North Korea, though one of the most impoverished and cut-off nations in the world, is part of the nuclear club. It is also a nation that has been at war since its tanks rolled across the border into South Korea in 1950. And it is headed by a man who executes his top staff with an anti-aircraft battery.
So when such a country fires up its nuclear reactors, its not surprising that some become a little worried. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) achieved its first successful test of a nuclear device in 2006, and then again in 2009, when it also tested a delivery system: scud-type missiles which were fired into the Sea of Japan. Scary stuff.
Though North Korea is definitely in the nuclear club, its weapons are – compared to modern weapon systems of the US and other western nations – positively stone-aged. Their latest ballistic missile – the fearsome looking BM25 Musudan – has not been tested and there is no evidence that it actually works.
North Korea’s latest nuclear test (2013) registered somewhere between 6-9 kilotonnes in strength, only one third or two thirds the strength of America’s 15 kilotonne weapon ‘Little Boy’ that destroyed Hiroshima seven decades ago. Today, the DPRK’s best (undeliverable) weapon is only 0.005 percent of the strength of the latest US’ latest 1.2 megatonne (entirely deliverable) nuclear warhead.
The DPRK has not even achieved miniaturisation, so are – as far as we know – unable to mount a nuclear warhead onto their rockets, which – as far as we know – don’t even work. And the BBC also recently quoted the USA as insisting it is 'fully capable' of blocking any attack against it or its allies.
So why worry about North Korea?
Because all of this is a massive distraction from the unbearable tragedy unfolding in North Korea every day. Kim Jong-un’s continued policy of nuclear proliferation will succeed in further impoverishing the North Korean people, who have already been starved and worked to death in the name of obtaining yet more weapons to defend the Korean fatherland from the jealous and immoral foreign invader (that’s us, by the way).
The atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki. I hope anyone with an ounce of human empathy can agree that every life lost was a tragedy. Whether or not the bombs shortened the war, nothing those civilians did deserved incineration, maiming or irradiation.
The same can be said for the North Korean people.
The numbers of people in North Korean concentration camps right now are a comparable to the combined death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – estimated to be between 150,000 and 200,000 – not mentioning the millions of North Koreans experiencing daily inhumanity outside the camps, where malnutrition, an almost complete absence of human rights and the presence of constant fear of the regime are harsh realities.
Each case of state-mandated murder, torture, persecution and oppression is a human tragedy that must not be forgotten. But, if the question 'should we be worried?' is only asked in relation to our own safety when the DPRK’s nuclear sabre is rattled, it reveals in us an inhumanity towards the ordinary citizens of North Korea who suffer a slow life-long nuclear winter in service of their leaders’ whims.
So, if you’re not worried about North Korea, you haven’t been paying attention. Perhaps its time to start. There are plenty of MPs and Peers who care deeply about the plight of the North Korean people, and who advocate for a more constructive engagement with the pariah state. They need your support. Websites such as writetothem.com make it easy to engage with your MP on any issue (North Korea or otherwise), and charities such as Amnesty are at work with and on behalf of North Koreans in distinct need.
Whatever time or resources you have, there is something you can do, and it is much more helpful than worrying.
Rob Chidley co-authored Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea (Lion, 2013) with the human rights expert and peer David Alton (Lord of Liverpool). The title has been described as 'the go to book on North Korea' and argues for a humane re-engagement with the country.