Today, the bellicose rhetoric coming out of North Korea has brought a new nation into the limelight. While part of me believes that North Korea, failing to provoke the US or South Korea into something that they could then demonize or the world stage in order to leverage concessions (which is their usual approach to rhetorical confrontation), the other part of me thinks that their leadership is either wildly miscalculating the situation, or intentionally prefacing some action that they have already decided to take. Why is a question that is impossible to answer from where I sit, but the cards on the table are growing more interesting and frightening.
First, the admission that even stunned the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was that North Korea has the technology and means to develop a ballistic-capable nuclear warhead. This is a major, major problem. This puts them far ahead of Iran in terms of geopolitical threat and as a destabilizing force on the world stage to any nation. It is not a technologically challenging feat to mount a multi-stage rocket on to a seemingly benign cargo ship, sail it to within range of your target, tear away the fake hull and launch a nuclear tipped missile at your target.
They have increasingly elevated their rhetoric over the past weeks from the typical war preparation crud that they do every year or two and have openly stated the nuclear war is unavoidable. Even the Soviets and the US at the height of the Cold War despite the thousands of nuclear and thermonuclear warheads aimed at each other were constrained by mutually assured destruction and a desire to SURVIVE and never explicitly threatened the launch and immolation of each others’ citizens, cities, infrastructure, or allies. North Korea has done this – by explicitly naming Japan as their first target.
While some may ask if I believe this all to be words with no action to back it up? It could be complete bluster on Pyongyang’s part. And threatening Japan is not new to the North – they still hold a grudge over the invasion, occupation, and atrocities committed generations ago by the Imperial Japanese, but while others have forgiven and forged new ties with modern-day Japan, the North stubbornly clings to this bitterness and hate.
One of the most important lessons I have learned is that you must take into account the national culture of someone when trying to understand what makes them tick. Chae-myun is basically what westerner’s think of as saving face in Korean. It goes much deeper than that though in most Asian cultures. Chae-myun is an obligation to one’s honor, to the honor of one’s family, and to the honor of one’s ancestors. Going further, any action or behavior that could be interpreted by one as disrespectful, challenging, or confrontational towards someone (or in this case a nation) would be interpreted as an assault on that person’s (nation’s) dignity and honor.
At this point though, another aspect of chae-myun needs to be considered, and that is the directness and challenging speech emanating from North Korea is a direct threat to damage the cohesive of the Japanese-American-South Korean alliance. Further, the North’s rhetoric is evidence of a lack of self-control and recklessness, which is paramount to maintaining the balance of mutually assured destruction as a limiting factor on the North’s behavior. MAD relies on rational actors that genuinely are concerned about their own survival and do not wish to die in the decimation of total nuclear war (and all nuclear war is total).
So adding up all of the various threats, culture aspects, and actors involved, the North does not come across as rational in this case. They are in possession of probably no more than a handful of nuclear bombs with the largest test yield being six kilotons of TNT equivalent.
For comparison, the bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were between thirteen kilotons and twenty-two kilotons respectively, and just the United States alone has 650 B83 free-fall variable yield nuclear bombs with an upper yield of 1.2 megatons. (Grand total the US as of November 2012, possesses 1,722 ready-to-deploy strategic nuclear warheads split between land-based, submarine-based, and aircraft-delivered bombs, with an estimated reserve of about 2,800 warheads, and 500 tactical yield warheads).
It’s not that North Korea is foolhardy, it’s that they’re toying with being labeled absolutely bat**** crazy. What makes it even scarier is that crazy people are impossible to predict.
Should we expect an attack?
Never in the past have I thought so from North Korea until now.
The right to use force in self-defense arises in response to a hostile act (attack) and/or demonstrated hostile intent (threat of imminent attack).
Indicators of Hostile Intent
Aiming or directing weapons
Adopting an attack profile
Closing within weapons release range
Check – Rodong-1 & -2, Musudan, and Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles have the range capable of striking Japan, Okinawa, and possibly the U.S. territory of Guam.
Illuminating with radar or laser designators
Passing target information
When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’