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

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?

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TOPICS: Security, Government
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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

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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32 comments
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  • You need to revisit history

    The USA has a long and storied love affair with the old Soviet Union among American leftists going all the way back to Woodrow Wilson.
    baggins_z
    • baggins_z - I missed your point

      As I see it, for many years, the global threat posed by USSR provided essential justification for most of USA's international relations and defense policies & budgets. That threat went away, and the only unifying political "motive" since then has been a vague war on terror.
      SlimSam
    • If I remember rightly

      Woodrow Wilson launched the first official covert operation in U.S. history in an attempt to aid White forces in the Russian Civil War. And at the same time, his attorney general initiated the U.S.' first official persecution of domestic Communists, which would continue under the next two presidents.

      There were definitely Americans who were enamored with Bolshevism, but Woodrow Wilson wasn't one of them.
      John L. Ries
    • I suppose Baggy knows what he really means,

      and his comment is pretty OK, except it really has no bearing on this article - apples and oranges kind of things.

      Perhaps a little more IQ would help.
      tom@...
  • Kim saw what happened to Irak

    and doesn't want a foreign power to invade his country on an imaginary pretext. Actually, you would probably do the same if you were responsible of a country.

    In addition, the lessons learnt from the Irak episode show that it is OK to invade a country when you are stronger. So it's pretty convenient that the South border is much richer but weaker. All Kim has to do is to find some aluminum tubes somewhere in South Korea. This will give him legitimate international pretext to start pre-emptive strikes and then conquer the South.
    RelaxWalk
    • Richer but weaker?

      You're forgetting one thing - South Korea doesn't have to be stronger since all of South Korea's friends are vastly more powerful then North Korea.

      And the whole "Iraq" thing you bring up? Nonsense. He knows foreign powers don't care to invade his country on any pretext. What would they get out of it? a nation full of antiquated electronics and starving people.

      Conquer the South? LOL! That was funny.
      William Farrel
      • Correction

        The only people with any sort of interest in conquering North Korea are South Koreans (for nationalistic reasons) and even they're not terribly anxious about it as they'd have to clean up the mess in the North afterwards (which is guaranteed to be expensive).

        North Korea really doesn't have much to offer the rest of the world in its current state, which is why its leaders have to resort to rattling sabers, extortion, and the occasional kidnapping to stay relevant.
        John L. Ries
      • He knows?

        Really? Then why does he call the annual joint US-South Korea drills "preparation for invasion'?
        LanguageDude
    • Try ...

      ... spelling the country's name correctly and we might pay a little more attention to what you write.
      bitcrazed
  • Circuitous?

    "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."
    One of my favourite films is 'The Dead Zone'.
    So there is one part of American interventionism with which I have sympathy.
    Note: 'one part'.


    "And, of course, the U.S. 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."
    I see, Americans wish to preserve open competition and Capitalism - provided they take all the capital.
    **** ***
    There are 3 f's required to replace the appropriate asterisks.

    "Most leaders, in most nations, are both too sane and too well aware ..."
    Debateable at best c.f. Bush, Blair, ... but the point is we must never forget to watch the occasional potentially insane leader like a hawk.

    "Keep reading. This is where this starts to get good..."
    Hope so, the first part was **** ...

    "Look, I — like most sane people — would much prefer a world where the leader of North Korea was much more concerned about his Klout rating and Facebook fan page ..."
    I'd much prefer - like most civilised people - if leaders were more concerned about the welfare of their country.
    Et tu brute?

    "Seriously? This is how we run the greatest nation on Earth?"
    Like many Americans Gewirtz does not understand the key difference between the words 'large' and 'great'.
    Agreed: the American Government is not to be taken 'seriously'.

    "Let's just hope the Chinese can talk some sense into Kim Jong-un. After all, given how much we owe them, these days the Chinese have more of a vested interest in America's continued well-being (and ability to make regular installment payments) than even our own politicians."
    There are clearly discernable traces in the decay of a power base.

    Was all Gewirtz wanted to say "Let's all keep an eye on this potential madman?".
    jacksonjohn
    • Let's all keep an eye on this potential madman?

      That works, too.
      David Gewirtz
      • While we are about it ...

