There is no contest between the two nations, which helps explain North Korea’s bluster as it attempts to develop a deterrent against U.S. attack. America’s GDP last year was almost $19 trillion, around 650 times that of the North. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s 25 million produce about as much as the residents of Anchorage, Alaska, or Portland, Maine. A weltmacht the DPRK is not.
Although North Korea devotes something like a quarter of its GDP to the military, its conventional armed forces are characterized more by quantity than quality. The DPRK probably has around 20 nukes, though they are of uncertain status and deliverability. Its practical missile capabilities are greatest at shorter ranges. Although Pyongyang is developing missiles capable of reaching America, they are not yet capable of successfully carrying warheads or targeting cities or bases.
In contrast, Washington spends upwards of 100 times as much as Pyongyang on the military. One carrier group possesses sufficient firepower to devastate the DPRK. And the U.S. sports the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Only a few of America’s 1411 warheads would be necessary to turn Kim Jong-un’s kingdom into a proverbial “lake of fire,” which Pyongyang has so often threatened to do to others.
Of course, critical to deterrence is whether Kim recognizes the actual balance of power. Some Americans worry that he may believe his government’s bombastic, splenetic, confrontational, and fantastic rhetoric. But the near hysterical language with which Pyongyang addresses the world is not new. Even without deployable nuclear weapons and capable missiles the DPRK promised to destroy its opponents. A few years ago the North circulated a video purporting to show the planned destruction of New York City. Brinkmanship long has been the chief hallmark of North Korean policy.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the North’s Supreme Leader is blind, ignorant, or suicidal, even though he is calculating, cruel, and ruthless. But so far he has played a weak hand well. He succeeded his father in December 2011 when just shy of his 28th birthday. Surrounded by experienced, tough, and older associates of his father, he out‐maneuvered them all, even executing some 140 top officials, including his uncle and supposed mentor.
Kim’s byungjin policy, essentially “parallel development” of both the economy and nuclear weapons, so far has succeeded. Far more than his father he has pursued economic reform, with positive results which I observed while visiting the capital in June. In fact, the Bank of [South] Korea reports that 2016 saw the North’s fastest growth in 17 years. (Overall the DPRK remains poor, especially the countryside, where those of dubious ideological reliability are contained.) Moreover, nuclear and missile developments proceed faster than ever. Kim clearly prefers his virgins in this world rather than the next, and thus can be deterred.
Nor is the regime’s desire for nukes and missiles evidence of insanity. (The fact that a political system is criminal does not mean that it is irrational.) The DPRK once matched South Korea but over the last half century has fallen dramatically behind: the Republic of Korea possesses about 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. The ROK is technologically advanced, integrated into the international system, beneficiary of abundant economic and diplomatic support, and, most important, backed by the globe’s super/hyperpower.In Pyongyang North Korean officials denounced Washington’s “hostile policy,” backed by “military threats” and “nuclear threats.” All of which is true, though, of course, the U.S. responded to the DPRK’s own “hostile” behavior. The U.S. intervened to defend the Republic of Korea after the 1950 North Korean invasion and would have liberated the entire peninsula had China not entered the conflict. Gen. Douglas MacArthur then advocated using nuclear weapons, a threat also employed by the incoming Eisenhower administration to “encourage” Beijing to conclude an armistice.
Once that agreement was reached, the U.S. forged a “Mutual Defense” treaty (in practice it runs only one way, of course) with the South and maintained a garrison, backed by nuclear weapons on the peninsula (since withdrawn), joint military exercises with the South, and ample reinforcements nearby. Such measures obviously threatened the North Korean regime.
Ironically, the end of the Cold War enhanced the danger facing Pyongyang. First Moscow and then Beijing opened diplomatic relations with South Korea, while the U.S. and Japan continued to isolate the DPRK, leaving the latter truly alone, without any real allies or even friends, other than fellow impoverished but brutal hellholes such as Cuba.