Joshua PollackHow Much Respect Does A Nuclear Arsenal Get?

Cross-posted from

On August 31, 1998, North Korea conducted its first launch of a multi-stage ballistic missile, which flew over Japan. It failed to deliver a satellite into orbit, notwithstanding the boasts of state broadcasters.

On January 10, 2003, in the course of a dispute with the United States, North Korea declared that it was no longer bound by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and kicked IAEA inspectors out of the country.

On July 5, 2006, North Korea’s second test of a long-range ballistic missile test ended in catastrophic failure, just seconds into flight.

On October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first (and so far only) test of a nuclear explosive device. (It fizzled.) Within days, the UN Security Council had outlawed all exports of nuclear or ballistic missile technology to North Korea.

Despite the technical hiccups, the government of North Korea (or DPRK) seems proud of its accomplishments in the field of strategic weaponry. One statement from 2008 reads:

The DPRK is not such state which will meekly yield to the pressure of someone to unilaterally dismantle the nuclear deterrent, a product of great Songun [i.e., military-first politics] and a shield for justice and peace.

Just recently, in January 2009, North Korean officials told a visiting American scholar that they had weaponized their stock of plutonium:

“They’ve raised the bar and said, ‘We are a nuclear weapons state, and deal with us on that basis,’” Mr. Harrison said at a news conference in the St. Regis Hotel.

So how it is, then, despite all these fearsome bombs and missiles, that North Korea has become the Rodney Dangerfield of rogue states?

Seriously, have you seen the t-shirt?

Compare and Contrast

To see just how little respect the DPRK gets, consider how North Korea is treated compared to its fellow surviving member of the Axis of Evil, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

(Remember, despite the amply justified suspicions of the outside world, and a chain of deceptions, violations, failed negotiations, and Security Council resolutions, Iran remains within the NPT. The Iranian authorities insist on the purely civilian nature of their nuclear facilities, point to continuing IAEA safeguards, and say they are opposed to nuclear weapons.)

So when Iran launched its first multi-stage missile last month, putting a first-generation satellite into orbit, the American response was one of modulated concern.

And when North Korea announced that it was about to launch a satellite, the Japanese and American response was to threaten to shoot it down.

Let’s see how the Washington Post explained Iran’s space launch:

TEHRAN, Feb. 3 — Iran said Tuesday it had successfully sent its first domestically produced satellite into orbit using an Iranian-made long-distance missile, joining an exclusive club of fewer than a dozen nations with such capabilities.

—compared with how the same publication framed North Korea’s plans to do the exact same thing:

TOKYO, Feb. 24 — By announcing that it is preparing to launch a “communications satellite,” North Korea on Tuesday dressed up its planned test of a long-range ballistic missile — which may be able to reach Alaska — as a benign research project.

Honest, it’s not just the elevator shoes and the bouffant hairdo. The anticipation turns out to be a bigger deal than the reality. When it comes to staring down the Western imperialists, actually having the bomb ain’t everything it’s cracked up to be.


  1. Raoul Heinrichs (History)

    By contrast, Joshua, consider how much respect North Korea was afforded relative to Saddam’s Iraq.

  2. Andy (History)

    Is this satire or are you really asking why North Korea and Iran are treated differently?

    Oh, I have a “Get Il” shirt on order too.

  3. Arash (History)

    Iran is an ancient civilazation with around a trillion GDP in next couple of years a coountry full of resources and brilliant brains, How can somebody compare Iran to NK a bankroupt comunist country with less than 50 years history? Oh sorry I found one it was G.W. Bush!!!

  4. kme

    I imagine it’s got a lot to do with Iran having a functioning economy and broad scientific establishment, making the idea of it getting into the satellite launch game look at least plausible.

  5. Josh

    With all due respect to the esteemed commenters, the question is not why Iran gets more respect than North Korea. (Perhaps it has to do with vociferous blog commenters.)

    The question, as it appears at the top of the post, is “How Much Respect Does A Nuclear Arsenal Get?”

    And the answer is, not much. It may even cost a country respect in the eyes of others.

  6. Josh

    Raoul makes an excellent point, but let’s recall that North Korea has been afforded that same level of basic respect since the end of the Korean War.

  7. bts

    That’s kind of true. It’s not in Iran’s interest to make nukes, however it is in Iran’s interest to be nuclear capable. This gives Iran a good defensive nuclear strategy without actually having any nuclear bombs.

    For example at the moment US cannot attack Iran, because if US attacks then Iran will get out of NPT and make nukes. The result will be an angry nuclear armed enemy which US may not be able to deal with.

    On the other hand if Iran makes the first move and makes nukes then that could provoke a US attack, because one or two Iranian nukes is not going to scare US in to submission anyway. It’s like in a game of chess, it depends how you move the pieces.

