I know, I know, it's Kim jong-Un, the Undictator, the pot-bellied pig, the king of bluster, etc. All hat and no cattle. All sizzle and no steak.
Except....that his father blustered about having nuclear weapons and while he might have been bluffing at first, it wasn't too long before he could back it up.
The same skepticism and underestimation was heaped on Kim's claim six months ago to have submarine-launched nuclear missile capability. But as Noah Rothman wrote at the time, the issue with Kim's martial boasting is never "if," but rather "when," and what we'll be able to do about it if U.S. officials' sneering ridicule proves to be unfounded:
[I]t’s almost impossible to intercept a ballistic missile after the nuclear delivery vehicle has left the boost phase. If North Korea were to park a submarine armed with nuclear-tipped SLBMs a hundred miles off the California coast, it would be infinitely harder for America’s continental anti-ballistic missile installations to intercept that threat. The prospect of a North Korean SLBM stockpile would also ensure that Pyongyang maintains retaliatory nuclear strike capabilities in the event of an American attack of any kind, virtually guaranteeing U.S. paralysis in the event that hostilities broke out again on the Korean Peninsula.
So, here is the nightmare scenario. [When] at some point in the near future....North Korea has managed to develop enough nuclear weapons, miniaturized warheads, and SLBMs to satisfy American skeptics that the DPRK has a modest but effective arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons, it would not take much effort to hold the United States hostage.
In the event of a new crisis in relations with North Korea – an outcome that occurs with metronomic regularity whenever the starving criminal state needs a fresh infusion of American capital – the DPRK might find that U.S. pockets will again loosen if it puts a gun to America’s head in the form of a nuclear-armed submarine somewhere off the West Coast. American officials would try to soothe the frayed nerves of frightened Pacific Coast residents, but it would be hollow rhetoric. There would be almost nothing Washington could do to prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear warhead at a major metropolitan area [or in an EMP attack] save for threatening a massive retaliatory response; a threat that is already explicit, as it serves as the foundational doctrine of American nuclear deterrence strategy. In this scenario, the U.S. could only react to and not prevent a North Korean nuclear attack.
And there's no way we could retaliate so close to Red Chinese territory without precipitating a nuclear exchange with Beijing. There would be nothing we could do.
We would be helpless. And all our enemies would know it. Heck, they ALREADY know it.
That is the backdrop against which to view Kim's triumphalist claim of having developed thermonuclear warheads - hydrogen bombs, to colloquialize it:
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared on Thursday to claim his country has developed a hydrogen bomb, a step up from the less powerful atomic bomb, but outside experts were skeptical.
Kim made the comments as he toured the Phyongchon Revolutionary Site, which marks the feats of his father who died in 2011 and his grandfather, state founder and eternal president, Kim Il Sung, the official KCNA news agency said.
The work of Kim Il Sung “turned the DPRK into a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation,” KCNA quoted Kim Jong Un as saying.
Maybe he's bluffing, maybe he's telling the truth. It almost doesn't matter, because we have no way of making that determination. And if he's bluffing now, we can safely conclude that he won't be bluffing for long.
And, again, we have no way of knowing the veracity of his claim. Which means the prudent course of action is to assume that he can back it up.
That's the easy way. And the easy way is a helluva lot better than finding out the hard way....