North Korea’s Nukes and the Ferocious Kim Jong-un

January 30th, 2013

By Dan Miller

Will the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) test another atomic bomb soon and will the test “target” the United States? It seems likely, but how might it be done?


The world has been awaiting another North Korean nuclear test since its failed missile launch of April 12, 2012. It was then thought that she was ready for one. That seems not to have been accomplished yet, but another missile launch, also anticipated, took place on December 12, 2012 when North Korea successfully launched a three stage rocket to put a “satellite” into orbit. That launch was frowned upon and North Korea expressed displeasure at their condemnation.

Last week, after the United Nations condemned North Korea’s most successful rocket launch to date, Pyongyang threatened a “higher level” test of a nuclear warhead “targeted at the U.S.”  This threat to the American homeland is more than bluster and poses a stark challenge for the Obama administration.

As indicated below, I doubt that it poses a “stark” challenge of the nature sometimes suggested.

According to an article at the New York Times,

The North stated clearly, rather than implying, that its nuclear program would now be aimed at the United States — something suggested in the past, for instance, by propaganda posters showing a missile striking what looks like Capitol Hill. …

“We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the D.P.R.K. one after another and a nuclear test of higher level will target against the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people,” the statement said, using the abbreviation for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A large underground explosion in North Korea could likely be detected, but not necessarily whether it involved a nuclear device or other explosives. Whether a nuclear or non-nuclear device, it is difficult to understand how such a test alone would “target” the United States.


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed concerns Tuesday about the series of actions the North Korean regime led by new leader Kim Jong Un has taken. (Emphasis added.)

I disagree that Young Kim leads the direction in which North Korea travels and contended even prior to the death of Kim Jong-il, his father, that a regency would be needed to “guide” his steps. Kim Jong-un is only twenty-eight or so. He is simply too young, too unworldly, too untrained, and by himself too weak, to govern a nation — particularly one such as North Korea, where age is revered and poverty worse than we can imagine based on our own experiences is endemic. For those reasons, and because continuation of the Kim Dynasty was and remains necessary to prevent unfortunate events — among them the death or worse of those in Kim Jong-il’s inner circle — a regency was and remains necessary. There have been changes in the Kim Jong-un regency as central leaders have gained power and those at the periphery have lost it or been ousted. But there is still a regency and Kim Jong-un still seems to dance in step with the music it plays and directs.

Continuing with Secretary Clinton’s remarks,

“Let me express my regret, because I think with a new young leader we all expected something different. We expected him to focus on improving the lives of the North Korean people, not just the elite, but everyone to have more education, more openness, more opportunity,” she said in a town hall-style meeting in Washington. “And instead, he has engaged in very provocative rhetoric and behavior. (Emphasis added)


Photo from American in North Korea.
Now how are those cute little girls acting provocatively?

If those were indeed Secretary Clinton’s expectations (as distinguished from throw-away remarks intended merely for public consumption), she was dead wrong. The North Korean leaders have remained steadfast in their pursuits.

In April of 2012,

the [North Korean] government [had] modified its constitution to define itself officially as a “nuclear armed nation”. Under its youthful 29-year-old new leader, Kim Jong-un, the government has trumpeted its technical achievements, both missile launches and the nuclear weapons programme, as proof of the strength of the North Korean state and, by extension, the new leader.

Kim Jong-il had died, and Kim Jong-un had become North Korea’s titular ruler, on December 17th of the previous year.

Foolish though Secretary Clinton’s stated expectations may well have been, to cite her in a different context what difference does it make now?

How about in the context of other nascent nuclear powers such as Iran? As observed here,

While the specter of a North Korea able to send nuclear-tipped missiles is worrisome, equally troublesome to the international community is Pyongyang’s atomic technology fueling the black market for weapons.

“If its clandestine uranium-enrichment program has made strides, Pyongyang could demonstrate that it will gain access to a far larger pool of fissile material than simply its limited supply of weapons-grade plutonium,” wrote Patrick M. Cronin, an Asian expert at the Center for New American Security, in a CNN op-ed. “A larger pool of fissile material is a dual threat: As a vital part of an expanded nuclear weapon program and as a commodity to be sold on the black market.”

Iran is at least a nascent nuclear power and has already partnered with North Korea. There has been speculation in the press about a recent attack on (or accident at) an Iranian nuclear facility at Fordow. Denied by Iran and unconfirmed by the United States Government, the reports are said to have been confirmed by “independent intelligence sources” for the Times of London and the German Die Welt. If the reports are correct, this also seems likely to have happened:

Sixteen North Koreans, including 14 technicians and two top military officers, are among those trapped after a Jan. 21 explosion destroyed much of Iran’s Fordow nuclear site, a source reveals.

According to reports, some two hundred people, including the sixteen North Koreans, were (and apparently remain) trapped in the underground site.

That is consistent with a cooperation agreement signed by Iran and North Korea last September.

The two countries will cooperate in research, student exchanges and joint laboratories, and in the fields of information technology, engineering, biotechnology, renewable energy, the environment, sustainable development of agriculture and food technology, the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) reported. …

North Korea has had close ties with Iran. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2010 showed that U.S. officials believe Iran has acquired ballistic missile parts from North Korea.

In August of last year, delegations from North Korea and numerous other countries attended the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Tehran. Based on early (and apparently erroneous) speculation that Kim Jong-un might attend, I attempted a bit of sarcasm:

It has been reported that the dapper young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, will be among the heads of state in attendance.  As a visiting head of state, he should take a gift: a few kilograms of highly enriched Uranium should serve quite well and North Korea probably has some to spare. Perhaps his grateful Iranian friends might scrape together a few kilograms of rice to put in his begging bowl as he leaves.

