Sunday was a really important day for the world and I don’t mean because of the second US presidential debate. October 9, 2016 marked 10 years since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Then, it exploded a crude atomic bomb.
Ten years later, Pyongyang is proceeding apace with its nuclear weapons programme. It has demonstrated that it is cultivating expertise with missiles. Here’s a scary thought: In 2026, will North Korea be delivering nuclear-tipped missiles to its chosen targets?
The experts are doleful. It could be much sooner than 2026, they say. According to Van Jackson, associate professor at the Pentagon’s Hawaiian think tank Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, North Korea is “racing towards the nuclear finish line”.
Former Australian national security adviser Andrew Shearer is even more melancholy. Mr Shearer, now at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says he anticipates more tests this year. They “would make perfect sense in the warped logic of North Korea,” he says.
South Korea is bracing itself too. Last month, unification minister Hong Yong-pyo told a parliamentary hearing that the expectation was Kim Jong-un would flash a nuclear test or another long-range-missile launch within the next 12 weeks.
Why? Why is Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, on a tear about the nuclear option? In his five years in power, he has ordered 49 missile tests (nearly half of them, 21, this year). He has also had three nuclear tests since 2011; two of them this year. His father, the late Kim Jong Il, had far fewer fireworks – 26 missile tests and two nuclear tests in 18 years.
What’s with that then?
Kim Jong-un’s father, of course, allowed himself to be restrained by Chinese pressure even as North Korea continued to maintain its interest in nuclear weapons. This was considered key to its security and stability after the end of the Soviet Union.
But Kim Jong-un, is an old millennial (he is 32 years old apparently). He is North Korea’s first leader to be born after the country’s September 9, 1948 founding). He may understandably have a different view of the world from that of his father. Perhaps he has a dark sense of humour. As I asked in my April 2013 blog, “What if Kim Jong-un sees it all as a reality video game?”
Perhaps he is taken with the idea of inspiring fear in the world. It probably tickles him to have conducted last month’s nuclear test and perplexed policymakers East and West about the right response. That test was North Korea’s largest yet. Its explosive yield equaled roughly 10 kilotons of TNT, which is pretty darn big considering the atomic bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of roughly 15 kilotons.