In a remarkable statement last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that “the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed.” Shortly afterward, in response to joint military exercises being conducted by the United States and South Korea, the North Korean government held a news conference and declared that “the situation is already on the brink of nuclear war.”
The threat of nuclear war, mostly background noise for the past 25 years, is alarming. But given the uniqueness of North Korea’s position in the world, it’s worth wondering how concerned we should actually be.
To answer that question, we need to first identify the “we” we’re talking about. If that “we” includes South Koreans, the answer is: Quite a bit.
The South Korea problem
The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is about 120 miles from the South Korean capital, Seoul, home to 10 million people. That’s within easy striking range of North Korea’s existing arsenal of missiles, which is a key reason that the United States recently began deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, in South Korea, aimed at intercepting an incoming attack. Whether those missiles could carry an atomic or hydrogen bomb is another question, one we’ll get to in a moment.
Of course, the proximity of North and South Korea means that there is a large risk from conventional weapons, as well. There are artillery already at the North Korean border that could strike Seoul, although it’s not clear how much damage would result.
The threat of a missile hitting the U.S.
If the “we” is the “we” most likely to read this article — residents of the United States — the calculus is a bit different.