How a crazy, nuke-obsessed Kim Jong-un might actually be good for America

Summary:Is Kim Jong-un the Doctor Evil of the modern age? Are we really, seriously, back in the game of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads?

There is no tangible evidence that North Korea's young Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, is actually crazy. In fact, there's very little tangible evidence at all about North Korea's new First Secretary of the Workers' Party slash First Chairman of the National Defence Commission slash Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army slash Chairman of the Central Military Commission slash Marshall of the Republic slash husband slash father.

We don't even know for sure if Kim-the-younger is 28, 29, or 30. We know even less about Jong-un's wife, Ri Sol-ju, except that the marriage was apparently a hastily arranged affair set up by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il from his death bed.

What we do know is that a young man roughly between the ages of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears — with absolute control over the fourth largest army in the world and the world's largest submarine fleet — has declared his intention to nuke the United States.

He certainly wouldn't be the first young Generation Y male with an anger management problem, but he is the only one with a real chance of becoming a nuclear power.

It's easy to dismiss the North Korean leaders, whether Jong-il or Jong-un, as Looney Tunes

After all, we've all heard of Kim Jong-il's penchant for American movies and his Elvis obsession. But Kim Jong-il managed a huge military build-up for Korea, and while Jong-un did have the advantage of being Jong-il's hand-picked successor, he did manage to hang onto and consolidate his power, all before the age of 30.

The North Korean story is actually quite amazing. If you want further background, I recommend you read the briefing I wrote for Counterterrorism Magazine last year, Spotlight: North Korea.

For a feet-on-the-ground look at what North Korea is like today, I strongly recommend you read Sophie Schmidt's fascinating account of the trip she took to North Korea last year with her father, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and former Ambassador Bill Richardson.

So where does all this leave us? Is Kim Jong-un the Doctor Evil of the modern age? Are we really, seriously, back in the game of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads?

The fact is, North Korea is a viable threat on at least three separate levels

First, the nation is actively involved in cyberwarfare and cybercrime. As I've been saying for years, and which the US government is now beginning to articulate as well, cybercrime and cyberwar are huge national security threats.

North Korea is problematic here because not only is it using cyberattacks for political reasons, it's also decided that systematized cybercrime can be a good source of Western currency. For a nation essentially off-the-grid financially, cybercrime is the goose that keeps on laying the golden egg.

North Korea is also a viable threat because if its sizable conventional military. The Kims have never fully accepted the bifurcation of Korea into North and South, and have long made grumbling noises of crossing the 38th parallel.

South Korea is the world's 15th largest economy, with a GDP something north of a trillion dollars. By contrast, North Korea has a GDP somewhere in the range of $12-28 billion, which puts its total economy somewhere in the range between companies Sara Lee and Staples. South Korea's Samsung alone brings in fifteen times the annual cash of all of North Korea.

Were the North to attack the South, it would cause economic devastation to South Korea and ripple-effects across the globe. And of course, the US would be pulled into the battle, since our taxpayers have long paid for South Korea's defense, even as South Korea's industry has ungratefully done its best to compete against our own companies.

This leads us to the nuclear question: can North Korea build a nuke? Unfortunately, the answer to that is a definite "probably". Too many nuclear experts and too much nuclear material has been on the world's underground markets since the demise of the Soviet Union, and it's entirely likely that North Korea has been in the market for years.

Whether, of course, they can put the whole thing together, then build a long-range, ocean-crossing delivery vehicle, and then be suicidal enough to completely ignore the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to try to nuke an American city, is a much bigger question.

Most leaders in most nations are both too sane and too well aware of their reliance on a world economy to flip the nuclear switch. That's why we've been pretty much mutant zombie and giant lizard-free since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But Kim Jong-un is not most leaders. His nation is almost completely disconnected from the outside world. His entire nation could on the far side of the moon for all of his country's interaction with the world's economy.

Keep reading. This is where this starts to get good...

Topics: Security, Government

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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