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How Scared Should I Be of North Korea?

Is Kim Jong-un a threat, or just a lunatic with a weird haircut?

Photo by Wong Maye-E via AP Images

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of everything under the sun. We hope it'll help you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

On July 19, North Korea went and did a naughty thing: It fired three ballistic missiles, which traveled across its landmass, and dropped into the Sea of Japan. As is often the case, North Korea's abrupt display of force appears to have been an expression of disapproval at new military measures being put in place by the US and South Korea—in this case, it was the US's implementation of the THAAD missile defense system in Seongju, South Korea.

North Korea can't physically harm me by blowing up Seongju, at least not anymore. (As it happens, I used to live about 95 miles from Seongju in the neighboring city of Gwangju.) But as callous as this may sound, the fate of Seongju isn't what worries me. What worries me is when North Korea claims, like it did earlier this year, that it can reduce its enemies, including the US to "flames and ashes." That was just one of North Korea's many colorful ways of expressing its long held, and well known, desire to wipe out the US, South Korea, and Japan.

But do I really have any reason to fear the Hermit Kingdom?

"If the regime feels directly threatened, it could lash out, inviting a counterattack that would destroy the country, but causing a lot of damage along the way." —Charles K. Armstrong

What worries most analysts is that North Korea's nuclear option is pretty much its only option if it gets into a major fight. "The escalation ladder is only artillery, and then nuclear weapons," Victor Cha, North Korea analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told my colleague Keegan Hamilton back in March. That conversation (which you can watch below) took place shortly after a cascade of events in which North Korea successfully tested its fourth nuke in January, and then launched a satellite into orbit in February.


The UN then cut off a huge amount of aid, and—in a commonplace strategy for dealing with North Korea—exporters agreed to embargo resources, and braced for something crazy to happen, because embargoes and sanctions tend to piss off Dear Leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea seems to view itself (somewhat reasonably) as under constant external threat. Each time North Korea's defense system achieves something, like its first successful nuclear detonation in 2006, it's told by the US, the UN, or even its closest ally, China, to absolutely not take another step. Then it inevitably takes another step, and another, and another.

"Pyongyang has reaped tens of billions in concessions, including cash, food, energy, fertilizer, [and all] while advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities, all in return for repeatedly lying about denuclearization," Lee Sung-Yoon, Korean studies professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told VICE in an email.

Earlier this year, Kim claimed he'd finally gotten his hands on a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a rocket. Then in April of this year, when North Korea claimed that it has the ICBM technology necessary to attack well inside the US mainland, North Korea's claim that it could turn American cities to ash finally developed some real validity.

But North Korea's history is fully of empty threats. "North Korea itself is not going to attack anyone—least of all the US—without provocation. Their number one priority is survival," Charles K. Armstrong, professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, told VICE. According to the CIA's World Factbook, North Korea is mostly a struggling, agrarian backwater that just happens to have a bellicose cult leader running it from its biggest city.

The World Factbook claims that in order to have some semblance of an economy, North Korea futzes with its currency supply in order to stave off hyperinflation. What little industry North Korea has, according to the CIA, struggles with broken-down machinery, and has no access to spare parts. There's not enough usable farmland, and even if there were, there's not enough fertilizer, tractors, and fuel to generate food. North Koreans, The World Factbook says, pretty much rely on food aid to live.

In March, when Kim told his people they were in for a historic famine, he blamed the new UN sanctions, rather than a total agricultural breakdown at last year's harvest, leading to "lean times" that are most likely peaking right now as silos sit empty in anticipation of a fresh harvest in the coming fall.

"Its very own survival depends on overturning one day the gloomy reality of perpetual inferiority against that other Korean state." —Lee Sung-Yoon

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA agent told the Japan Times in 2013, "It is virtually impossible to run a human spy in the North and penetrate the Korean state." Riedel said most foreign intelligence about North Korea comes from satellite photography.

In other words, fallow fields are visible to satellite cameras, so the CIA can say with certainty that North Korean farmers are struggling. But tucked away inside of buildings (and in tunnels) North Korea could—and probably does—have capabilities we don't know about, according to commentator and former congressional advisor on North Korea, Joshua Stanton. "[North Korean] agents have been convicted of [assassination] in South Korean courts, and found responsible in US federal courts," Stanton told me.

For instance, in May, North Korean agents in China killed a pastor who had been helping North Korean defectors escape to the South. "They have a history of bombings and other terrorist attacks, and also control North Korea's hackers," Stanton said, adding, "I'm not aware of any attempts on anyone in the US, except for cyberattacks."

North Korean hackers mean business. The 2014 Sony hack was attributed to North Koreans who were supposedly retaliating against the creation and release of an objectively bad movie called The Interview. That hack was sophisticated, intentional, and enormously damaging, causing $35 million in digital damage, smearing showbiz muckety mucks, and briefly holding a movie release hostage and leading to a lingering debate that threatens to soften Hollywood's ability to satirize—a tangible blow to free speech.

"The bottom line is that the North Koreans are capable of anything." —Joshua Stanton

Even if the odds of my own injury or death at the hands of North Korea may be infinitesimal, as are those of my South Korean and Japanese friends, there are other things to fear. North Korea wants to, and thinks it has to, hurt the US and South Korea somehow. "Its very own survival depends on overturning one day the gloomy reality of perpetual inferiority against that other Korean state, the one that is far more prosperous and pleasant," Lee told me.

Or as Stanton put it: "The bottom line is that the North Koreans are capable of anything."

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of North Korea?

3/5: SWEATING IT.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.