Their claims may not hold true, but Pyongyang is more defiant than ever
“Our rockets can reach anywhere in the world,” boasted the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Whether true or not, North Korea – a name preferred almost universally to the chagrin of the ruling class of Pyongyang – certainly gave all a reason to worry. In particular, the United States. (Hint: the latest Kim-in-power had chosen America’s independence day to showcase his latest weapon of mass destruction.) Still, the rest of the world yesterday joined the US in being a little more troubled.
This much we know: the munition, claimed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, flew up 2,800 kilometres and then splashed down at a distance of 933 kilometres in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan. According to the boffins at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “that same missile could reach a maximum range of roughly 6,700 km on a standard trajectory.” Far enough to allow it to reach Alaska. And far enough to worry everyone inside that radius.
North Korea is banned from developing or testing ballistic missiles under United Nations Security Council resolutions. But restrictions compelled by international law don’t mean much to rogues. Indeed, the nuclear ambitions of such powers are now only deterred by big-state real politik. And then, only just. Donald Trump is right to think that China should have the greatest leverage over North Korea – he has encouraged (one might even say implored) Beijing to pressure its neighbour to “end this nonsense”. However, if it could, one imagines that it would have done so already. The calculation in China must be that nuclear threats are not good for trade and financial markets – increasingly seen as new virtues by the Chinese communist party.
And it is that inability to influence good behaviour that informs our current state of worry. The 50 years of the Cold War were full of crises; and among the nuclear variety, the Cuban and Europe missile crises of the 1960s and 1970s. But what differentiates then and now is the absence today of clear nuclear doctrines. Even while the US and Soviet Union pursued their ballistic-missile and nuclear-warhead race, they had guidelines over when and how they would use their arsenal (which of course never happened), and also sufficiently adhered to numerous treaties to keep twitchy fingers away from the red button.
Today, by contrast, what do we have? In our own region alone, there’s the unpredictability of Iran on the one hand, and Israel, which won’t even admit it has the bomb. And while we’re on the subject of unpredictability, let us note Iran’s recent firing of missiles at ISIL strongholds in eastern Syria. The broader world may not have taken notice, but the implications are serious. Not even during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war did Tehran resort to such an audacious act. Then, marry Iranian unpredictability to audaciousness and it is clearly difficult to be sanguine about the nuclear deal handed to the country two years ago.
The development of nuclear weapons was a turning point in human history. For the first time, it became possible to destroy the entire world. The aspiration for a bomb, particularly by powers whose interests do not converge with that of the broad world, needs to be contained in the most prudent way. Today we worry about North Korea. Then again, we always worry about Iran.