Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Freak-Out Over North Korea’s Missile Test Defies Rationality

You don't have to stop worrying and love the bomb—just don't fall prey to fear-mongering and double standards.
NoKo propaganda

Just last week, someone tested a long-range, intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, with enough firepower to kills millions of people.

Except it wasn’t North Korea—it was the United States.

The test, a 4,200-mile flight designed “to ensure a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent” is a routine event, something nations such as Russia and China conduct on a regular basis. Oftentimes they go largely uncommented on, with no news coverage of them to speak of.

But that’s simply not the case with North Korea. Clearly, the world sees Pyongyang’s missile tests, including the one conducted late last week, which broke an over 500-day pause of missile testing of any kind, as something very different and very troubling.

Pyongyang, according to UN Security Council resolutions, is not supposed to test any missiles, ever. In fact, such missile launches are a big part of the reason America and its allies have enacted what has been called a policy of “maximum pressure,” a sanctions regime that seeks to deny Pyongyang almost any possible economic interaction with the outside world, regardless of the consequences.

“North Korea’s missile launches in 2017 nearly started a war,” explained a former White House staffer who spoke on background. “Trump was angered he could not keep his promise to the American people, that he could stop North Korea from demonstrating how close it was to building missiles that can hit the U.S. homeland. Those missile tests drove tensions through the roof.”

But then why the double standard? Why are we so afraid of North Korea’s missiles, or even nuclear weapons for that matter, if so many other countries have such similar and, in the case of Russia and China, even deadlier weapons? History, in fact, tells us that if North Korea ever decided to use nuclear weapons, the United States would wipe the Kim regime off the face of the Earth with a massive strike from a single 1980s-era U.S. ballistic missile submarine.

The problem, at least as I see, is this: for whatever reason, we lose all rationality when it comes to evaluating the threat from Pyongyang. Are North Korea’s military capabilities getting better? Sure. Is that abnormal, considering that almost all technology, especially military technology, gets passed along thanks to the nature of international markets, spying, and the ability to steal just about anything using cyber-hacking? No.

Our fear is simple to understand. For decades, we have grown so anxious over the North Korea challenge that we’re no longer able to look upon it rationally. We see a regime that is truly evil, that keeps large numbers of its own people in what can only be described as prison camps, and wonder what Kim Jong-un will prove capable of doing to us.

That’s fair, but it’s not rational. I should know: I used to make that argument.

There is, however, a more logical way to view these missile tests. While I would never advocate ignoring the North’s growing missile capabilities, at the same time, we need to put them into their proper context. Even Kim’s most advanced ICBMs are technology that America mastered in the 1950s. It stands to reason that if Kim is willing to starve his own people, deprive his economy of any growth, and pour billions of dollars into missile tech, he will, at some point, develop weapons America and its allies mastered decades ago. And short of an invasion or a diplomatic agreement, under the present circumstances, there is very little we can do to stop him.

Our response needs to be tailored to the threat we face, not based on overhyped media coverage and what has now become fear-mongering.

If, in fact, it is in America’s national interest to ensure that North Korea does not have missiles or nuclear weapons, then we have a golden opportunity to test Kim’s intentions and potentially solve this challenge through diplomatic means. It was reported right before the second recent U.S.-North Korea summit that a deal was close to being reached to end the Korean War, open liaison offices in both nations’ capitals, step up excavation work on Korean War battlefields, and trade the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility for some sanctions relief. That is a deal that I would argue America should reconsider, as only a step-by-step process of disarming Pyongyang, where each side gets a benefit for making a concession, will work.

Taking a hardline approach—what many call the “big deal”—or only granting sanctions relief after full denuclearization and the end of Kim’s missile programs is completely impractical and something North Korea would never agree to. Nuclear armed nations don’t accept surrender as negotiation. Would we?

America, it seems, will be faced with some tough choices when it comes to North Korea. Thankfully, history tells us that a slow and steady approach to the Kim regime, trading concessions in a simultaneous and transactional manner, might just work. If not, more missiles will fly. Let’s just hope no one freaks out, as they will only get bigger, more powerful, and more capable with each passing day.

Harry J. Kazianis is the director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here