Joshua PollackPutting the North Korean Threat into Perspective

It’s not easy, right? To put North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat into perspective. Everywhere you turn, you’ll hear widely differing factual claims, strongly opposed views on what to do or not do, etc. A cacaphony. And that’s a little hard to take, especially if you’re suddenly inclined to hunt for information on the subject. Serious journalists often find themselves in this situation, but lately, what with the 24-hour cable noise channels turning up the volume to 11, just about everybody has been in the same fix.

I’ve offered a few reflections on these subjects on Twitter lately. It’s quick and easy to fire off a string of tweets that get your basic point across. Pithiness is mandatory, illustrations are super-easy to stick in, and it can be a surprisingly effective way to communicate. But then comes the inevitable: threads get lost. You’d like to refer back to something or other, and, well… Seriously, you try searching that ridiculous website sometime.

So here’s the deal. I’m going to make this page a one-stop shop for my efforts, and those of my colleagues at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, to PTNKTIP (put the North Korean threat into perspective). It won’t be exhaustive, but whatever form it takes, I’ll stick the link here if I think it’s worth coming back to later.

Here, for starters, is a thread on why North Korean ICBMs are closer to reality than many may think, but also not the main military problem confronting the United States.

It begins here:

Click through to see the rest.

Update. I seem to have botched the threading, so here’s a Storify of the whole thing.

More to follow.


  1. (History)

    Only one side of the N. Korea problem has been recognized. It would not be a big problem to militarily bring that country to its knees. But then what? Would the US be responsible for what is left of the country? How about South Korea? Would they march northward and finally unify the nation–officially ending the war? Recall that at the beginning of the war, N. Korea was highly industrialized, and the South was agricultural. A unified Korea would create a massive economic problem for Japan, Russia, China, Taiwan, and the United States, just for openers. And, the chances of this newly industrializing nation demilitarizing would be quite slight. Anyone who has dealt with S. Korea on an official basis would quickly mention that there is little difference between those in the South and those in the North. They play hard to win–all of the time. What to do with Korea is and has been a gigantic headache. Right now, the nukes have to be removed.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      Easier said than done…

  2. John (History)

    “Korea is and has been a gigantic headache.”
    This is really an uninformed, misguided perspective.

    In fact, the real headache has been big powers surrounding Korea.
    In its long history, Korea never posed a military threat against its neighbors.
    It never attacked other countries.

    It was always Korea that had been a victim of foreign invasions or occupations.
    Japan invaded Korea twice from 1592 to 1598, and occupied Korea fully from
    1910 to 1945.

    As for the US, US troops first attacked Korea in 1871, destroying an island fortress near Seoul.
    Then, at the end of WW II,, some 45,000 US troops occupied S. Korea, and they have been there
    more or less up to the present.

    So, what is the lesson from the past history?
    North Korea’s current military buildups is nothing more than a defensive response
    against the growing threats from the US-Japan-ROK military coalition.

    There will be no problem if we leave Koreans alone to determine their own future.
    Too much foreign interference and meddling in Korea has been the main problem
    in Northeast Asia.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      I also seem to recall some Soviet forces in Korea after WWII, and a devastating war that started when the North invaded the South. Other than that, though…

  3. J_kies (History)

    Josh; that’s a terrific idea, I would like to extend the value by recommending that the archive be curated via input from some of the rocket scientists that do comment and contribute. While I am not a fan of assisting the DPRK media blitz by providing the credit they seek, I could contribute the lower bound of the credibility assessment on DPRK releases. Dr Schilling is certainly an actual rocket scientist and more permissive in his estimates; George Herbert is amazingly well informed as a ‘hobbyist’ this stuff is clearly his passion. Such a vetting of curated materials could provide a reasoned data set with credibility bounds similar to what we hope the various allied intelligence agencies conduct.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      Well, that’s a bigger (unfunded) undertaking than I have the time or interest in trying to coordinate. But everyone you’ve named is welcome to intervene as they see fit, either in Twitter or here in the comments. Sometimes ad hoc crowdsourcing is the best crowdsourcing.

    • J_kies (History)

      Josh – I appreciate the ‘unfunded’ undertaking comment deeply, however; I am led to believe that sort of curating is exactly why universities have graduate students and its a terrific practical exercise that should both usefully educate and provide CV fodder for their future careers.

      If Department of State grants for arms control issues exist (or US Institute of Peace etc) I would certainly endorse the value of such open source curating for grant status.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)


  4. Lee Sun-sil (History)

    Send you pussy grabbing monster to set one foot on our sacred soil and see what happens.

  5. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    How much threat is NK? Enough. That’s how much. If they can wipe out Seoul, we’re done. No sane person is going to do anything that sees that happen. I fervently hope that the US is just posturing, because that’s all it can possibly be… surely?

    I’m much more worried about NK’s “announcement” of having VX than I am of the ICBM angle. They can already deliver that awful stuff to millions of US allies. Once again: they have enough deterrence. We’re done, here. They can keep up in the MAD race because they can deliver enough D that’s reasonably A to satisfy any realistic view of M. If the US doesn’t consider South Korea or Japan important enough to restrain itself, then we’re in for some bloody interesting times.

    I like my boring times just fine, thanks.

    I always figured the ICBM program was there to future-proof NK against a time the US might consider large numbers of SK’s and Japan’s populace expendable. I’m not quite willing to think that this time has come, quite yet.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      NK is like a bank robber who fears the police may shoot him, so he takes 10 hostages, then he takes 20 hostages, but now he wants 200 hostages. If we don’t let him have 200 hostages, he may shoot 10 of his current hostages, or so people fear. If kim-boy were foolish enough to shoot those 10 hostages, he would be signing his own death warrant.

      We could say, NK feels insecure, let them have more hostages, what difference does it make? The obvious reason is, if anything goes wrong, substantially more people die, by an order of magnitude. NK already has more than enough hostages. Why do they need more?

      It’s also unclear how the U.S. can easily extend enough deterrence to assure South Korea and Japan, if NK develops 200 nukes on ICBMs. If the U.S. won’t bite the bullet when the bullet is small, will the U.S. nevertheless bite the bullet when the bullet is a cannon ball?

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