Recently I have been forced to have “the talk” with my parents. And my grandparents. And my hairdresser. Neighbors, hairdressers’ neighbors, aunt’s cat’s acupuncturist, you get the idea. Sooner or later, you’ll probably force me into it with you, too, dear reader, so I’m just going to go ahead and provide you with a transcript to make it easier on all of us.
You: So, Lindsay. According to your ruthlessly sanitized author biography, you live in Washington, DC, where you write on foreign affairs. So, like . . . Um, I’m not sure how to ask this, but . . .
You mean the whole underground congressionally-funded ice skate death match expose on HuffPo? Yeah, I know that girl kind of looked like me, and I have been known to shout “Prosecco Jones!” when I drink too much, but I swear, if I ever find myself in a DVF ballgown in the tunnels running beneath the National Mall, I’d like to think I wouldn’t get nearly that much blood on it. Like, not even half that much—
Er, what? No, I was going to ask you about—Wait, did you say ice skate death match? In ballgowns?
Of course not. That’d be ridiculous. What were you going to say?
Well, I’m just kinda freaked out about . . . this whole Korea thing.
Tell me about it. If this shit blows up before I finish this rough draft, I am so screwed.
Oh, my god! You really think they’re going to blow something up? So I’m right to be worried?
What? Oh, I meant that figuratively. En la maniere du Lady Gaga: Blowin’ up my telephone. Like, when I started this draft, Dennis Rodman didn’t even know there was a North Korea. Now I’m gonna look like Psy, still ridin’ my invisible pony through a Harlem Shake world.
I still have no idea what you’re talking about. But seriously. What is up with North Korea? Should I be scared or what?
Define “scared.” Scared that there is a quasi-nuclear state run by someone my age? Hell, I can’t even be trusted with Twitter sometimes. Forget nuclear launch codes. Scared about rampant starvation, malnutrition, political oppression, human rights violations, personality cults, dogs and cats living together? Yes, these fall under the heading of “things that scare me.” But also under the heading of “why I care about foreign affairs.”
I more meant, should I be scared that they’re gonna… y’know… attack us.
Nukes. You’re worried about nuclear provocation.
Yes! Yes. I just need to know if I should apologize to my doomsday prepper neighbor for calling the city on him when he tried to build a nuclear bunker under my property line. And start seducing him with pallets of Spam.
Well, despite those ambitious targeting sites of Kim’s—the man has stretch goals, what can I say—the DPRK probably won’t be able to deploy nuclear-armed missiles anytime soon, and their medium- and long-range missile capabilities aren’t too reliable, either. Think Iron Man 2. So unless you’re in South Korea, Japan, China, or eastern Russia, you can go back to building bunkers because of zombies and other more immediate threats.
If you are in those countries, then yeah, there’s a small likelihood, but even then, DPRK has thus far favored little temper tantrums on disputed islands to remind its neighbors that it exists. The new South Korean president has a much lower tolerance for shenanigans than her predecessor, so the recent nuclear tests are probably more about reminding her that the DPRK can look all mean and scary when it wants to, too. Like that crazy African owl that can make itself look twice as big as it really is. Then, when the DPRK gets what it wants—food aid for its starving millions, a tiny glimmer of economic growth, even just a little respect—it’ll shrink up and make itself all tiny again.
Caveat emptor, that MO is more applicable under the late Kim Jong Il than his son, Kim Jong Un. Jong Un may feel he has something to prove, either to his subjects or to his leadership cadre; he may miscalculate in the whole escalation game, or think P5+1 Talks is the name of an indie rock band, or get desperate and try to force the issue. Or he might pull what back in Oklahoma we like to call a “Hey Y’all, Watch This.” North Korea does have both beer and barbecue, so I’m just sayin’, the means and motive are there.
We International Relations wonks are big fans of theoretical modeling and dissecting logical fallacies (eg, the fundamental attribution error: If Jong Un is acting like a total dickwad, is it because complete and utter dickwaddery is written into his genetic code, or are circumstances just causing him to appear like a total dickwad at this specific moment in time?). But like economics, you can only trust that whole “rational actor behaving in its own self-interest” assumption about as far as you can throw it.
Not gonna lie, my eyes totally glazed over after “zombies.” So what if there was a nuclear attack on Washington? You’d be screwed, right?
So here’s the thing about nukes—they are so big and scary that people tend to lose all rationality when it comes to measuring just how big and scary they actually are. Your average warhead can level about a 1.5-square mile radius. So, yes, if you are within that radius, it’s all melty and burning and white hot bliss and mushroom clouds.
Outside this radius, immediate death is going happen from flash burns, falling debris, resultant fires, and acute radiation sickness. If I’m beyond the blast radius, I think my chances are actually pretty good. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be in the tunnels running beneath the Mall,
prosecco-ing my way up the death match bracket rescuing stray bunnies. But even if I’m home, my windows face away from the city center and are fairly well-shielded; I have windowless rooms; I know how to seal up my ventilation system and pop some potassium iodide tablets and make peace with the cancer and skin lesions that will be ravaging my body for the next one to ten years while everyone I know and love suffers the same agonizing fate. And do you know how many crappy YA novels I can write in one to ten years with nothing to do but change my pustulent bandages? A whole friggin’ lot.
Not that I have rehearsed this or anything.
Sorry, just writing this down . . . potassium . . . iodide. Great. Anything else I should know?
Well, I am the ranking commander of Hero Squad, and President Obama totally stalks my dining recommendations, but I’m more well-versed in all things Soviet and post-Soviet than Korean, so I may be Kremlinologizing where there is no Kremlin. Though I’d still totally put it on my resume as being an expert on this task and/or have supervised others on it.*
So I could point you toward the National Book Award-nominated Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, or the insightful 38 North website run by the stalwart Korea-watchers at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Both are great resources for better understanding all things DPRK. But instead I’m going to link the Kim Jong Un Looking at Things tumblr, because that shit does not get old:
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to googling how to get blood stains out of fine-knit Italian organza. …You know, for a book I’m writing.
*If you’re one of the three people in the world who get this joke, I love you and I feel your pain.