Bottom Line Up Front
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) has shown impressive progress in their nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. Currently the DPRK has a demonstrated ICBM capability and, if not now then soon, will most likely be able to deliver nuclear weapons to continental US targets on (at least) the West coast. Over the last six weeks, while volunteering at the “Nuclear Institute,” visitors and fellow volunteers have regularly disparaged North Korean technical abilities and described Kim Jong Un in terms such as “crazy,” “insane,” and “unpredictable.” These statements resemble those made by some political and military elites in the United States and cannot therefore be written off as solely the result of low-information assessments or “ignorance.” In this post I interrogate underlying social processes and logics that enable, and encourage, both viewing Kim Jong Un as “crazy” (and therefore unable to be incorporated into US strategies of nuclear deterrence) and denying North Korean missile and nuclear weapon capabilities.
Denial: Not Just a River in Egypt
As of this writing, North Korea has conducted five explosive nuclear tests and two successful ICBM flight tests. Modelling suggests that, at the least and depending on your assumptions, the Hwasong-14 ICBM can carry a nuclear warhead to targets on the West coast of the United States.
As a volunteer at the “Nuclear Institute,” an educational entity focused on nuclear science and history, I talk a lot about nuclear weapons with visitors and fellow volunteers. For obvious reasons, North Korea has been a recurring topic over the last six weeks and both visitors and volunteers have regularly and spontaneously described Kim Jong Un to me using terms like “crazy,” “psychotic,” “insane,” and “a teenager with nukes.” In addition, although less common, folk have also made disparaging comments about North Korean technical capability and human capital such as “North Korea would need actual scientists to be able to threaten the US” and “China [or Russia or Iran or Pakistan] must be giving them their technology.” The implications of these comments are two-fold. First, that Kim Jong Un (KJU) is irrational and therefore cannot be incorporated into US practices and strategies of nuclear deterrence. Second, that the United States is not currently vulnerable to DPRK nuclear attack and will not become so unless China, or some other outside party, transfers technology to North Korea.
Before and after the July 4th and July 28th tests of the Hwasong-14 ICBM there have been statements—including by elite members of US military & political organizations—minimizing or denying the demonstrated and likely capabilities of North Korean nuclear weapons and delivery systems. These include, for example, “President Trump” tweeting that “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Senator Lindsay Graham, supposedly relating a conversation he had with “President Trump,” seemed to discount the possibility of a DPRK nuclear strike on the US when he quipped that “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here” during a preemptive US war. Similarly, General Paul Selva (Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “I…am not sanguine that the test on the Fourth of July demonstrates that they have the capacity to strike the United States with any degree of accuracy or reasonable confidence of success” even though “[o]n range, they clearly have the capability.”
The resonance of statements by (presumably) well-informed political and military elites with those of (presumed) lay-people visiting and volunteering at the Nuclear Institute suggests wishful and biased thinking rather than ignorance per se. The point of this post is to explicate what underlying social processes and logics encourage conceptualizing of KJU as “crazy” and disparaging DPRK technical abilities. I argue three main points. First, that ethnocentrism and racism significantly enable and promote these counter-factual assessments. Second, that many Americans share, especially in this particular historical moment, an extreme discomfort with acknowledging vulnerability to nuclear attack. Furthermore, and third, this discomfort is produced in part by a deep uneasiness and lack of faith in nuclear deterrence that Americans are politically and socially discouraged from admitting.
Racialized Logics and The Bomb
As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson has discussed, there are persistent and widespread racialized and colonialist logics expressed in US government and public discourses about “non-Western” nuclear weapon programs. Government and intellectual elites in India and Pakistan, among others, have made similar and related critiques about how their nuclear energy and weapon programs have been treated by the US. Furthermore, domestically and internationally, India and Pakistan (and now North Korea) have linked indigenous mastery of nuclear technology, including weaponization, to anti-colonial and nation building projects. In the United States, discourses about North Korea have been shaped by, and express, the same racially coded and Orientalist conceptions that were applied to China, India, and Pakistan.