    Meanwhile it is in the interest of US and its Western allies to force Iran to dismantle this nuclear capability. This way US and the so-called international community can bomb Iran and screw Iran in various ways without fearing any consequences.

    By the way the last time Iran canceled its nuclear program was in 1980 when revolutionary ideologues declared nuclear technology is bad, a short while later Iran was invaded and attacked with banned weapons, with the support of the international community.

  8. Tim Kelly (History)

    It’s as if all the nations of the world were instead people at a party. Some of them show up toting firearms. Do you respect those people? No. It’s just obnoxious. But you sure as heck aren’t going to go start a fight with one of them either.

  9. Bruce Klingner (History)

    The reason that the international community is treating North Korea differently than Iran on a “satellite” launch is that Pyongyang is currently precluded from doing so by UN Resolutions 1695 and 1718. North Korea’s launch would be a clear violation since the UN Security [condensed text] “demands that the DPRK not…launch a ballistic missile [and] decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program [and] abandon [its] ballistic missile program in a complete, verifiable, irreversible manner.”

    Although North Korea similarly claimed its 1998 Taepo Dong 1 missile launch was of a satellite, UN Resolution 1695 instead assessed it as having “launched an object propelled by a missile.”

    The US, South Korea, and Japan have all declared that a launch of a missile or “satellite” would be a violation of the two resolutions.

  10. Ataune (History)

    bts –

    I like your reasoning, but I think it has one small flaw: While all the paragraphs have what I call “reality based” logic, the fourth one is somehow the odd one, making a general assumption which is detached from the reality in the ground.

    In the current historical situtation and in the view of the strategic mistakes made by the US after the collapse of the USSR and the weakening of the Russian State, a “reality based” logic would assume that it is in the interests of the “West” to have a strong State sitting on top of the Iranian plateau.

  11. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    A nuclear arsenal is just another set of tools to further interests. North Korea’s interest set is rather special and out of step from a humanist point of view. Does their nuclear industry support electrical generation? No. Is their arsenal an integral part of a bomber force that contributes an an airliner/cargo industry? No. Does their arsenal add to the image of a set of overseas interests in such a manner to make customers confident that the supplier is incorporated in a stable state? Well maybe the pachinko parlor’s of Japan. The point being North Korea has few ongoing interest threads that have positive outcomes for their arsenal to augment. Nuclear weapons will only augment the nature of world reaction you already receive from the world.


  12. Andy (History)


    Yes, a nuclear arsenal in North Korea does not get as much “respect” as it might at first glance, but there are valid reasons for that which don’t apply to other countries.

    To begin with, North Korea has a significant offensive conventional capability that it has maintained for several decades. Seoul, where half the population of South Korea lives, is in range of thousands of artillery tubes. Residents there have grown up with the threat of the city’s destruction, so nukes do not provide the kind of psychological impact they might in other circumstances. The North Korean armed forces have historically (and continue to be) deployed close to the DMZ – not for the defense, but for the attack. In short, North Korea has long held the ability to devastate the South so a nominal nuclear capability does not change the equation much (even considering the North’s degraded conventional capabilities over the past decade or so).

    More importantly, though, North Korea is a minor state which is in decline. And by “in decline” I’m being charitable since the country’s existence is dependent upon the patronage of other states. North Korea has no economic power and no ability to significantly project military power beyond the peninsula. It has very few friends. Were it not for the missiles, nukes and the continuing threat of internal collapse, North Korea would have no political power, no influence and no respect at all.

    So the reason North Korea’s weapons don’t get much “respect” is that most people see them for what they are – tools to maintain some kind of relevance in order to keep the regime chugging along. The power, influence and “respect” provided by nuclear weapons is countered by weakness in every other area except military capabilities.

    This is a situation unique to North Korea so one should not make the assumption that nukes in some other country will likewise garner little “respect.”

  13. M Mir (History)

    North Korea and Iran are playing 2 entirely different games, though both involve the US as an adversary. North Korea has no aim other than survival and that is tenuous at best. In other words, the NUKE is all they have. Any military equation involving NK devolves to the NUKE. And that is enough to prevent the US from finishing them off but not enough to prevent the US from antagonizing, ex threatening a shootdown of their missile. NK is case of simply watching a cancer patient with a gun die his inevitable death.

