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North Korea's Nuclear Deterrent

North Korea's Nuclear Deterrent

What does it mean for the DPRK to have an effective nuclear deterrent? It's complicated.

North Korea launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile yet on November 28, followed by a state TV broadcast claiming the missile is capable of striking anywhere on the US mainland. This comes after months of North Korean nuclear weapons tests, leading some analysts to the conclusion that the regime has married a small, reliable nuclear warhead with a missile large enough to carry it anywhere in the world. Even a handful of these is enough to function effectively as a deterrent. All it takes is one strike to snuff out hundreds of thousands of American lives. So, what's next for the Korean Peninsula?

We're in new territory here in terms of international relations. The United States, Soviet Union, and other great powers faced off with vast nuclear arsenals during the Cold War, but no nuclear power has been as unpredictable as North Korea. It is, so far, the first rogue state to acquire nuclear capability. The American reaction has so far been to call it a "provocation," and to warn that it will bring us closer to war. But is that true? Would the United States ever risk a nuclear strike against itself or South Korea to take out the Kim regime? And can we trust North Korea to use their new arsenal solely as a deterrent, and not an aggressive tool? How rational is the DPRK leadership? What will China's reaction be, and what responsibility do they have to calm tensions in the region? Frankly, events on the Korean peninsula are unpredictable.

The Trump administration has so far responded weakly. It's heartening to see its restraint in terms of a knee-jerk military response, but prospects for long-term peace in the region are meager. As long as both sides continue to escalate the bellicose rhetoric and provocative displays, we will continue to see demonstrations of North Korean nuclear capabilities. It's entirely possible that acceptance of the deterrent will prevent war from breaking out again on the Peninsula and both sides continue to coexist uneasily. However, if that's the case, there is no indication that the Kim regime will ease its domestic reign of terror. The North Korean people will continue to live under a ruthless dictator, forced to show love for the man who threatens their lives and the lives of their families. Whether the regime collapses or struggles onward, whether the uneasy armistice holds or war breaks out, the real losers will be the Korean people. The nuclear standoff is likely the final stage of this piece of theatre. Our best hope is to foster a scenario in which the North Korean military leadership can change the status quo and save their people from the hellscape straight out of '1984.'

Today's book recommendation is Paul French's North Korea: State of Paranoia.

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