Crazy North Korea, Hyperventilating USA and Sleepy South East Asia

September 2017

When I was still working to pay off the mortgage and Kim Jong Un’s father was in power in North Korea, an official from the US embassy in Singapore mentioned to me that North Korean missiles could reach Singapore and all of South East Asia. My job then was of a technical nature but I sometimes had to interact with US embassy officials including some, I think, who had more than a passing interest in intelligence matters. I didn’t really know what their jobs were at the embassy but I’d assumed there had to be some who were inclined that way. My military background gave me some ability to notice certain things and be mindful of what to say to whom. In any case, we were just chatting over a cup of coffee about nothing in particular when he brought up the subject. I didn’t think much of it then, but North Korea and its nuclear and missile testing and Donald Trump’s macho responses had been in the news quite a bit lately, bringing me back to that conversation. I can’t remember when it took place or who my interlocutor was, only the remarks he made about the North Korean missile range.

He probably thought that I had more influence than I actually had (which was none) and I would, therefore, relay the information to my superiors, who would in turn raise it higher. Well, I didn’t raise it to anyone (I was not in intelligence and was pretty low in the food chain) but I can’t blame him for trying. The Americans were probably a little puzzled that the countries in South East Asia were so nonchalant about the threat North Korea posed. In fact, they probably wondered why all these East and South East Asian countries, apart from South Korea and Japan, weren’t panicking and clamouring for action to put out the clear and present danger post-haste. They could have concluded that these sleepy South East Asians were simply ignorant of the threat, and would wake up from their slumber once they knew that they were inside North Korea’s missile range. Anyone living next door to a lunatic with deadly weapons would be scrambling to have him or his weapons, or both, removed from the neighbourhood by any means possible! But no, all’s quiet on the southern front.

I can’t remember what I said to my American acquaintance, but I would most likely have said that countries in South East Asia did not see the North Korean threat in the same way the US did. That was probably the extent of our conversation about North Korea. In my mind, however, I thought about why countries in South East Asia weren’t too excited about North Korea’s nuclear capability and its missile range. Obviously, nuclear weapons anywhere is a problem for the whole world. To non-nuclear states in general, however, especially the ones with limited capability of any kind, the more realistic threat comes from radioactive nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists and other non-state actors. We don’t see North Korea launching a nuclear-tipped missile at us, but we can see an impoverished and desperate North Korea trading its nuclear materials for cash. We can also see a fallout between the USA and China over the issue leading to serious instability that would adversely impact us in many ways. We can see an insecure Japan resorting to develop its own nuclear arsenal thus raising tension in the region to a point reminiscent of a past era. The North Korea’s threat is its ability to destabilise the region – with the cooperation of the USA (which may be unwitting or simply an inability to help itself despite knowing the risks).

The nuclear non-proliferation movement was an American initiative. America took the lead in establishing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to oversee implementation of the NPT, and the many activities such as export controls to stop or slow nuclear proliferation around the world. They are still leading the world in this effort, but their accommodation of India’s nuclear program in spite of India’s non-compliance with the NPT (note, however, that India was not a signatory to the NPT) during the Bush administration for its own strategic objective had diminished its standing on this issue. The current Trump administration’s threats to tear up the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program because of domestic politics do not add to America’s credibility either. Now that the North Korean missiles are getting closer to continental USA, and its ability to put a nuclear warhead atop one of them not too far away, the noise coming out of the US gets increasingly strident.  Some US senators have even suggested that a war in the Korean peninsula would occur before any missiles could be launched against the USA; millions of Korean lives be damned (not uttered, but implied).

America’s threats against North Korea, China and everybody else to try and stop the North Korean nuclear program only resulted in the regime firing more missiles. Why is the rest of the world so underwhelming in its outrage? Perhaps we are not panicking over North Korea’s nuclear weapons or its missiles because we don’t think North Koreans are crazy or suicidal. But we are very concerned about the fallout from America’s reaction to North Korea’s nuclear capability if such reactions are irrational or grossly disproportionate.