For example, Kim Jong Un is often simultaneously infantilized while being also (paradoxically) described as a Ming the Merciless caricature: maniacal, without regard for human life, and driven solely by power. Within two minutes, an interlocutor at the Nuclear Institute referred to KJU as “crazy” and like a “teenager with nukes” who can’t be deterred because he “kills his own people.” The North Korean people in this conversation were described as “mind-controlled” in a way that the Soviet and Chinese supposedly were not. Certainly, KJU can be cruel, oppressive, and murderous; based on historical example (Stalin, Mao, Nixon), however, this does not place a person outside the bounds of rationality required for nuclear deterrence. In addition, the persistent doubting of DPRK technical capability, and the assumption that North Korean successes result from outside help, is exacerbated by racialized imaginaries of North Koreans as backward, pre-modern, and ant-like. Similar themes are discernable in US discourses occurring after and in reaction to the first Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani nuclear tests.
I would also point out that Lindsay Graham’s (as one example) seeming cavalier willingness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Korean lives through a preemptive US war reflects racialized notions of Asians as less than human. It is telling that Graham presents US military action against DPRK as a unilateral decision not requiring consultation with South Korea. I doubt that the South Koreans would view the massive casualties of a second Korean war in quite the same terms as Graham.
Faith and Doubt in the Nuclear Age
Mutual vulnerability to nuclear attack is an unresolved, and unpleasant, paradox of the logics of nuclear deterrence. Americans do not like being vulnerable. After the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964, for example, the Johnson administration seriously considered attacking China (including the use of nuclear weapons) to destroy or delay Chinese nuclear capabilities. Our widespread denial of DPRK technical abilities, encouraged by racialized imaginaries of North Korea, allows for the deferment or downplaying of nuclear risk. At the same time, imagining Kim as “crazy” and outside the bounds of nuclear deterrence logic justifies and encourages thoughts of preemptive warfare.
I would argue that, with brief exceptions and until recently, the post-Cold War American public has largely ignored nuclear weapon risks. The collapse of the Soviet Union, post-Cold War US conventional military dominance, and the construction of terrorism as the predominant national security threat meant that we thought, talked, and worried less about nuclear weapons. This is no longer the case and Americans are once again subject to what Masco calls the nuclear uncanny. In the nuclear uncanny our assumptions of safety in the world are violated and we are forced to confront our atomic modernity: we live in a world in which everything we love and cherish can be destroyed in an hour because one man decided to do so.
The ongoing public freak-out about North Korea reveals deep-seated doubts and lack of faith in nuclear deterrence as a long-term guarantee of security and survival. These concerns are especially sensitive at this moment for a number of reasons: souring relations with Russia, worries about Iranian nuclear intentions, and of course North Korea’s ongoing nuclearization. Above all, Americans are particularly prone to musing about the implications of imperfect human rationality in nuclear deterrence to because of Donald Trump. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Presidential nuclear launch authority was more of an issue than any other moment in my life that I can personally remember. I have discussed and argued more about US nuclear launch procedures in the last year than ever before.
I have been particularly surprised at how widespread, and how tenaciously held, the belief is that some system of checks-and-balances constrain the US President’s ability to use nuclear weapons. The truth is, there seems to be virtually no constraints on Presidential authority to use nuclear weapons and that, especially in this moment, is terrifying.  The truth is, we remain under what President Kennedy described as a “nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” We insist that Kim Jung Un must be mad because we cannot face our own inherent irrationality or that of our nominal President. We lack faith in nuclear deterrence because we lack faith in human rationality and the systems we have built on our assumption of its existence. Our conceptualization of Kim Jong Un as crazy is encouraged by racism and rooted in our recognition that no person is fit to wield doomsday machines.
 Wright, David. 2017. “North Korean ICBM Appears Able to Reach Major US Cities.” Union of Concerned Scientists: All Things Nuclear. July 28, http://allthingsnuclear.org/dwright/new-north-korean-icbm, Accessed 7/28/2017.
 The “Nuclear Institute” is an anonymized moniker.
 I did not record these discussions & these quotes were reconstructed from memory several hours after the conversations occurred. I believe these reconstructions accurately reflect the statements made but they should not be taken as exact quotes.
 Trump, Donald (@realdonaldtrump). 2017, January 2. Twitter Post. “North Korea just…” https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/816057920223846400?lang=en, accessed 08/03/2017.
