It's easy to ignore, rarely making headlines or causing the average American lost sleep, but North Korea deserves our attention. This week, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University released a report showing satellite images of construction of what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile launch site. The facility was previously used to launch an orbiting space satellite, but images now show heavy construction at the site, which analysts believe are consistent with plans to launch an ICBM now in development.
The progress on North Korea's nuclear program is remarkable given the general state of deprivation in the nation. A famine devastated the country in the mid-1990s, and it never fully recovered. North Korea's 25 million people must still rely heavily on foreign assistance for basic food staples, mostly from China. One 2011 study of North Korea's energy consumption shows that the entire country consumes less energy than Washington, D.C., a point made famous by nighttime satellite photos that depict a black hole on the northern end of the Korean peninsula, while the prosperous south shines brightly.
Nonetheless, the government has marshaled the resources to build bombs. North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, with subsequent tests in 2009 and 2013. And it has been hard at work developing delivery systems for its nuclear weapons. The same study that reveals work on a fixed launch site also describes continued work to enhance North Korea's mobile launching system, the KN-08, which operates from trucks. Although the study acknowledges that no one knows how successful North Korea will be in developing its systems, we shouldn't be complacent. North Korea is a threat to South Korea — and to the nearly 30,000 American troops still stationed there — but it is also a threat to the region and well beyond.
Last year, North Korea signed a cooperation pact with Iran, which Iran's Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei described as necessary because the "Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea have common enemies since the arrogant powers can't bear independent governments." If launching nuclear-armed ICBMs at the United States may not yet be feasible, imagine a nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea challenging those "common enemies" by putting nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists. North Korea signed a similar pact with Syria in 2002, and the Assad regime developed a reactor that was nearly operational before the Israelis bombed it in 2007. And North Korea is currently the major supplier of missile components to Iran, whose own nuclear program proceeds apace while the Obama administration foolishly pursues an agreement with Tehran that is unlikely to stop it.
So what can the United States do about North Korea? It's a tough one. We have no direct influence, and the country's dynastic communist rulers have shown themselves remarkably good at keeping the nation the most isolated in the world. But while we don't have influence, China certainly does, as does Russia to a more limited extent.
Economic sanctions have had little impact on North Korea because China continues to come to the rescue. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USSR propped up its communist ally by supplying most of the country's energy needs, but now China plays the major role, providing up to 90 percent of the country's energy imports. China also gives enormous food aid, though much of the food is funneled to the military. Food scarcity continues to be a major problem in North Korea. Malnutrition haunts the nation outside Pyongyang, a closed area where only members of the country's elite are allowed to live or even visit. Children are smaller than those throughout the rest of Asia, with the military having to lower its height requirements because North Koreans' growth has been stunted since the 1990s.
Meanwhile, North Korea's current leader, Kim Jong-un, continues the totalitarian path led by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and father, Kim Jong-il. Kim has recently disappeared from public sight — a sometimes-ominous sign. His short tenure has been marked by internal power struggles and outward bombast. Kim ordered the execution of his chief rival, his uncle Jang Song-thaek, along with all of his uncle's family, according to some reports. But whoever heads the government, North Korea should remain on our radar as an imminent threat to peace and security.