Nuclear weapons have an irresistible allure. Nations stake their prestige on them. Crowds have cheered at the news of a country’s first nuclear test. For a nation to be called a “nuclear power” is evidence it’s as strong as any other country, ready to annihilate enemy forces and hostile citizens by the millions.
No country is prouder of its nuclear success than North Korea. After each of its half dozen nuclear tests, the North’s state media have burst into applause for all the great physicists and engineers who made possible such a momentous accomplishment. North Korea, however, is still knocking at the door for formal admittance as the ninth member of the global “nuclear club.”
The United States has been refusing to recognize the North as a nuclear power ever since Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, ordered its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006. CBS, for which I was filing radio reports from Seoul, had me madly gasping out the news. The next time Kim ordered a nuclear test, on May 25, 2009, I was driving in downtown Washington. Al-Jazeera called for comment. I unloaded my thoughts at a red light.
Kim Jong-un, having ordered North Korea’s next four nuclear tests, is eager to test another but may be hesitating for several reasons. One is they cost multi-billions, maybe trillions, of dollars to make these devices, only to blow one up in a test. That’s a lot of money for a destitute country that can’t feed its people adequately. Kim himself has prattled to no end about the need to uplift an economy suffering during the COVID pandemic, which North Korea refuses to acknowledge. The North is also hard hit by U.N. and U.S. sanctions imposed after each of its six nuclear tests, the last in September 2017.
Now North Korea is warming up for test-firing an ICBM for the first time since November 2017. They say they launched a couple of satellites this month in order to test the electronics for a satellite. The great difference between a satellite and an ICBM is the former orbits the Earth while the latter flies a parabolic course to a target. Otherwise, they have a lot in common. A pro-North paper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, has said the North will test its next satellite “at a time and place decided by the supreme leadership,” as if we couldn’t have guessed who’d order the launch.
For his coming ICBM/satellite launch, Kim need not worry about more sanctions. The reason for testing ICBMs is to figure out how they can carry nuclear warheads to the United States. Vladimir Putin should appreciate the need for Kim to be able to nuke an enemy. With his forces rampaging through Ukraine, Russia’s president will block any move by the U.N. Security Council to scold Kim yet again for his transgressions.
For Putin and Kim, nuclear power is a cudgel that both of them are wielding against a common foe, the United States. Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert against the NATO nations, led by the United States, that are providing arms for the Ukrainians in a war in which they’re badly outgunned and outnumbered.
Might Putin be tempted to drop or fire a tactical nuke if NATO countries were to send their own forces into the fray and the fighting flared from Ukraine into Russia? A crucial step toward all-out war would be for NATO nations to try to enforce a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has asked them to do.
Shootouts between NATO and Russian planes would be inevitable. It’s no exaggeration to imagine Putin pressing the nuclear button if NATO planes attacked the Russian bases from which his planes were flying.
Kim Jong-un would understand completely. Like Putin, he believes “security” is the reason for deploying nukes even if his engineers are still not sure how to fix one to a missile.
Nuclear power is at the apex of North Korea’s military structure. Kim’s 60 or so nukes add up to about 1 percent of Russia’s nearly 6,000 nukes. His 1.2 million troops may be hungry, physically weak. Equipment may be dilapidated, short of spare parts, worn out. Kim, however, believes the sacrifice of hungry people makes it all worthwhile. He’s sure the threat of using just one nuke will keep his enemies at bay.
For Putin, the nuclear threat hangs over fears of escalation of a war that could spread across Europe. He and Kim share a common bond: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.