Kim Jong-un’s North Korea now has missiles capable of reaching North America. How worried should we be? A lot.
Kim has since 2011 been the third member of the family dynasty to sit on the throne in Pyongyang, following his father and grandfather.
Maybe Donald Trump can mock him as “Little Rocket Man,” but Kim is no joke. In fact he had a very good 2017.
North Korea is now on the verge of being able to carry out a nuclear strike against the United States and this has led to Trump and Kim trading threats with words like “fire and fury.”
Kim can now boast of a missile, the Hwasong-15, that can fly some 13,000 kilometres, and a hydrogen bomb 17 times the size of the one the United States dropped on Hiroshima.
“The U.S. should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my table,” Kim said in his New Year’s message Jan. 1. “The entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear strike range.”
While it remains among the poorest countries in the world, North Korea spends nearly a quarter of its GDP on its military, according to U.S. State Department estimates.
North Korea’s guiding philosophical principles are juche (self-reliance) and songun (military-first politics). The military plays a central role in political affairs and its position has been steadily elevated.
Estimates of the country’s nuclear stockpile vary: U.S. intelligence believes the number to be between 30 and 60 bombs.
North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and its missile tests have prompted the UN Security Council to adopt resolutions condemning North Korea’s actions and imposing sanctions against the country.
These have been steadily ratcheted up in the hopes of changing Pyongyang’s behavior.
They ban the sale of materials and technology that would bolster North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, financial assistance to these programs, and arms sales; they also impose restrictions on select luxury goods and other foreign trade, and force the inspections of cargo bound for North Korea.
The latest UN sanctions, adopted in late December, required all countries to expel North Korean workers within two years. As many as 147,000 North Koreans continue to work abroad, some as far afield as Poland.
They also imposed a sharp cut in oil shipments to the nation. Pyongyang called them “an act of war.”
Trump accused China of allowing fuel to be smuggled into North Korea, amid reports of secret ship-to-ship transfers in international waters by Chinese and Russian vessels. South Korea recently seized an oil tanker accused of transferring 600 tons of refined oil to a North Korean ship.
Kim will not be deterred, because he took to heart the lessons of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. In both cases, those counties were attacked and their leaders removed after they gave up their nuclear programs.
So Kim has emphasised that the country’s nuclear forces are central to its self-defence capability: “We will defend peace and security of our state at all costs and by our own efforts, and make a positive contribution to safeguarding global peace and stability,” he announced at the start of 2017.
“Kim Jong-un believes that nuclear weapons are his guarantee of regime survival,” contends Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank.
As a nuclear power, North Korea might also reduce its costly and enormous conventional military forces, and channel scarce funds towards raising the standard of living for ordinary North Koreans.
Right now the country ranks fourth among the world’s militaries with more than 1.1 million personnel in the country’s armed forces, almost a fifth of its population. Pyongyang’s conventional capabilities remain a constant threat to its southern neighbour.
“Kim has now consolidated power internally, is 90 to 95 per cent done with the nuclear program and there are no signs of serious dissent within the regime,” according to Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow for the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.