North Korea Is Only a Threat if the U.S. Keeps Provoking Kim Jong-un

North Korea has a long history of making bellicose threats that defy global norms. So does that mean the country's leaders are irrational, and will act irrationally?


North Korea has a long history of making bellicose threats that defy global norms. So does that mean the country's leaders are irrational, and will act irrationally?

In 1994, the North Korea threatened to turn neighboring Seoul into a “sea of fire." When President George W. Bush deemed the Hermit Kingdom part of the “axis of evil" in 2002, Pyongyang claimed it would “mercilessly wipe out the aggressors." And after the UN sanctioned North Korea for conducting a nuclear missile test in 2013, the country responded with a lengthy statement that included the line:Time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle."

North Korea often puts the U.S. in its crosshairs when it threatens the outside world – at least rhetorically. Deciding if North Korea is a truly unpredictable menace requires asking the question: How much of a threat is the Hermit Kingdom to the U.S., really?

The Nuclear Threat

The consensus among security experts is that the primary focus of North Korea's nuclear program is deterrence—the same strategy used by American and Soviet forces to prevent a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War.

North Korea's government in Pyongyang wants to prevent an invasion at all costs, and it lashes out each time it feels threatened by the US. It is a perpetually insecure country—devoting a full 25 percent of its gross domestic product to defense, and much of that to missiles, while its citizens starve.

As of 2017, North Korea could have anywhere from 20 to 60 nuclear weapons that might be deliverable on short-range ballistic missiles. In contrast, the U.S. has nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons that can strike any location on Earth in less than an hour. Pyongyang is fully aware that a first strike on its part would be suicide.

North Korea seems to have learned a lesson from modern military history, though, which is that a small nuclear arsenal could be the only thing keeping it safe from the outside world, as Michael Desch, a professor of political science and founding director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, told Big Think:

michael-desch-north-korea-threat-isnt-kim-jong-uns-nuclear-weapons

"Now most people would concede that the balance is very much in our favor but say, 'Look, this is a crazy regime. I mean, couldn't this be a case in which a madman has his finger on the nuclear trigger?'

And I don't want to defend Kim Jong-un's rationality or his sartorial choices, but I would say he's learned the lesson that many other dictators have learned from Saddam Hussein and from Muammar Gaddafi, which is: if you don't want to be invaded by the United States, build whatever rudimentary nuclear arsenal you can."

An Inevitable Collapse

Short of a military attack, the main threat to the North Korean people is starvation. The U.N. estimates that some 18 million North Koreans – including 1.3 million children – aren't getting enough food, a problem that's plagued the country since widespread flooding in 1995.

In this handout from the World Food Programme, a malnourished North Korean boy, 3 year-old Jong Song Chol, is fed a vitamin and mineral-enriched porridge supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme at a hospital in Sinyang county, on August 4, 2004 in South Pyongyang province, North Korea. The United Nations World Food Programme says that millions of North Koreans are chronically malnourished. (Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images)

This resource crisis, along with North Korean citizens' increasing exposure to information from the outside world, could ultimately be the force that brings down the North Korean regime well before any outside intervention.

"...a residual nuclear arsenal I think is no guarantee that the North Korean regime won't collapse of its own internal rottenness," Desch said. “In fact I anticipate that that's what will happen. And that will present its own set of challenges."

The key question the U.S. should ask itself isn't whether to invade North Korea, but rather what's it going to do when the regime inevitably collapses on its own? And that challenge has two main components, as Desch explains:

"First of all the United States and the South Koreans will be tempted, if a civil war starts in the north or even if there's just a large scale social unrest, to intervene. The South to reunify their country, the United States to try to clean up the nuclear capability. But the problem is that there's another great power with a big equity in North Korea, and that's China."


Asia Without North Korea

The collapse of North Korea could bring chaos to China. For one, a conflict could result in refugees, armed North Korean soldiers, or even nuclear fallout could spilling over the Yalu and Tumen rivers into China. But there's also the fact that Beijing sees North Korea as a buffer protecting the Chinese from the U.S. If the North Korean regime collapses, Korea could reunify and the U.S. could install a military presence – including nuclear weapons – directly on China's eastern border.

China has already begun preparing for the inevitable instability in North Korea by reinforcing its borders, installing 24-7 surveillance systems, and conducting publicized drills among its border brigades. So, how should the U.S. plan for the North Korean collapse?

Rather than threatening the insecure nation with military action or sanctions that would only kill even more of its starving citizens, the safest and most strategic solution for the U.S. seems to be to establish agreements with China that outline how the two superpowers will configure themselves after the collapse of the regime, ensuring that the inevitable power vacuum in East doesn't lead to unnecessary conflict.

"I think we'd be well advised to start now dialoguing with the Chinese about the future," Desch said. "And I think a unified Korea, but also one without nuclear weapons and nonaligned, without a major U.S. military presence could be the deal that would work for everybody."

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.