able to provide security reassurances combined with diplomatic pressure to dissuade Tokyo from going down the nuclear path. In the subsequent years, the United States applied similar pressure to block Taiwan and South Korea from going forward with their own nuclear weapons programs.
  • If China’s nuclear program did not pose a serious threat to the United States in the 1960s, then there is even less reason to fear North Korea’s today. Even with improvements in North Korean missile capabilities, the United States and its allies still enjoy an overwhelming military and economic advantage over the North.
  • Just as during the 1960s, the United States simply needs to be public and credible in its reassurances to its regional allies and partners. Any North Korean effort to split the U.S.-ROK alliance will fail if the United States continues to provide a broad security guarantee to South Korea. As long as the Trump administration continues to offer its public support to Japan, Tokyo too will feel that there is no need for drastic action.
  • Lastly the United States needs to forcefully come out against the linkage of the North Korean nuclear question with unrelated issues in the U.S.-China relationship to address Taiwanese concerns that Washington will trade away the de facto independence of the island in exchange for Chinese assistance in reigning in North Korea.
  • It has become clear that either due to a lack of leverage or deliberate unwillingness, Beijing will not apply the necessary level of pressure to compel Pyongyang to reverse course. The United States should not fall into the trap of expanding the scope of talks in the hope of eliciting additional Chinese cooperation on North Korea.
  • After the 1964 Chinese nuclear test, President Johnson used trade controls and extra intelligence monitoring to slow down the pace of China’s nuclear development. Despite continued apprehension, the U.S. learned to live with China’s nuclear program. This was made possible in large part due to swift and credible U.S. reassurances to key regional allies such as Japan.
  • Over time, as Chinese leaders decided to shift strategies and pursue greater engagement with the Western world, China’s nuclear positions underwent a gradual evolution. North Korea is not China, but a similar policy of strategic patience combined with robust security assurances to South Korea and Japan is the best bet for getting North Korea back to the negotiating table. The alternative is untenable.

How Does Russia Fit Into All Of This? What Do They Want?

  • What do Russians Want? They always know what they want, so you’d better know what you want or they will roll right over you. And in today’s Russia, the question is what does Vladimir Putin want, because he calls the shots on anything of consequence. And his goals are quite clear: unchallenged dominance at home; heavy influence over his neighbors; a weakening of Western institutions like NATO and the European Union; and “great power” influence in key regions like the Middle East.
    • As for changing Russia domestically, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament told me in Kiev, “Ukraine is the only former Soviet state that can change Russia.” She meant that Russians regard Ukraine as the birthplace of the historic Slavic state (in the ninth century) and see Ukrainians as their closest ethnic relatives. If Ukraine could overcome its endemic corruption and develop a prosperous democracy, it would spur support for similar governance in Russia. Helping Ukraine is our most promising strategy and one that Mr. Putin fears. That’s why he invaded Ukraine.
  • What do Americans Want? America shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking this is just a new Cold War and then rely on the instincts we developed back then. The Cold War was actually simpler: a black-and-white global struggle between two diametrically opposed ideologies, one of which had to die. Theirs did. They lost their country, empire and the Communist economic system. That struggle was checkers; today’s is chess. The current clash with Russia cannot be about a total victory with no second act, because unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not going away. So our strategy has to be about enforcing limits
  • Russia has demanded that the American diplomatic mission reduce its staff by 755 employees, in response to new sanctions imposed by Congress that were signed last week by President Trump.
  • We can’t make Russia welcome NATO on its border, but we can work to strengthen NATO’s unity and deterrence strategy, counteract Russian diplomacy aimed at wavering members and build on steps like the recent forward deployment of NATO forces into the Baltic States and Poland — all the time attaching conditions for any diminution of pressure on Russia
  • We cannot break Russia from an espionage habit that dates back to czarist times, but we can strengthen our counterintelligence capabilities and — very important — start systematically bringing to public light Russian “fake news” aimed at our citizens, as many European governments have begun doing.
  • We can’t change geography or force Russia to ignore neighboring regions where it has deep trade and cultural relations. But we can continue to punish Moscow for seizing territory or conducting covert influence operations intended to undercut a neighbor’s independence and limit its foreign policy options. We can give Ukraine more sophisticated defensive weapons to protect itself against Russian invaders. And we can keep turning up the pressure as Congress has done with new sanctions.
  • We cannot keep Mr. Putin from aspiring to overseas adventures like his expedition into Syria.

Thank you for listening to all of the We Are Libertarians podcasts.

Support Our Work