The exchange of threats between Kim Jong-un's regime and Trump's leads some to assume that world war is imminent. It is never explained how. The Cold War was the last time we seriously thought about an exchange of nuclear weapons and it seems that a lot of people who write for newspapers still think in the same patterns, in terms of extraordinary powers of annihilation and hair trigger global alliances.
But this situation is nothing like that.
War is the use of massive organised violence to achieve political objectives against the will of another government. Killing lots of people isn't the point of a war; only a means to an end. North Korea could presumably already kill lots of people with its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons pointing at Seoul. The fact that Kim Jong-un will soon be able to kill lots of Americans in spectacular fiery explosions doesn't mean he now has a means to beat the US government into political submission in a war. In any nuclear exchange, America's government would be the only one left standing.
It is possible that the threat rather than the use of nuclear weapons might allow Kim Jong-un to achieve certain political objectives that were previously out of reach. For example, his regime might organise its nuclear missiles into a tripwire posture, with decentralised front-line military command of their launch. This might allow it to use the threat of automatic nuclear escalation to prevent its neighbours from retaliating to its own aggressive actions with conventional military forces. In this scenario Kim Jong-un would gain the ability to credibly threaten conventional attacks and other outrages on his neighbours with impunity, such as firing chemical weapons into Seoul or Tokyo. He would thus gain the power to extort even more 'aid' than he already does in return for refraining from terroristic attacks. Perhaps this could extend to diplomatic gains like favourable treaties.
However, note that this strategy is extremely risky for the regime since it requires placing multiple hair triggers for a nuclear exchange that the regime would not survive in the hands of local commanders outside central control. Also, it is not so obvious that such a strategy would pay off in the real world. After all, if having nuclear weapons did give you a special power to make other countries do what you want then America would already have used it to bend North Korea to its will. Finally, at the same time that this strategy creates certain possible deterrents against hostile neighbours, it also undermines its existing proven deterrents (as described below).
Myth 2: North Korea Needs Nukes to Deter an American Attack
This line of analysis points to the overthrow of Qaddafi's regime in 2011 with American military assistance after he had given up his nuclear weapons programme 8 years before. Together with the inclusion of North Korea in George Bush's 2002 Axis of Evil speech, the lesson is supposedly that if America is out to get you its promises mean nothing. The only guarantee of protection is having nuclear weapons.
This is just lazy. The nuclear weapons programme is decades old (1950's), as is North Korea's habit of signing and breaking solemn treaties to end it. It can't have been motivated by anything that happened to Libya. (North Korea was actually supplying parts and know-how to Libya's programme.) Moreover, the premise itself makes little sense. If America was so keen to destroy the regime, why did it sit around waiting for decade after decade while the nuclear deterrent got built?
Presumably because North Korea already has 3 independently effective deterrents against external regime change.
1. China. In 1950 China sent an army to save the North Korean regime from the destruction it had brought on itself by invading the south. For the past 65 years China's willingness to use force to keep a US ally from its border has not been in doubt.
2. Seoul. There are thousands of artillery pieces lined up facing Seoul. North Korea's army is decrepit and its equipment decades out of date, but it can still inflict massive destruction and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in the hours before they are all destroyed. Those are costs of war that no one wants to pay anymore, especially since it is in no one's interest to destroy North Korea's regime anyway.
3. North Korea's people. The destruction or implosion of the regime would create an extraordinary humanitarian disaster, with 20 million traumatised cult survivors wandering around confused, angry and starving. (The threat of this is so scary that South Korea already routinely sends aid to the North to keep it going).
If anything, developing nuclear weapons undermines each of these existing deterrents by shaking up the status quo. China is losing patience with Kim Jong-un's reckless and disrespectful behaviour (including murdering a half-brother who was under the protection of the Chinese government) and seems increasingly reluctant to provide diplomatic and security cover for it. Its economic subsidies have already been dramatically cut. Likewise, striving to become more dangerous to one's neighbours only increases their interest in regime change despite its humanitarian costs. South Korea and Japan are rearming and (presumably) dusting off their own mothballed nuclear weapons programmes.
