The unpredictable Kim Jong-un and the risk of a first strike in a Korean War

The unpredictable Kim Jong-un and the risk of a first strike in a Korean War

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Since the 1970s the Korean peninsula has never been far away from conflict. In common with his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un likes to use inflammatory rhetoric and provocative weapons-testing to pressure the United States by increasing the risk of military confrontation. The nuclear crisis in 1994, when the Clinton administration came close to authorising pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex, was probably the closest the region has come to war since 1953. But the current crisis may actually be more dangerous than 1994, for two reasons.

The confident Mr Kim

The first is that the regime in Pyongyang is more confident than ever in its ability to deter the US and South Korea from carrying out military strikes. The brash young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has already demonstrated a risk-acceptant approach to the world and has put the pedal to the metal on accelerating the country’s nuclear and missile programs. North Korea is a nuclear-armed state possessing a mix of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium devices estimated at 15-20 in number. There is strong evidence Pyongyang is working hard to acquire the capacity to strike US targets, as well as those of its allies, including Australia and Japan.

All of this is worrying enough, but of added concern is that Kim Jong-un may have an exaggerated sense of his own ability to manage a crisis. With a nuke in his back pocket, combined with a willingness to embrace risk, Kim almost certainly believes the US and its allies will back down if push comes to shove. Even if nuclear weapons are removed from the equation, in the first several hours of any war, the US military has estimated Seoul could be subjected to around half a million rounds of North Korean artillery per hour. This is pretty sobering stuff for US and South Korean decision makers.

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The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization which has monitored and assessed nuclear threats against the United States by national entities for over 33 years. It is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch. The public should make their own evaluations and not rely on the DEFCON Warning System for any strategic planning. At all times, citizens are urged to learn what steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack.

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