Pyongyang, North Korea – Since 1968, April 15th remains the most important day on the North Korean calendar. The day itself is called the “Day of the Sun” and bears a curious familiarity with Christianity’s nativity story. It honors the birth of North Korea’s Eternal President, Kim Il-Sung, the day the supreme leader took on a fleshly form to dwell among the people he was destined 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 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, the 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 outcome 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 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 a good reason. Every hint, murmur, and pang of nuclear readiness bears a disturbing significance. In most cases, and most presciently with North Korea, atomic chest-puffing yields strong returns from a marketing standpoint. The image that such weapons cast bears more power 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 relationship between nuclear weaponry and the average earthly organism. He dealt a dour hand pointing out the anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary strength that this new weapon granted nations with the financial luxury to manufacture one. Mainly, it makes all other weapons obsolete. Pre-nuke, simple military tools like the bow and arrow, the hatchet, the musket, and the Molotov cocktail lent power to those who had none. Post-nuke — through its colossal and complicated industrial requirements — nations constructed an inviolable authority over their subjects and 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 while allowing existing nuclear states to keep their arsenals without recourse. Although, since Nagasaki, the world has yet to experience another detonation of that kind.
The Cold War proved that even the planet’s most unbalanced tyrants would go to great pains to avoid pressing the button. Instead, atomic power grew amid the nourishing need for states to maintain global prestige. The nuke soon became the logo and status of an empire. Instead of land, wealth, or armies, the size of a nuclear threat 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.
The 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’s 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 warheads. And it represents the reality that, although the likelihood of autocrats lowering their thumb to the nuclear button remains unknown, the need for having a big button is shared by democracies and Juche dictatorships alike.
Thumbnail Credits: Reuters
Editorial Credits: Adelola Tinubu