Myth 3: Kim Jong-un Needs Nukes to Legitimise his Rule
The nuclear weapons programme is decades old, but it has accelerated dramatically under the new despot. Regime transitions are a delicate thing in a country with a social contract as misshapen as North Korea's. Perhaps Kim Jong-un needs to make a Big Gun that scares foreigners in order for his people to believe he is a big shot?
The people making this claim seem to be extrapolating from how normal countries work. In a normal country, the legitimacy of a regime does depend on the will of the people and legitimacy matters to the survival of the regime. But North Korea is not a normal country. Its people are locked inside a gigantic prison camp controlled by a ruthless cult. North Korea's politics does not extend beyond a narrow elite, which Kim Jong-un has already purged of all doubters with violent enthusiasm. In order to stay in power, Kim Jong-un only needs a few hundred key actors to remain convinced that he can keep up the flow of loot coming their way.
So the political views of ordinary North Koreans are irrelevant. But besides that, why bother to build real missiles with all their risks and costs? (Billions of dollars per year of scarce hard currency that could have been spent on other regime projects, or even just re-mechanising agriculture so that everyone has enough to eat.) This is a regime that lies about everything and forces its people to repeat those lies convincingly on pain of death. Its people are forced to pretend to believe that the 1950's war was started by America; that Kim Jong-un can score 9 holes-in-one with one shot; that there is food to eat when there isn't. If these nukes are for domestic consumption, why not build them out of propaganda instead?
A Better Answer: Kim Jong-un is an Asshole
The biggest mistake in all the analysis I have read is the category mistake of eliding Kim Jong-un's regime with the nation of North Korea that he rules over as an old fashioned despot. There is no way to analyse this case in realist terms of the interests of the North Korean nation, for example in deterring invasion. North Koreans' real interest is to have a better government: almost any other in Asia would do! This is a problem for the assumption that one can read off the regime's motives and predict its behaviour from the strategic situation itself.
If we want to understand what Kim Jong-un's regime is up to we need to know far more than we do about its inner workings, and especially the personal psychology of the despot who dominates it. So bear in mind that these are mere estimations, which I dare to offer only because they can hardly be more wrong than those I have been reading.
Firstly, Kim Jong-un is not a strategic genius. At least, he hasn't shown it so far. In general, it would be extremely unlikely that selecting one person as the least pathetic (and least female) from a pool of the seven children of the last despot would yield a brilliant political and military leader. It is more likely that the aggression and viciousness Kim Jong-un has shown since he gained the throne at the tender age of 27 – also apparent in his grisly choice of execution methods when purging the regime of anyone who might be disloyal – is the only management style he has.
Secondly, Kim Jong-un is an asshole. I mean this in the technical sense, developed by philosopher Aaron James, of someone who feels entitled to special recognition and privileges, while lacking respect for the moral status of those he interacts with. No clear strategic interest of the North Korean nation or even of his regime are advanced by developing nuclear weapons. A personal motivation makes more sense. Perhaps Kim Jong-un has his own concern with how his nasty little prison camp of a country is perceived. Perhaps he believes his true importance should be globally recognised and that forcing his way into the exclusive club of nuclear armed states is the way to achieve that.
Given Kim Jong-un's upbringing, and that of his father before him, it would not be at all surprising that he would feel entitled to special treatment and yet doesn't register other people as morally real. It would also explain why neither the international community's threats and punishments nor the huge costs and risks of the weapons programme have deterred him. Containment is the only policy that can work against asshole regimes (as I have argued previously). They can't keep promises, can't learn their moral lesson, can't be satisfied with what they have. Asshole regimes pose a special danger to the peace because they are motivated by a sense of moral superiority to demand what they think they deserve until they eventually push too far and the world pushes back.
This essay was previously published on 3 Quarks Daily