North Korea would like you to know that it has nuclear weapons. It has put rather a lot of effort in recent weeks into making you aware. And if you haven’t thought much about North Korea’s nuclear programme in the last few days, it means its propaganda effort has failed.
Here is what North Korea’s leaders want you to know. On September 9, North Korean media announced that the country has officially declared itself a nuclear weapons state. In a speech to the rubber-stamp Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong-Un trumpeted that this made his country’s nuclear programme ‘irreversible’, and affirmed that they would never give up their weapons even in the face of a hundred years of sanctions.
At the same time, the country has passed a law allowing a ‘pre-emptive’ nuclear attack, using the weapons ‘automatically’ in cases that are still murkily defined.
One of these seems to be threats to the leadership – which many excitable news outlets think means that Kim Jong-Un has willed his successor to start throwing missiles around when he dies.
In the background to all of these threats, North Korea has been testing missiles, foreswearing diplomacy with the South on the question of refugees, and condemning co-operation between America and South Korea on military exercises.
This might be scary if a few things weren’t also true. The first is that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for a long time. It has built them, it has tested them, it has boasted about them for many years. The second is that nuclear weapons are still hard to build.
The Iranians have had the capacity to manufacture them for quite some time – but have not done so, for practical and political reasons. Even if North Korea increased its production and testing of nuclear weapons at incredible speed, it would never be among the big boys of America, Russia and China.
The second thing is that North Korea is still – whatever its leaders say – a basket case. It is a poor country crippled by sanctions, whose state budget is largely wasted on military posturing. It evades sanctions and imports food with Chinese help, but otherwise, it would be on its knees. A country like this can cause a lot of fuss, but it cannot – whatever it pretends – end the world.
Some analysts even think that this latest volley of violent rhetoric means that North Korea wants to be seen as a ‘responsible nuclear state’. Naturally, this is ridiculous. But if your nuclear slave-economy only has one gear, reverse is not necessarily possible.
And let’s not forget something else. Where one dictatorship goes, another follows close behind. And it seems the North Koreans are now serving as a major armourer of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
American intelligence suggests that the Russians are losing both the war and their ammunition stockpiles so badly that they must buy missiles and shells from North Korea.
If Russian workmanship is sometimes shoddy, imagine what it would take for them to source weapons of war from a colony of China, whose entire economy is the size of a middling American city.
The Ukrainian defence ministry had a joke to hand. While Ukraine was arming itself with NATO-standard weaponry, it tweeted, Russia seems set to ‘switch to North Korean standards: be it weapons, politics, standard of living.’
In short, that things are going very badly indeed in the dictators’ club.
Russia has launched a war that was meant to be short and triumphant, but has instead become protracted, bloody and losing. Every night, it is further humiliated as its ammo depots are blown up at long range. Every day this past week, its forces have fled faster from a Ukrainian offensive which has captured almost a thousand square miles in a week.
Earlier this year, a surprising number of people believed that Russia was going to walk over Ukraine – in part because of propaganda of how butch Russia’s military apparently was, and in part because many assumed that democracies were weak and effeminate, while dictatorships were strong and uncompromising.
In Russia’s case, that was proven wrong within a couple of days, and the succeeding months only reinforced the point. In North Korea’s case, its relative impotence has been proven over and over for the entirety of this century. It is not exactly edifying to be Russia’s armourer of last resort.
If you have managed to avoid news of North Korean nuclear threats this week – if you have slept soundly in your bed over the last couple of days – unwittingly, you have proven this weakness. They might have been a serious attempt to scare; they might have been a perverse tactic to prompt negotiation. But either way, this plan has failed.
With one dictatorship humiliatingly losing a major war before our eyes, the nuclear tantrum of another isn’t very frightening.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.