        ... let us civilised folk keep the other eye on self-serving, Interventionalist Capitalism too?

        Balance. I like the word. Ying and yang. Very oriental. Top-notch philosophy for centuries.
        jacksonjohn
  • The RAND thinktank question of the day.

    What if N. Korea sends an nuclear tipped ICBM our way?

    I suspect the US Military has the capability to knock a single bird out of the sky so what happens after that. Or, in case the missile does hit it's target, well, it's only one city anyway. Oh please let that city be Louisville. That would eliminate the number one seed from our March Madness bracket and allow my team an easier path to the Final Four this year. I hear N. Korea's Kim is a big basketball fan. Who knows, could happen. But I digress.

    Do we bomb N. Korea back into the stone age. (some might suggest N. Korea is already in the stone age.)

    Do we let our GREAT DEAR ALLY, China, invade from the North and take over N. Korea. (Good thing General MacArthur's plan to nuke the Yangtze River didn't happen back in the Fifties.) Or do we let S. Korea - with our help - try to unify the Korean peninsula? (We tried that once before. China didn't like that idea back in the Fifties either.)

    Is "Regime Change" via a Drone even a viable option? I mean, say a drone strike achieves it's purpose. Then what? The only real power base in N. Korea is it's military. One would only replace a crazy dictator with a career military general with a grudge on his shoulders.

    There are no easy answers.
    kenosha77a
  • How a crazy, nuke-obsessed Kim Jong-un might actually be good for America

    Just think of all the movies this will bring. Just like the cold war brought us Red Dawn, hollywood can now shift its focus to North Korea.
    Loverock-Davidson
    • RE: "hollywood can now shift its focus to North Korea"

      With a remake of the movie, "Dumb and Dumber", starring Kim Jong-un and Loverock-Davidson.

      Since baggins_z will only agree to a cameo appearance in the film, the title, "Dumb,Dumber and Dumbest" won't really work. Didn't President Eisenhower, formerly the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, essentially give us the situation we have on the Korean peninsula today? Of course, this was long before Republicans (in the modern sense) [mostly] became nutcases.

      P.S. Nice swipe at American leftists, baggins_z. You didn't disappoint. Mr. Davidson, you never disappoint.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • RE: North Korea

    He is opening his country up to annihilation. If not Obama some other President might say lets get him before he tries to take out a city.

    Good for the US?. Why assume because the US come together in face of a threats before it will now? If this happens or another big terrorist attack my prediction is we won't come together next time. Does not matter if the "tea party" or the "progressives" are out of power when the next big thing occurs half of them will believe it was a false flag the other half will find a reason to disagree with the reaction to the threat because we live in a time where people believe the other side can not do one thing right.
    edkollin
    • It's always been that both sides think the other can do no right.

      I think David and edkollin need to re-check their history books (or find better ones). Americans have been bitterly divided over war all the way back to the Revolution. I'm not holding my breath in hopes that North Korean nuclear and cyber-shenanigans are going to draw our politicians together.

      Only in the immediate aftermath of an attack is there a brief time of hanging together ("or assuredly we shall all hang separately"), because to do otherwise would seem suicidal, let alone unpatriotic. In every case, long before things came to a head, and not long after, political factions have squabbled over whether we should go to war, and once at war, how the war was being waged, why the war was being waged, and how / when the war should be concluded. It was as true now as it was in the Civil War, WWI & II, Korea, and Vietnam. (If you thought may have been consensus during the War of 1812, read about the end of the Federalist Party.)

      Politics is, relatively speaking, a zero-sum game, and you win votes by convincing people you are right and the other guy is wrong. In order to do so, you need to provide contrast. Contrast == argument.

      The American people, can be asked to pull together, more solidly, for longer, than their politicians. Even still, disagreement will exist, but many will put it aside for a perceived greater good. (Buy War Bonds!) The longer a conflict persists and the less clear the success in winning of objectives, the weaker the draw of a greater good and the louder disagreeing voices become. (See: now; Vietnam) While there has never been sustained consensus, the Cold War is an interesting study in that both major political parties may have argued loudly, their actions were largely aligned. Annihilation appears to be a great motivator.

