Pyongyang, North Korea–Since 1968, April 15th remains the most important day on the North Korean calendar. Its narrative is curiously similar to Christianity’s nativity story. It honors the birth of North Korea’s Eternal President, Kim Il-Sung, and enshrines the day the supreme leader took on the fleshly form to dwell among the people he would go on to save. This year marks his 110th birthday.
The anniversary is expressed with the ordinary festoonery of any self-absorbed birthday bash; dance parties, light displays, music, celebratory gatherings, and (what proper party would be sufficient without them?) intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
A few weeks ago headlines reported that the DPRK’s Ministry of Defense launched what they believed was the country’s most powerful and far-reaching weapon yet. The rocket, Hwasong-17, recorded an altitude of 3,852 miles and a flight time of 71 minutes, according to confirmations of government officials from South Korea and Japan. It’s also estimated to reach distances of 9,320 miles; enough to touch down on US soil. The statistics of this exercise dwarfed those of the previous missile, the Hwasong-15.
However, those reports soon reappeared with asterisks, as later analyses questioned if the launch was mechanically successful. Others claimed that this new missile wasn’t new at all, and instead, was a painted-over version of the same missile tested in 2017.
While the details of the newly tested messianic tool are inconclusive, this hasn’t prevented tremors of fear from rippling throughout Eastern Asia and into the broader reaches of the globe, arguably for very good reason. Every hint, murmur, and pang of nuclear increase holds ill-significance. In most cases, specifically in regards to North Korea, the significance of a nation’s hankering for membership in the arms race has often found greater purpose in the marketing benefits. The shadows that such weapons cast have more powerful intentions than the object itself.
Developing the Nuclear Status
Back when the fear of nuclear holocaust was still teething, George Orwell published an essay titled You and the Atom Bomb. The essay forecasted the meaning of nuclear power for civilization and for the average earthly organism. He dealt a dour hand that pointed out the anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary support that this new weapon granted the nations with economic power to manufacture one. So, where simple military tools like the bow and arrow, the hatchet, the musket, and the Molotov cocktail lent power to those who had none, nuclear technology–through its colossal and complicated industrial requirement–further anointed such nations authority over its subjects and power over its neighboring, non-nuclear states.
Orwell died in 1950, not living to see the ratification of the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (1968), which barred non-nuclear members from constructing atomic weaponry and allowed existing nuclear states to keep their arsenals without recourse.
However, the Cold War proved that even the planet’s most unbalanced tyrants would go to great pains to avoid detonation. And the arms race, instead, grew roots in the nourishing soil of state marketing budgets. The nuke soon became the logo and status of an empire. Instead of land, wealth, or armies—it was the size of a nuclear threat that became the currency of power.
Inertia, Boredom, and Failed Incentives
The last semi-serious diplomatic scheme to position North Korea away from its nuclear path came in 1993 under President Clinton. In this Agreed Framework Deal, the US offered North Korea copious amounts of oil and nuclear reactor building material (material that was never sent). In return, Pyongyang promised to shut down, but not dismantle, its nuclear testing program. Five years later, they reneged on the agreement. Then, in 2003, they left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entirely, and in 2006 launched the nation’s first nuclear missile test.
This relentless timeline is why the recent and very public display from the DPRK, remains a worrisome event even though it’s one of the world’s wimpier nuclear powers. It serves humanity a queasy reminder that going on one century later, the powers of earth remain as attached to the symbolic importance of the nuclear warhead as ever before. It represents the failure and indifference of peace-seeking leaders to persuade the world of its taste for nuclear power. And it represents the reality that, although the commitment of nations to lower their thumb to the nuclear button remains unknown, the commitment that comes to the power of having a button is shared by democracies and Juche dictatorships alike.
Thumbnail Credits: Reuters
Editorial Credits: Adelola Tinubu