By Siddarth R Bagri, Opinion Writer
When Seth Rogan and James Franco released The Interview, a satirical movie about assassinating North Korea’s despotic leader Kim Jong Un, they probably expected some backlash.
It is unlikely, however, that they anticipated most of it coming from the supreme leader himself, backed up by threats of “merciless retaliation”, as reported by the BCC.
Most people wrote this off as empty threats from a country living on the fringes of civilization, but Sony, which had suffered a massive cyber-attack and threats of terrorism, felt frightened enough to stop the movie from being released.
Though the ensuing uproar led Sony to back down and release it, this international exchange highlighted North Korea’s savage threats combined with their growing capabilities, and the world’s continuing indifference to them.
For decades North Korea’s primitive technology and periodic failures have kept them from following through on their threats to turn Seoul and Manhattan into a “sea of fire”, as stated in the Economist.
However, North Korean scientists have proven that they can learn from their mistakes. In the two years since the movie fiasco, North Korea’s nuclear program has continued to make steady progress.
In January they successfully conducted their fourth nuclear test and claimed that they had detonated a hydrogen bomb; though most experts believe that it was actually a powered-up atomic bomb.
One month later they successfully launched a satellite into space, though it is fair to mention that it is non-functional. That said, it’s important to understand North Korean history.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions really began to accelerate in the early 1990’s. According to The Economist, Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s previous ruler and Kim Jong Un’s father, threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Bill Clinton managed to placate him by promising economic aid, the easing of sanctions, and two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors (reactors that cannot produce weapons-grade nuclear material).
However, North Korea regularly disregarded the agreement and it collapsed in 2002. In 2003, North Korea announced that it had acquired nuclear weapons and formally left the NPT.
Today, North Korea is thought to have 20 nuclear warheads and last year they claimed that they had successfully miniaturized one, meaning that they can fit it onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Although they currently lack the technology to launch missiles, this year has been unprecedented in missile testing and considering how far North Korea has come despite all its setbacks, it would be naïve to assume that they cannot eventually succeed. According to 38 North, a website covering North Korea from John Hopkins University, North Korea may be able to strike the continental United States within America’s next two presidential terms.
Policy makers have avoided this problem because they know there is no acceptable way to deal with it. Deterrence can only work under the assumption that all actors involved are rational, and given Kim Jong Un’s brazen rhetoric, he has proven to be anything but “rational”.
According to The Economist, 90% of North Korean trade is with China, and although China is dissatisfied with their nuclear program and abrasiveness, they do not want the regime to collapse.
If that were to happen, there would be a refugee crisis on the Chinese/North Korean border (the border with South Korea is littered with landmines) and China would lose a buffer state between the US and South Korean forces. Due to the nature of North Korean trade, sanctions only have limited effectiveness. If the regime was faced with an existential threat like an American invasion, Mr. Kim would have every incentive to use his nuclear arsenal. America would be wise to take this threat seriously and consider the possibility of a necessary invasion.
China is loath to talk about this possibility and America, haunted by Iraq, is afraid to publically jump to conclusions about the North’s nuclear capabilities.
South Korea, with help from America, has begun installing Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles around vulnerable areas, but there has been a domestic backlash.
All sides must face reality and consider the uncomfortable eventuality of a full-fledged nuclear North Korea and what that would mean for Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The next time they threaten to level cities over a movie, we will not have the luxury of brushing them off.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, September 27th print edition.
Contact Siddarth at