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Nuclear Threats: North Korea and Beyond

With the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from North Korea, the world is waiting to see whether what has so far been a war of words will turn to one of force. But North Korea is only one of several nuclear hotspots around the world that bear watching.

In the latest salvo, the North Korean army issued a statement that its “cutting-edge” nuclear weapons would be part of “merciless” military strikes on the United States.

This comes a day after news that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had authorized restarting the Yongbyon Nuclear Facility as a source of plutonium to beef up the country’s nuclear arsenal.

North Korea’s increasingly sharp threats to attack South Korea and specific targets in the United States are not being taken lightly. The U.S. sent B-2 bombers and F-22 stealth fighter jets for military drills in South Korea; the U.S. Navy is positioning missile destroyers off the Korean Peninsula; and, within a few weeks, the Pentagon will deploy an advanced missile defense system to Guam – two years ahead of schedule.

“I think the chance of nuclear war, or really any kind of war, is quite low,” said Paul Bracken, a professor at the Yale School of Management and author of the book, “The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics.”

But North Korea’s capability to inflict damage should not be minimized. If the country were to strike, Bracken said, it could do a lot of damage to Japan and to South Korea, but not the United States.

“They could fire chemical rockets which could kill several hundred thousand people in Seoul, and Tokyo and Osaka in Japan,” he said.

A nuclear strike directed at one of those densely populated cities could kill perhaps 3 million people, according to Bracken.

The North Korean crisis is “the start of a long cycle of nuclear provocations,” he said.

But East Asia is not the only concern. Another potential crisis lies in the Middle East. Iran has no nuclear weapons, but many countries fear it is trying to develop its own arsenal. And both North Korea and Iran have extensive cooperation on missile testing and scientific research. This week, the United States is part of a group of six world powers negotiating with Iran to place limits on its nuclear program.

However, Bracken said the world should be paying closer attention not to Iran, but to another country.

“Pakistan is the fastest-growing nuclear weapons state in the world,” he said. “South Asia is developing into a thicket of nuclear weapons.”

With the combination of North Korea, Pakistan and the possibility of Iran, “all three regions -- South Asia, the Middle East and Northeast Asia -- have had crises for a long time. But now these are occurring in a nuclear context, and that’s a big difference.

“I think it’s basically impossible to stop these countries if they decide they want the bomb,” said Bracken. “We have to learn to manage to live in a world with nine or 10 nuclear powers just as we learned to live in a world with two nuclear weapon states back in the Cold War.”

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Inside North Korea