    Iran is a far different animal, and far more dangerous to US interests. And don’t be mistaken about Iran getting more respect. Though most MSM reports of possible strikes against Iran outlined a small precision strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the reality was far more gruesome. The much likelier strike was a massive strategic bombing campaign that would have made GW1 and 2 look puny. According journalists with access to Pentagon sources, the real strike plan against Iran was to decapitate command and control and splinter the country, allowing Arab SW Iran and Balochi SE Iran to break away. This could occur as precision strike-Iran retaliation-massive strike cycle. However, Iran’s conventional capabilites in the region deterred this for the last 3-5 years. Including the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz. Though most western military “experts” deny Iran can do this, they are most likely wrong. Add in the ability to arm Iraqi/Afghan rebels and it was pretty much forgone that the US was not going into Iran.

    So bottom line, the US can afford to toy around with NK but not with Iran. The stakes are too high to monkey around with childish threats of shooting down a satellite launch test.

    So Iran with a NUKE gets what over what it has now? They see their fight against US as essentially over. The US will be gone from Iraq in 2 years and be bogged down and bleeding in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Iran may even become an ally in that effort as a supply route. And even though they deterred the US with conventional means alone, the NUKE adds assurance.

    But Iran sees a real threat coming from Israel in thwarting what they believe is a conventional capability to deal Israel a strategic defeat from Lebanon and Syria. Iran believes its allies can take back significant amounts of land in the next conflict between Israel and Syria and/or Lebanon. Of course, if they are right, Israel will fall back on its nuclear arsenal to ensure that any tactical defeat does not rise to a strategic defeat. AND THAT IS WHAT IRAN’S NUKES ARE FOR. It will force Israel to accept whatever the outcome of a losing war brings, fair and square. Based on what I have garnered on the armaments and tactics of Syria and Lebanon over the last 2 years, there is a good probability Israel will lose its next war.

  14. Josh

    So many comments. Great stuff.

    It’s a good thing I’m not a regular poster here, or I’d get nothing else done.

    Here are a few rejoinders and elaborations.

    Bruce Klingner has the facts on the UN Security Council Resolutions of 2006. I can see I misstated things slightly in the post: there was one resolution (1695) after the failed TD-2 test in July and one (1718) after the nuclear test in October; I put them, undifferentiated, after the nuclear test. That’s what you get when you post late at night. Blogging is such a terrible habit.

    But regardless of the precise chronology, this only underscores my intended point. A ballistic missile test gets NK whacked with a Security Council resolution. A nuclear test gets NK whacked with a Security Council resolution. Nobody respects NK, and the nukes don’t help them a bit – indeed, they’ve only put NK deeper into the doghouse.*

    This also seems to be Andrew Tubbiolo’s conclusion when he writes, “Nuclear weapons will only augment the nature of world reaction you already receive from the world.” But I’d resist generalizing to the same conclusion that he has. Instead, I would say that nuclear weapons garner more attention, and it’s primarily negative.

    Andy cogently points out that North Korea has had the practical equivalent of a nuclear weapon for decades, in the form of the ability to deliver prompt devastation on Seoul with massed long-range artillery. For this reason, an unprovoked campaign of “rollback” or “regime change” by the United States has never been in the cards. This is not Iraq.

    This raises an important question about what the regime in Pyongyang hoped to gain from going nuclear. Perhaps it signifies a perceived decline of the deterrent value of their conventional military capabilities. Or perhaps it was simply about national pride and defiance of foreign enemies. We have seen elsewhere – specifically Pakistan – that a nuclear test can be viewed as the pinnacle of national achievement for a country with precious few others to point to.

    That’s where I believe Andy is mistaken. North Korea is not the only weak, dependent, and declining country whose regime relies on nuclear weapons to shore up its dwindling viability. It’s a frightening thought. Worse yet, if things go badly enough, the global recession and financial crisis could produce a situation with more than two such countries.

    BTS makes a thoughtful observation about the possibility that Iran’s standoff with the West is at an equilibrium point: the U.S. won’t bomb so that Iran doesn’t go nuclear, and Iran won’t go nuclear so that the U.S. won’t bomb. I certainly hope so. But I don’t think he’s right to imagine that the U.S. could otherwise bomb Iran with impunity. Much as M Mir suggests, Iran is able to deter the U.S. already (although I find his orderly, rationalistic view of things far closer to chess than actual world events). We saw this restraint in action (inaction?) rather clearly after the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, which the U.S. has ascribed to Iran. Richard Clarke’s memoir describes the decision-making process and how it came out. As with North Korea, Iran has long has the practical equivalent of a nuclear weapon. And no, I don’t think getting the actual thing would improve their situation at all. Just the opposite.

    *For the purposes of comparison with Iran, note that a series of relevant UNSC Resolutions also exist, repeatedly declaring that Iran must cease its fuel-cycle activities. UNSCR 1737 (Dec. 2006) also forbids the export to Iran of all technologies related to the nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear delivery systems, although it does not go so far as to forbid missile launches.

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