It sounds almost apocalyptically dangerous: a hermit kingdom with nuclear capabilities threatening a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” and an “all-out offensive” against the United States and its allies. Yet the situation on the Korean Peninsula is far from unusual. It reoccurs annually, if not more often.
Every year, several thousand US soldiers, sailors, marines and pilots participate in Operation Key Resolve, a joint training operation between the United States and South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or RoK). This operation is designed to strengthen the defensive capabilities of South Korean troops as well as prepare them and US military to work together if ever the need arose. Though it would be dishonest to claim that Key Resolve is not in any way a show of force, neither is it preparation — as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) claims — for invasion.
But the threat of invasion is not the only provocation that would make North Korea threaten to deploy its nuclear weapons against the RoK. Last year, the Korean Central News Agency (the DPRK’s main propaganda organ) released a statement that the South would be turned into a “sea of fire.” This threat was not over a perceived risk of invasion but was a response to activists who had used balloons to distribute leaflets ridiculing the Kim dynasty — Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un — the rulers of North Korea since its founding in 1948.
Despite claims to the contrary, the threat of nuclear attack from North Korea is nonexistent. Though the DPRK does have a small stock of warheads, it is doubtful they have been miniaturized enough to be fitted to ballistic missiles (which are probably not themselves effective). That leaves the DPRK only a fleet of early-Cold-War-era airplanes to carry them, many of which may not even be in working condition, and all of which are far inferior to their RoK or US counterparts.
The most important reason for dismissing the threat of an attack is not military but psychological. Despite their nuclear brinksmanship, the leaders of North Korea are rational. Kim Il-Sung, for all his calls for an invasion of South Korea, was cowed by the military might of the US and never attempted to invade because he understood it would destroy his own riches and prestige. Kim Jong-Il (Il-Sung’s son) too never followed through on any of his rhetoric, knowing that even with the advantage of being a nuclear power, any aggression would result in his own defeat. It can reasonably be hoped that Kim Jong-Un (Jong-Il’s son), with many of the same advisers as his father, will follow suit. Even the best saber rattling from North Korea fails to influence or intimidate foreign powers. It is crass propaganda designed to cajole North Koreans to rally around the flag and to reinforce the image of the Workers’ Party of Korea with Kim Jong-Un at the helm.
With this in mind, what future is there for North Korea? Most of its population is starving and it is already a failed state. The regime’s hold on politics and the economy does not appear to be loosening, so liberalization or reform (à la China, the DPRK’s northern neighbor and main supporter) appears to be impossible. The most realistic fate for the DPRK is perhaps that it implodes under its own weight. But such a collapse would allow the DPRK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons as well as millions of other systems to make their way to the black market.
Perhaps, then, the best that can be hoped for is for North Korea to continue on its current path of bumbling aggression, alienating its foes and depending more and more upon decreasing aid from its few remaining allies. Such a scenario would be one of a slow fall but not a catastrophic one. Regardless, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not and will never be a threat to its neighbors.