      If the American people are arguing, you can only imagine that their politicians will be doing so with an order of magnitude more fevered pitch. Until more people perceive North Korea as a credible threat and less as the Team America caricature--or see more stories of real life terror and poverty and less demented basketball players lauding Kim Jong Un as a "just a great guy" who doesn't want war--you are not going to see much consensus on North Korea.
      JJMach
      • RE: Know my history

        That is why I wrote "Why assume because the US come together in face of a threats before it will now?" Should have wrote "came" instead of of course.

        2013 is not 1777, 1863, or 1970. We have a media that gets ratings by dividing people, we have this medium in which anonymity lets people say things they would not normally do etc.

        Most of the time in US history people believed the other side might have been fascists, communists whatever but might have agreed the other side had one or two good ideas. Certainly it has not been a regular part of American history when Side A proposed a version of Side B's ideas Side A to completely disowned it. And it has not always been a zero sum game politicians kept their enemies close to the vest.

        We see the results of "no compromise" in everyday life. Tech is in some ways an exception, our economy has chronic problems, the quality of our products and our lives has gone down down, down in ways obvious and subtle.

        You have a good argument in that the Civil War was a much more divisive time then this is. Is that the model you want to settle our problems? Zero sum solved the issue but an estimated 600,000 people died many of them who could have helped in many ways. And even after that most of the South believed Booth was wrong to assassinate Lincoln. If we need another civil war to solve our problems please remember ones or both sides this time will have nukes, chemical or biological weapons, EMP weapons etc.

        Expecting you can go to the right to the edge of the ledge repeatedly without falling off the edge one day is just foolish.
        edkollin
        • I was lamenting, not condoning

          I took your comment "...because the US [came] together in face of a threats before..." at face value. It seemed indicative of what I have seen repeated by many: an overly rosy view of history. My point was that this contention has always existed, and the "good old days" where we all got along never really existed.

          I think it is a byproduct of the old adage: "Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan." Long after the fact, politicians are all in agreement with the thing that worked, and fought tooth and nail against the thing that didn't. Too many try to get away with being for something before they were against it, because to speak out of both sides of their mouth lets them claim to be on the right side...whatever that side turns out to be, and hopefully the history books only capture them on a good day.

          I do agree that it appears more rancorous now, but maybe that is because of our proximity. We don't have the distance of time to take the edge off--or for people to get their stories straight.

          I do agree that modern communication can spread rancor farther and faster than ever before, and that mass media seems to feed on division like never before. On the other hand, with cameras and recorders everywhere and archives being nearly eternal, it is harder than ever for people to try to get away with saying one thing and doing the opposite. Also, a mass media that is less monolithic in thought means more diverse views are being broadcast, which is not a bad thing. Even good ideas need to be challenged to remind us why they are good ideas. It seems to me part of the reason many have a rosier view of history is that fewer perspectives were recorded by the media of the day. So...two steps forward and two steps back.

          For these reasons, I think I am more optimistic than you. In the past, the US has had many times of deep division, and most of them did not come to violence. Yet, in the face of a clear and present danger, the people have, largely, pulled together. My lament was that it so often took massive bloodshed to get that consensus.

          It is not that I am looking forward to it, just noting a historical trend. War ("civil" or otherwise)--while sometimes ultimately necessary--is hardly my model of choice for conflict resolution. Conflicts persist because people don't / won't / can't see things the same way. If a conflict persists, then people decide whether they can or can't live with the result of the other point of view, and if not, they fight with the force they deem required by the threat. I pray our divisions here never rise to a mortal threat.
          JJMach
  • ...

    Tell me, what is it exactly that makes your county so great? Is it the fact that you killed off the Indian's and took there land or maybe because your country was founded by terrorist or perhaps the fact that you are the only country to have used nuke's in anger. How many more innocent people do you want to kill with drones, were is Saddam nukes, why cant Iran generate nuclear power they did not nuke 2 cities how many more people do you want to kill in Iraq in the name of oil. You kill, torture and steal were ever you go in the name of oil. If you want to call yourself grate nation, then lead by example and not like a bunch of diplomatic Nazi's. I would be ashamed to call myself an American.
    Scroogled