It has become almost traditional now in the West to regard the threats and pronouncements of communist-led North Korea as the flag-swaddled ultra nationalistic delusions of the world’s last Stalinist-style regime, complete with mandatory spontaneous celebrations, fantastical propaganda, brutal oppression and varying degrees of devotion to a tottering family dynasty that has maintained an iron grip over the northern reaches of the Korean peninsula for nearly seven decades.
Little escapes zenophobic North Korea that her erstwhile dictator, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t approve of. Consequently, we in the West are forced to glean what we can from limited propaganda releases and nearly constant sabre rattling as to what conditions are actually like beyond the unbreachable edifice of totalitarianism that rings the country like razor wire.
But there are some things the Asian nation can’t hide, even if they wanted to — including the testing of nuclear weapons. The announcement earlier this month from Pyongyang that North Korea had tested a hydrogen bomb caused fear and disbelief in neighbouring nations throughout the Orient, and was met with outright hostility by some of North Korea’s most immediate foes, such as South Korea and Japan, as well as the United States. Even North Korea’s most powerful regional ally, communist China, rebuked Pyongyang for its actions.
Speculation by arms experts has since questioned the veracity of North Korea’s claims, as the Jan. 6 detonation appeared to be of similar size to smaller, conventional atomic devices previously detonated by Pyongyang. Other critics, however, have shown less skepticism of Kim Jong Un’s claims, suggesting the communist nation could possess the technique, fissile material and know-how to have created a thermonuclear weapon.
While predictable verbal tongue-lashings from the international community were swift on the heels of the announcement, actual physical sabre-rattling has been limited, although in response on Sunday the United States deployed a B-52 bomber with an escort of American and South Korean fighter jets for a low-level flight in the vicinity of Osan Air Base.
If the North Koreans are actually being truthful about testing a thermonuclear weapon, it will represent a staggering security challenge for the surrounding region, and the larger international community.
The destructive capability of a hydrogen bomb is exponential by comparison with more primitive atomic weapons, which are often large, cumbersome, and extremely difficult to deliver precisely and accurately — not to mention virtually obsolete in any tactical sense considering the level of military technology that prevails around the world today. Hydrogen bombs, on the other hand, can be immensely more powerful, significantly more compact than their atomic predecessors, and ideal for a wide range of cutting-edge delivery systems.
Putting those delivery systems in front of a highly-oppressive regime helmed by an individual steeped in the utopian propaganda-infused mythos of his family, nation and ideology as the one true light in a world of darkness should probably be a stern warning to many of us that the threats of the North Koreans can no longer be ignored.
A case in point is Pyongyang’s emphasis on the development of a long-range missile delivery system, with missile tests having always preceded North Korea’s four nuclear tests — which could put any number of regional military and civilian targets, including in Japan, South Korea, Russia, Mongolia, or even China within reach of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear whims.
With each passing year, the dangers of nuclear proliferation are mounting as more nations attempt to join the exclusive club. During the Cold War, fear of a nuclear exchange between superpowers was an ever-present threat that had many North Americans building fallout shelters in their backyards.
Today, the nuclear threat presented by nations like North Korea, ongoing tensions between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, Arab pretensions against suspected nuclear power Israel, or Iran’s nuclear program, are just four potential global hotspots.
It is tempting for us in the West to view North Korea as a derisive third-rate power attempting to punch far higher than their weight category, mired in internal isolationism, its economy in tatters, its people bordering on starvation, and the regime never more than a few steps away from total collapse.
While all of those factors are probably true to varying degrees, history teaches us that we underestimate our enemies — no matter how downtrodden and defeated — at our own peril.
To actively dismiss a thermonuclear-armed North Korea would be a profound mistake if we wish to continue to preserve a degree of peace in that region in future.