North Korean Nukes, American Rebukes
No two dystopias are alike. Where they exist, they differ in subtle but insidious ways. One might be Orwellian, another Machiavellian. Where one is technocratic, another is autocratic. Others still are feudal or industrial, intimate or omnipresent. Beyond this, they might be brave new worlds, colored in the hedonic hues of a Huxley, or barbarous third worlds, like that of Conrad’s Congo. Or, heaven forbid, they could be some sort of misanthropic mélange of all these things combined.
In placing North Korea on this spectrum, one mustn’t limit his conceptions of what a dystopia can be. It can adopt from and adapt to any style that it sees fit. The Hermit Kingdom does just that. It’s a hodgepodge of abhorrent thought. It borrows from the age-old doctrines of despotism, invigilates its inhabitants, and stifles half of a peninsula surrounded on three sides by progress. It has Huxley’s decadence at the top, Hitler’s propagandizing all around, Conrad’s brutal exploitation of labor, Machiavelli’s forsaken scruples, and Orwell’s all-seeing eye. The result is an under-nourished, incurious, wretched state that hardly recognizes its own intellectual, material, and financial poverty, but even if it did, it wouldn’t dare protest against the man perpetuating it.
He wouldn’t hear of it, and he won’t hear of it. Audible to him, to the exclusion of all other sounds, is the growing threat from afar. The threat, be it perceived or real, is the clamorous rattling of sabers that’s gone on for the past twenty years. Between his country and ours, the threats have never been so direct and foreboding. We stand now at an inflection point. The North Korean government has demonstrated its ability to launch and re-enter an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (or, ICBM).
On Independence Day, our most cherished day, when Americans bask in knowing the Hanoverians will burden us no more, North Korea tested its rocket. It did so knowing full-well the effect it would have in the states. We were forced to turn our attention from one tyrant, two and a half centuries passed, to another in the here and now. We were made, soberly, to put down our hotdogs and gulp slowly our beer. Images and homages of Yorktown and Trenton turned to nightmares of Pyongyang and L.A. in an internecine holocaust.
We’ve known for some time that North Korea has been advancing and improving its nuclear capabilities. However, hitherto, we’ve grown comfortable in knowing that it was never quite there. Always and reliably, the tests would fail for one reason or another. The explosions would underwhelm or the technology would fall short. Maybe the nuclear fission would fizzle out, or re-entry wouldn’t be achieved. Too many failures make an enemy complacent. We came to look at North Korea in scorn, rather than in seriousness. But now, its success is complete.
North Korea’s final, or, perhaps, nascent achievement was not in launching the Hwasong-14 ICBM, but in recovering it. Until now, North Korea has been testing rockets of like size and potency without the essential ability to retrieve them from the heavens. An ICBM is effective only if it’s able to re-enter the atmosphere after its launch. The projectile is catapulted high above, and it’s here, as its tip touches the stars and turns back toward Earth, that it becomes unruly and difficult to control; such is the effect of the celestial. Countering this requires precision and erudition in the laws of moving bodies.
The first step is getting a hold on the missile’s re-entry and the second is in delivering it accurately to a target. Making the first step more challenging is that the Hwasong-14 reached an apogee of 1,700 miles, and it remained at this otherworldly height for over half an hour. In its descent, as all things going up must return, it traversed 500 miles before landing with a startling splash in the Sea of Japan. That’s enough to disquiet the local Japanese, but what about Americans on the west coast? A kinematic calculation reveals that, if angled appropriately, all of Alaska and fringes of Washington and Oregon could be within range. That says nothing of America’s humble Pacific territories, like Guam or the Mariana Islands, which would be in immediate peril. Endangered even more would be the thousands of Americans living in neighboring South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan.
It’s a harrowing thought and one the world’s leaders are beginning to realize can no longer be kicked down the road. But, if any solace is to be found, it’s in knowing that North Korea may not yet be entirely up to the task. Its success in retrieving the rocket is substantial, but not final. To fully recognize its goal of nuclear armament and independence, it must attach a nuclear warhead to the ICBM. It’s a matter of scale, or, more accurately, of diminution. It’s a difficult task to size down a nuclear bomb, especially when one wants above all to preserve its destructive potential. In addition, it’s also a challenge to make it mobile. A missile confined to one launching location is one that is easily found and destroyed. You must be able to affix it to any number of launching apparatuses (hence, the nuclear triad of land, air, and oceanic vessels equipped with the capability to fire the missile). Then and only then—after it’s been scaled and made mobile—will the warhead be ready to go.
Faced with this mounting and imminent problem, the world should be seeking a solution. Instead, it’s looking, as so often it does, to America for an intervention. It’s understandable why this is. Our antagonistic history with North Korea is the longest-lived amongst western states and our nuclear arsenal is the largest in the world. It’s become a bit of an embarrassing title, what with 130 nations at the U.N. deciding to ban or destroy all nuclear weapons, but we have more than 2,300 nuclear warheads armed at the ready, which—if unleashed at once—could scorch the earth with the power of 44,000 Hiroshimas.
Teddy Roosevelt prescribed a big stick. This, we clearly have, but what of soft speech? Where is the quiet confidence and stoic certainty that we need? Now, more than ever, we must adopt in our manner of speaking a disinterest and clarity of mind that puts peace before war. We must speak as if we’ve learned something from our past—as if we’ve been chastened and made wiser by our history.
One of the problems, though, is that there hasn’t been a way of speaking or a manner of comportment that has worked in North Korea. President Clinton tried diplomacy, Bush tried severity, and Obama tried to be patient, but none of these approaches worked. The regime grew increasingly irascible and determined. Now, it’s President Trump’s turn to deal with the issue. He, unlike his predecessors, seems more interested in provocation than patience; in goading rather than tempering and burning rather than building bridges.
He took to Twitter, as often he does in moments of exasperation and pique, to ask if Kim Jong Un has “anything better to do” with his time. The irony isn’t lost, as many have begun asking the same thing of President Trump. Trump has since turned to nicknames and personal ridicule to get under Kim Jong Un’s skin, perhaps trying to denigrate him to the negotiating table. Who’s to say this won’t work, as nothing else has, but it’s not in my opinion the best approach. I suppose it is a form of communication—a thing we’ve lacked—but the words should be more carefully watched.
Winston Churchill preferred to “jaw, jaw” rather than to “war, war”. Perhaps, in his own, slightly less endearing way, President Trump feels the same. Maybe he’s channeling Churchill in this 21st-century. He’s using Twitter the way Churchill would a Tory pulpit. Who knows. What’s clear is that this North Korean dystopia is growing more menacing by the day. We’ll soon learn if a dystopia is willing to listen and amenable to change.