How big of a threat is North Korea?

Under the leadership of 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, who came to power upon his father’s death in 2011, the pace of North Korean nuclear and missile tests has accelerated dramatically. His tyrannical regime now has an estimated 20 nuclear warheads — and is adding a new weapon to that stockpile every six weeks or so, experts believe.

North Korea has already successfully mounted a small nuclear warhead on a 1,500 km–range Rodong missile that can reach South Korea and Japan — and is on course to develop 13,000 km–range intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the continental U.S. by early next decade, according to observers at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. ignores North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal — and the instability of its erratic leader — at its peril, says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Just because Pyongyang wants us to pay attention,” Fitzpatrick told The Economist, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.”

The U.N. Security Council has just passed the toughest sanctions in two decades. However, the success of the sanctions will depend almost entirely on China — Pyongyang’s most influential ally, and the nation with which it does 90 percent of its trade. If the North Korean regime collapses, experts agree, there will be absolute chaos. There would be widespread looting by the country’s starving citizens, and violence in the gulags holding the country’s 120,000 political prisoners. Millions of people would rush the border into China, and South Korean and U.S. troops would be forced to occupy a devastated and dysfunctional country.

In his final days, Kim might choose to pass the nuclear weapons under his control to terrorists — or even launch them himself, as a final act of suicidal revenge. The regime’s collapse would probably spark a brutal civil war with very high stakes, says North Korea expert Andrei Lankov — like “Syria with nukes.”

[The Week]

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