Nuclear: Is It Time to Take North Korea Seriously?

It seemed like the ultimate absurdity from a dictator that most Americans regard as absurd to begin with. When Kim Jong-un’s North Korea hacked Sony Pictures and threatened “9/11” style attacks if Seth Rogen’s The Interview was released, we just shook our heads. Had it really come to this? Were we really going to let this little weasel tell us that we can’t see a movie? The country rejoiced when Sony – at the last minute – decided they were going to go ahead with the release of the film.

But a new analysis of the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program shows that there may be cause to start taking the country a little more seriously. Led by David Albright and a group of U.S. experts, the inquiry into North Korea’s nuclear program shows cause for concern. As part of a project called “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures,” the study estimates that the country could possess enough material for 79 nuclear weapons by the year 2020. According to the analysis, Kim Jong-un’s government is producing enough plutonium and enriched uranium to give them equal footing with nuclear states like India and Pakistan.

Albright said in an interview with Bloomberg, “[North Korea] is on the verge of deploying a nuclear arsenal that would pose not only a threat to the United States and its allies but also to China.”

The secrecy and darkness in which North Korea operates makes it difficult to know exactly what’s going on behind the curtain. However, even accounting for best-case-scenarios, the future of the North Korean nuclear program looks grim for the rest of the world. Many U.S. officials see this as a defensive strategy on the part of the dictator, with Jong-un hoping to build an arsenal that will serve as a deterrent to South Korea, the United States, and any other country that might have designs on his power. But there’s always the chance – especially considering the NK government’s bizarre and erratic behavior – that they could strike first.

It’s important to recognize that North Korea is only able to avoid total collapse due to their relationship with Communist China. The best estimates have it that China provides the country with up to 80% of consumer goods and nearly half of its food. There is also reason to think that China provides direct aid to Kim Jong-un’s government. Naturally, this makes our own ongoing economic relationship with China a matter of some controversy. How willing is Beijing to back us if the rubber meets the road? Or, to put it another way, are they at least willing to step aside if worse comes to worst?

If Pyongyang can develop a potent and public nuclear arsenal, it could have a ripple effect. Japan may well follow suit. Iran is already on the verge, enabled by American negotiations that aim for the opposite. If Iran gets the bomb, dozens of other Islamic countries could have it by proxy. What happens then? Perhaps instead of talking about “proportional” responses and “cyber vandalism,” we need to start getting serious about the little man with a big Napoleon complex.

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