What does it all mean?

Adding two and two together and getting a result of somewhere between three and five, all of this suggests that North Korea might very unwisely — but if successful with near apocalyptic consequences — attempt an attack on the United States with a nuclear based  Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) device. According to this article from December of 2012,

North Korea has already successfully tested and developed nuclear weapons. It has also already miniaturized nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery and has armed missiles with nuclear warheads. In 2011, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. General Ronald Burgess, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea has weaponized its nuclear devices into warheads for ballistic missiles.

North Korea has labored for years and starved its people so it could develop an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the United States. Why? Because they have a special kind of nuclear weapon that could destroy the United States with a single blow.

In summer 2004, a delegation of Russian generals warned the Congressional Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Commission that secrets had leaked to North Korea for a decisive new nuclear weapon — a Super-EMP warhead.

Any nuclear weapon detonated above an altitude of 30 kilometers will generate an electromagnetic pulse that will destroy electronics and could collapse the electric power grid and other critical infrastructures — communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water — that sustain modern civilization and the lives of 300 million Americans. All could be destroyed by a single nuclear weapon making an EMP attack.

However, it seems very unlikely that North Korea would do that. The United States still has nuclear capabilities far exceeding North Korea’s and presumably some of her resources are located outside the continental United States or otherwise shielded (along with delivery devices) from an EMP attack there. Would the United States unleash a “proportional” response on North Korea? I don’t know and neither do the leaders of North Korea.

It seems far more likely that North Korea might successfully “attack” the United States by accelerating Iranian nuclear weapons development (along with her own), as she is already doing. There is hardly any likelihood that the United States would retaliate against North Korea for doing so beyond, perhaps, seeking another harshly worded resolution at the United Nations and trying to have more sanctions imposed for China to continue to ignore.

Ten thousand rolls of tobacco, 12 bottles of Sake, and a handful of second-hand Mercedes-Benz cars are among the latest reported breaches by North Korea of a U.N. ban on luxury goods sales to the reclusive state, according to a confidential draft U.N. report.

Japan told a U.N. panel of experts that Pyongyang also imported thousands of computers and thousands of dollars worth of cosmetics and that almost all the goods were shipped through China, it was reported in the draft seen by Reuters on Thursday.

Merely blocking food and other aid for the starving peasants of North Korea has done little if any good in the past beyond keeping such stuff out of the hands of the North Korean military, and there is no apparent reason to expect different results now or in the foreseeable future.

Why not conduct Iranian nuclear tests in North Korea, with Iranians there to watch, help and (along with North Korea) benefit from the results? Nothing unpleasant for either North Korea or Iran would likely result and Iran could thereby move further toward establishing a Mideast-wide (and eventually more extensive) Caliphate controlled in Tehran.

Ferocious, Weak and Crazy — a winning strategy?

An article posted at Stratfor on January 29th is entitled Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy. The author opines that the strategy works and he is probably right.

North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface, threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don’t succeed in actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something solid to threaten enemies with.

North Korea, of course, has been doing this for years and doing it successfully, so what appears absurd on the surface quite obviously isn’t. On the contrary, it has proved to be a very effective maneuver. North Korea is estimated to have a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, about the same as Latvia or Turkmenistan. Yet it has maneuvered itself into a situation where the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have sat down with it at the negotiating table in a bid to persuade it not to build weapons. Sometimes, the great powers give North Korea money and food to persuade it not to develop weapons. It sometimes agrees to a halt, but then resumes its nuclear activities. It never completes a weapon, but it frequently threatens to test one. And when it carries out such tests, it claims its tests are directed at the United States and South Korea, as if the test itself were a threat.

The entire article is well worth reading. Among other points, it relates the strategy to China’s increasingly aggressive attitude toward Japan over disputed islands. It notes,

The Chinese and the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige. This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device, the North isn’t interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be drawing on the test’s proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese — terribly afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next — will be grateful to China for defusing the “crisis.” And who could be so churlish as to raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force North Korea to step down?

The Stratfor article suggests that Iran has itself been emulating North Korea’s Ferocious, Weak and Crazy strategy.

It has convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear — Iran just doesn’t have the famines North Korea has.

Additionally, Iran’s rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy: Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have proved false.


North Korea is an enigma hiding in a black hole. Ample light enters but none escapes sufficient to illuminate its intentions. In consequence, the North Korean leadership has ample but unreciprocated access to what’s happening in the “free world.” Hence, the best that I can do is to make some guesses. Based on the above, here they are:

  • North Korea will soon attempt another nuclear test.
  • It will involve an underground explosion.
  • Radiation will be detected.
  • Iran will participate, probably to the degree that it will be at least as much an Iranian as a North Korean test.
  • The United Nations will issue another harshly worded resolution about North Korea, in which China will probably join, and additional but equally ineffective sanctions will again be imposed on North Korea.
  • The United States will continue to negotiate with Iran and eventually acquiesce in up to twenty percent Uranium enrichment. Iran will “reluctantly” agree, claiming to do so because her people (particularly the little children) must no longer suffer from unjust sanctions.
  • Regardless of whether Iran abides by or violates the agreement, enrichment beyond that point will continue to be carried out for Iran in North Korea.

I have no way of knowing whether either Secretary Clinton, or her successor Senator Kerry, will be disturbed should these things happen; they should be.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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