North Korean Nukes: How Worried Should We Be, and What Is Kim Jong Un Thinking?

Kim Jong-un, the leader of Democratic People's Republic of Korea, speaks in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 31 Photograph by KCNA/Xinhua

On Tuesday, North Korea announced it would be restarting its shuttered Yongbyon nuclear reactor and nuclear weapons program—prompting United Nations head Ban Ki-moon to tell reporters yesterday that the North Korea “crisis has gone too far” (and prompting Reuters columnist Jack Shafer to round up in a blog “the enduring clichés of North Korea coverage”).

For a quick reality check, David Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and a co-author of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, shared thoughts over e-mail on how to interpret the news—and how worried we should be.

How much will North Korea have to spend to restart its nuclear program?
David Kang: The Yongbyon facility was basically run down and decrepit as far back as the mid-2000s, which is one reason they were willing to trade it away. So any claims about restarting the reactor mean basically starting over from the beginning, so the cost will be billions of dollars.

How is North Korea’s economy performing right now? [Has there been much impact from the apparently growing trade with China or other countries?]
North Korea’s economy remains a poorly run attempt at central planning with minimal economic reforms at the margins. So illegal and black market trade across the China-North Korea border is tolerated simply because the regular system is so calcified. [Still], the economy is doing slightly better than it was during the height of the famine 15 years ago—many legal and illegal markets have opened up, and there has been increasing trade with China across the border. But the economy remains inefficient, and many people have the bare necessities.

Whose attention is Kim Jong Un trying to get?
Kim is playing to two audiences—an international and domestic audience. Internationally, the North Korean regime is saying to the U.S. and the Republic of Korea, “if you hit us first, we’ll hit you back.” To his own people, he is saying that he is in control, that the regime will not give in to foreign pressure, and that everything is fine. That’s why he goes to basketball games with Dennis Rodman and amusement parks with his pretty young wife.

What potential threats does North Korea pose and to whom?
North Korea can destroy Seoul tomorrow if it chooses, so that’s a real threat. Deterrence has held for 60 years because both sides realize the costs of a real war: Seoul would be destroyed, and North Korea would cease to exist. For all the hype about the last few months of chest-thumping and muscle-flexing, it’s important to remember two things: First, if you read the North Korean statements in full, they are all saying “IF the U.S./ROK attack us first, we will fight back,” (not “we will attack you first,” which is often how they are interpreted), and second, we believe them. That’s why there are no preemptive strikes on North Korea.

How did the genre of North Korea Internet jokes emerge? Why are there so many Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un memes?
I think we make fun of North Korea because it is not a regime, or a country, that is easily understood from the outside. But we do so at the risk of mistaking [the truth]: that it is a functioning country, and that many of its citizens—while perhaps not liking the rulers—are proud of their country and where they live. This is not a country that will easily break apart or give in, as we have seen over 60 years of stalemate. So jokes are fine, but they miss the point and basically make fun of North Korean people—people who did not choose to be born in North Korea, who have little power to change the regime, who are the most direct victims of the ruling regime, and who are trying to get through the day as best they can.

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