Is a nuclear war with North Korea likely? As Pyongyang continues to develop and test nuclear weapons and the United States responds with strong rhetoric, just how likely is an exchange of nuclear weapons between the two nations?
To put it simply, it’s not likely at all.
However, that’s not to say that any U.S. military intervention in North Korea wouldn’t have devastating consequences. Any action on the Korean Peninsula, whether with military or conventional weapons, would almost certainly draw in South Korea, Japan, and China. And should it escalate, it would cause catastrophic loss of life.
North Korea Doesn’t Actually Have Very Many Nuclear Weapons
That Pyongyang has been developing a nuclear weapons program for years is no secret; the secretive nation boasts routinely about its nuclear capabilities. Fortunately, boasting is pretty much all there is to the regime’s nuclear capabilities. As the Express reports, North Korea is believed to have between 13 and 21 nuclear warheads.
— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) April 17, 2017
The United States, by way of comparison, has something in the neighborhood of 7,000, according to NBC News.
Even If They Had Nukes, North Korea Can’t Deploy Them
If you’ve been following the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program over the years, you know that from time to time the secretive Asian regime will test a nuclear weapon. More often than not, those tests are preceded by boasting and bluster by the regime. And every time, including at the most recent test last week, according to CNN, those launches fail.
— Sealife.com (@sealifecom) April 13, 2017
Having nuclear weapons is one thing, but delivering them to their target is another matter entirely. The North has been known to test short-range, medium-range, and long-range nuclear weapons. It’s the long-range weapons that are most concerning to Washington: should the Kim Jong-un regime perfect a delivery system, it’s theoretically possible that a missile could reach Anchorage, Honolulu, or even a West Coast city.
However, so far, about as far as any North Korean nuclear test missile has made it is a few miles into the Sea of Japan, as NBC News reported in April.
In other words, it could be years, if not decades, before Pyongyang may be capable of launching a nuclear missile at a U.S. target.
The Specter Of Conventional War
That’s not to say that North Korea couldn’t do considerable damage to stability in East Asia if they wanted. While any military attack by North Korea against the United States mainland, either nuclear or otherwise, is all but out of the question, other U.S. allies are within easy reach of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. Seoul, a city of 10 million people, is within about 121 miles, of the North’s conventional battery. Tokyo, with its 22 million people, is about 800 miles away – well within the range of conventional weapons.
Similarly, U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea, Okinawa, Japan, and on ships in the region, are also well within the range of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
Japan, for its part, is taking the possibility of conventional war with North Korea seriously, according to the New York Times. Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that Tokyo is developing plans to evacuate its 57,000 citizens in South Korea, should war break out.
“We will take all necessary steps to protect our people’s lives and assets.”
The China Problem
An even larger problem, should the U.S. go to war with North Korea, is China. While officially China and the U.S. work together to corral North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Beijing and Pyongyang are staunch allies, according to Newsweek. Drawing North Korea into a war could result in the U.S. and China facing off against each other in a proxy war that could develop into an actual war.
And China, unlike North Korea, has nuclear weapons.
It’s for these reasons that U.S. military intervention with North Korea has traditionally been seen as a last resort. However, with Pyongyang escalating its nuclear ambitions, and a jingoistic and unpredictable Donald Trump holding the title of Commander-in-Chief, nuclear war with North Korea may not be as unlikely as previously believed.
[Featured Image by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]