North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has succeeded in having millions of people worship him without forcing them to do so. Unfortunately, few of these worshippers reside in Korea. The crowd is instead made out of internet users from all over the globe. Kim’s latest moves and proclamations about his country’s nuclear ambitions inspired a never-ending stream of jokes on the internet with unprecedented humorous fertility. This is no accident: Mr. Kim really resembles the perfect Dr. Evil. His teddy bear looks betray the control he wields over scores of scary, silent, and heavily decorated military officers. He tours missile facilities which have the unfortunate distinction of being more ridiculous than Iran’s.
Yet North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are something we seriously consider. Mr. Kim is showing the world how nuclear weapons can actually alter and define the political course of an absolutist dictatorship. When other small powers gained nuclear prowess, the effect was often limited to the region: Israel’s bomb (1967) had the effect of limiting the aggressiveness of some Arab neighbors; Pakistan’s bomb (1998) worked because it limited military tensions with India (also a nuclear power since 1974).
The idea that an increase in the number of countries with nuclear capabilities would reduce the number of low-intensity conflicts relies on the assumption of rationality. Take the Cold War: despite absolutist rhetoric by the USSR leadership, no Soviet leader actually thought that the supreme triumph of communism (or of socialist dictatorships) had to be brought about through nuclear apocalypse. In addition to the five powers of the UN Security Council (United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China), India, Pakistan and Israel have developed nuclear capabilities because of urgent “strategic rationale,” mostly concerning territorial warfare. Most notably, these three countries tend to be democracies (or on-off democracies like Pakistan).
North Korea is different
North Korea is different, because the political thinking behind the country’s nuclear program is not limited to territorial disputes. Rational thinking would lead the Pyongyang leadership to conclude that North Korea may never be attacked by South Korea, or that the North could ever defeat the South militarily. Yet North Korea is not rational. The fanatic leadership in Pyongyang interprets nuclear capability as a form of political prestige. If the leadership of North Korea feels threatened, self-infatuated as it is, it would have no hesitancy at pushing the button. North Korea’s weather is horrible: footage constantly shows grey skies. It may soon rain, and Kim might simply think: “Après moi, le deluge!” A nuclear explosion could follow.
Political zealotry can lead to heroic suicides if dictators have the Bomb. The Kims never showed any concern over starving their population as they developed a cult of personality. If their rule is endangered, externally or internally, the risk of nuclear escalation is real. Compare them to Adolf Hitler: he committed suicide only after he was certain that Germany was totally destroyed, forcing even kids to fight and be killed in a futile guerrilla war against the Red Army in Berlin. What if Hitler had had the bomb? At best, Hitler’s bomb would have interrupted the war, and the Nazis could have ruled Germany for some more years. This is the likely outcome of a nuclear incident in Korea: nuclear bombs perpetuate dictatorships until other problems intervene and topple them (like in the USSR).
The lesson is: Don’t expect North Korea to be “rational” in its nuclear-fueled international agenda. China has realized this. At first, Beijing helped the Kims develop the bomb and used them as guard dogs to protect the East China Sea from Western influence. Yet the Kims were uncontrollable and the erratic behavior of North Korea is now affecting China’s (still non-existent) chances to develop soft power.
Don’t let Iran turn into another North Korea
There are other powers that may soon gain the status of North Korea. Most notably, Iran. The Persian zealots fired on their own people, who committed the crime of expressing their woes in the streets. As in Korea, an Iranian bomb would not have a “defensive” or territorial role – nobody actually has any interest in attacking Iran. Iran’s bomb would be purely aggressive. And in contrast to North Korea, Iran’s military has long-range missiles capable of hitting any country in the region and several Western democracies.
We cannot expect that a nuclear Iran would behave differently from how it has behaved until now. Iran’s declarations of intent against foreign countries would become actual demands, based on ideals that range from absolutism to nihilism. Iran is also finding an unlikely ally in Turkey, which has stepped up its “anti-Semitic rhetoric”:http://hellenicleaders.com/blog/turkeys-dirty-little-secret-pulling-back-the-curtain-of-anti-semitism/. The Iranian leadership might also become convinced that (nuclear) suicide is preferable to stepping down from power if things turn sour. The best course of action is to stop Iran before it turns into a new North Korea. Tehran would be a much more risky nuclear foe than Pyongyang. Not accidentally, while jokes about Iran’s president Ahmadinejad are quite enjoyable, their number is much lower than in the case of Kim Jong-un.