 McLaughlin, Elizabeth. 2017. “North Korea ‘Clearly’ Has Missiles That Can Reach US,General Says.” ABC News, July 18. http://abcnews.go.com/International/north-korea-missiles-reach-us-general/story?id=48704780, accessed 08/05/2017.; For additional examples see also: Lewis, Jeffrey. 2017, Aug 3. “Let’s Face It: North Korean Nuclear Weapons Can Hit the U.S.” New York Times, Opinion Pages. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/opinion/north-korea-nukes.html, accessed 8/4/2017.
 Gusterson, Hugh. 1999. “Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination.” Cultural Anthropology 14 (1): 111–43.
 Abraham, Itty. 2009. South Asian Cultures of the Bomb: Atomic Publics and the State in India and Pakistan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.; Sagan, Scott D., ed. 2009. Inside Nuclear South Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
 New Yorker. 2016, January 18. Front Cover.; Rofer, Cheryl. 2017. “Mike Pence Isn’t Kim Jong Un’s Daddy.” Nuclear Diner. April 27. https://nucleardiner.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/mike-pence-isnt-kim-jong-uns-daddy, /accessed 7/31/2017.
 Abraham, Itty. 2009. South Asian Cultures of the Bomb: Atomic Publics and the State in India and Pakistan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.; Lewis, Jeffrey. 2017, Aug 3. “Let’s Face It: North Korean Nuclear Weapons Can Hit the U.S.” New York Times, Opinion Pages. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/opinion/north-korea-nukes.html, accessed 8/4/2017.; Sagan, Scott D., ed. 2009. Inside Nuclear South Asia. Stanford Security Studies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
 Mann, Jim. 1998. “U.S. Considered ’64 Bombing to Keep China Nuclear-Free.” Los Angeles Times, September 27. http://articles.latimes.com/1998/sep/27/news/mn-26986.
 Joseph Masco. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 Wellerstein, Alex. 2017, April 10. “The President and the Bomb, Part III.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2017/04/10/president-bomb-iii/, accessed 07/20/2017.
Abraham, Itty. 2009. South Asian Cultures of the Bomb: Atomic Publics and the State in India and Pakistan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Chang, Gordon. 2017. “The Lindsay Graham Option for ‘Handling’ North Korea: Death for ‘Thousands.’” Daily Beast, August 2. http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-lindsey-graham-option-for-handling-north-korea-death-for-thousands.
Gusterson, Hugh. 1999. “Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination.” Cultural Anthropology 14 (1): 111–43.
———. 2008. “Paranoid, Potbellied Stalinist Gets Nuclear Weapons: How the U.S. Print Media Cover North Korea.” Nonproliferation Review 15 (1): 21–41.
Joseph Masco. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, Jeffrey. 2017a. “Forget Alaska. North Korea Might Soon Be Able to Nuke New York.” Daily Beast, July 6. http://www.thedailybeast.com/forget-alaska-north-korea-might-soon-be-able-to-nuke-new-york.
———. 2017b. “Let’s Face It: North Korean Nuclear Weapons Can Hit the U.S.” New York Times, August 3, sec. Opinion Pages. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/opinion/north-korea-nukes.html.
Mann, Jim. 1998. “U.S. Considered ’64 Bombing to Keep China Nuclear-Free.” Los Angeles Times, September 27. http://articles.latimes.com/1998/sep/27/news/mn-26986.
McLaughlin, Elizabeth. 2017. “North Korea ‘Clearly’ Has Missiles That Can Reach US, General Says.” ABC News, July 18. http://abcnews.go.com/International/north-korea-missiles-reach-us-general/story?id=48704780.
New Yorker. 2016, January 18. Front Cover.
Rofer, Cheryl. 2017. “Mike Pence Isn’t Kim Jong Un’s Daddy.” Nuclear Diner. April 27. https://nucleardiner.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/mike-pence-isnt-kim-jong-uns-daddy/.
Sagan, Scott D., ed. 2009. Inside Nuclear South Asia. Stanford Security Studies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Trump, Donald (@realdonaldtrump). 2017, January 2. Twitter Post. “North Korea just…” https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/816057920223846400?lang=en, accessed 08/03/2017.
Wright, David. 2017. “North Korean ICBM Appears Able to Reach Major US Cities.” Union of Concerned Scientists: All Things Nuclear. July 28. http://allthingsnuclear.org/dwright/new-north-korean-icbm.
Wellerstein, Alex. 2017, April 10. “The President and the Bomb, Part III.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2017/04/10/president-bomb-iii/, accessed 07/20/2017.