North Korea lacks capabilities, resources to present legitimate threat

Illustration by Parker Wilhelm

There’s been quite a lot of buzz about North Korea in recent days. This is not too surprising, considering the inflammatory language coming from its leadership. Vows to turn Washington, D.C. into a lake of fire, to destroy U.S. military bases with nuclear weapons and, the only threat that has been followed through on thus far, the breaking off of the 60-year cease-fire that followed the Korean War and severing of communications with South Korea, have prompted a degree of concern from many.

This has happened before. North Korea has threatened South Korea and the United States many times over the years. The threats became more worrisome after the country acquired nuclear weapons, but never has North Korea followed through on what were, for all intents and purposes, hollow threats.

The new threats of war promised destruction if the United Nations voted for new sanctions against the country. Now that those sanctions are being implemented, the question is whether the North Korean leadership will follow through on their promises.

Some say that it could happen. Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, succeeded his father less than two years ago and is said to be the youngest head of state in the world, though his exact age is unknown. Because of this, it has been suggested that he might take a more radical stance than his father’s in order to cement his position with the powerful military leadership.

It may be that he’s more inclined to embrace the military option that his father often threatened, but never delivered. More importantly, North Korea could have the means to follow through on these threats. With one of the world’s largest armies and nuclear weapon capability, North Korea appears to be in a position to make good on its threats.

However, the country faces two significant problems that prevent it from being a true threat: China and a lack of modern equipment.

On paper, North Korea has a massive army. With over a million in active service and eight million more in reserve, the size of its force is larger than that of South Korea and the United States combined. Its equipment, though quite outdated, could still be effective against a more modern military. The Department of Defense released an article in November 2003 calling the North Korean military “very credible.”

Yet, in the end, the North Korean military is hamstrung by the fact that such a poor nation could not sustain a protracted war. Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute, estimated in a March 29 CNN article that the country has enough fuel stockpiled to sustain a war for only 30 days. On top of that, China backed tough sanctions against North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons test. If these sanctions prove effective, North Korea could find itself wholly unable to conduct a war at all.

China has often acted on behalf of North Korea within the United Nations and remains the country’s strongest ally. Recently, however, China has been more critical of its neighbor’s increasingly awkward position to the point that they reversed their position on sanctions. More dramatically, China abruptly ceased exporting fuel to the impoverished nation last month in what some are calling a response to North Korean aggression.

Perhaps the most significant point concerning North Korea is the fact that though it has long-range capability and nuclear weapons, it lacks the ability to combine them effectively. Only recently has the country developed technology that would allow these weapons to reach the U.S., but North Korea almost certainly lacks the ability to produce compact nuclear warheads capable of being carried by a missile. Even though North Korea still possesses missiles capable of reaching South Korea and the U.S. military bases in the area, it’s extremely unlikely that we are in danger of missile strikes from North Korea.

Ultimately, North Korea is a threat. However, given the disparity in capability between it and the U.S. and its increasing isolation, it is a threat to our allies and our interests rather than to our national security. This is just one more hollow threat from a nation struggling for relevancy. As a country, we should be concerned where this will lead. As citizens, however, we have little to worry about.

Randall Hellmer is a senior in mass communications. Please send comments to