Remember what it felt like a couple of months ago when you, as an American, didn’t give much thought to North Korea? I’d like you to try and remember that feeling over the next couple of weeks, because the US government wants that to change. The past month has shown a tremendous shift in news coverage about North Korea. And that’s no accident.
President Donald Trump continues to beat the drums of war, and the media are going along with him. Trump doesn’t have any particular incentive to bomb North Korea or advocate for regime change in the country. It’s not even clear that Trump knows the leader of North Korea’s name. But Trump is above all a man who likes to be liked. And so far, the actions that have won him the most praise have been when he dropped a bunch of bombs on Syria.
Some talking heads on American TV will insist that we don’t want war. But with a subtle shift in narrative, there comes a sense that “we,” as the world’s police, have no other choice. Once the media talking heads get far enough down that road, constructive criticism of potential war (both at the dinner table and the water cooler) become loaded with questions of “well, if you love North Korea so much, why don’t you move there?”
And just as we saw in the lead up to the second Iraq War in 2003, American military action will begin to feel inevitable. Talks about diplomatic options will be brushed away with “we tried that” and there will be no other course but war.
Then come the slogans: These colors don’t run. Love it or leave it. Liberate Iraq. Or, in this case, Liberate North Korea. And no matter how many times you insist that while you would love to see Kim Jong-un ousted yet don’t want to see war, you will be called a naive traitor—maybe even that greatest of insults, unAmerican—who doesn’t understand how the real world works.
Can North Korea strike the US?
All you need to do is open up the New York Times to see the shift in how Americans now talk about the North Korean threat. In a story published last night, we’re told that there’s a growing sense of urgency, with the headline, “As North Korea Speeds Its Nuclear Program, U.S. Fears Time Will Run Out.”
Behind the Trump administration’s sudden urgency in dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis lies a stark calculus: a growing body of expert studies and classified intelligence reports that conclude the country is capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks.
By the third paragraph the story is already imagining a hypothetical strike against a US city, in a scenario that we’ve heard off and on since the late 1990s whenever it’s politically expedient:
Now those step-by-step advances have resulted in North Korean warheads that in a few years could reach Seattle. “They’ve learned a lot,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who directed the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, from 1986 to 1997, and whom the North Koreans have let into their facilities seven times.
And it wouldn’t be the last time that the article cites this outrageous hypothetical that North Korea could strike US cities. The New York Times even drops in the possibility of North Korea hitting New York “one day.”
Unless something changes, North Korea’s arsenal may well hit 50 weapons by the end of Mr. Trump’s term, about half the size of Pakistan’s. American officials say the North already knows how to shrink those weapons so they can fit atop one of its short- to medium-range missiles — putting South Korea and Japan, and the thousands of American troops deployed in those two nations, within range. The best estimates are that North Korea has roughly 1,000 ballistic missiles in eight or so varieties.
But fulfilling Mr. Kim’s dream — putting a nuclear weapon atop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach Seattle or Los Angeles, or one day New York — remains a more complex problem.
Again, this might be a good time to pause and think about your feelings on North Korea a few months ago. Was the country an existential threat to you then? If you’re feeling more inclined to support a preemptive war against North Korea, as Trump has said is now a very real possibility, what changed? Was it reading an article that said North Korea could one day, possibly, maybe hit the United States with a nuclear weapon?