Once again, the Emperor of the Hermit Kingdom - North Korea - is threatening nuclear war. Or so the media would have us believe.  The basic idea purveyed by the media and by US spokespersons is that oriental despotisms - as Iran and North Korea are regularly portrayed - cannot possibly be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Accordingly, US policy is that it will "never accept" an Iranian or North Korean bomb. While rational people would never use a nuclear weapon except in circumstances in which it was rational to do so, unbalanced, crazy types might decide to unleash their nuclear arsenals, or turn them over to terrorists, or what not. It would seem that only rational Western nations like the US can be trusted with nukes.

Images of mullahs and Asiatic despots aside, there are obvious reasons why Iran and North Korea would want nuclear weapons. Most significantly, a nuclear weapon is a guarantee that they will not suffer the same fate as Iraq in 2003. One of the only times it is rational and credible to make nuclear threats is in a situation of existential crisis. For this reason, no one invades or pushes too far a power armed with nuclear weapons. 

Were Iran or North Korea to use a nuclear weapon in any other circumstance, they would face obliteration. Since nuclear weapons can be traced to their origin, it would be suicidal for these countries to provide weapons to terrorist groups. Such groups do not have a country to lose, unlike the leaderships of Iran and North Korea. So if they turn out to have rational reasons for pursuing nuclear weapons, and are likely to be governed by the same realities of nuclear deterrence that constrained the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, what about the rationality of US policy?

For one, for the US to say it will "never accept" what is already a reality is an absurdity: North Korea already has the bomb. It must now be treated as a nuclear power. More broadly, the recent history of US foreign policy is not exactly a testament to rationality. In response to a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 of its citizens, the US invaded two countries, starting wars that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Ten years later, it has lost both of those wars and broken its budget. Luckily, not every country that suffers from terrorism reacts with such deadly and self-defeating spasms of revenge and blood lust.

North Korea has in living memory suffered from the wanton destructiveness of US policy. This is a fact that must be remembered in the face of media images of North Korea's supposedly irrational militarism.

Over the three years of the Korean War, in the words of General Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force "burned down every town in North and South Korea." Moreover, it is the US that has made repeated nuclear threats against North Korea, despite the fact that North Korea has never posed a serious threat to the US which considered several times during the Korean War, both tactical and strategic weapons. Over the course of the war, a million North Koreans were killed by US, UN and South Korean forces.

This history offers some perspective on the recent crisis, which began not with North Korean threats, but with US and South Korean war games and manoeuvres. These included practice sorties by two nuclear capable B-2 stealth bombers sent over South Korea, loudly announced in the media so that the point would not be lost on North Korea's leaders.

North Korea responded with bombast. Guam, still a base for US nuclear bombers, was "threatened" by North Korea's jury-rigged missiles. In turn, the US deployed its equally ineffective, but much more expensive Thaad missile defence system to Guam.

One wonders what is more laughable: the idea that North Korea could hit a speck in the Pacific like Guam. What is not laughable is the fact that it is the US, which has a consistent pattern of threatening the use of nuclear weapons. No one is in doubt that US nuclear weapons actually work, and that it remains the only power ever to have used them in anger. The North Korean bomb may be an uncomfortable fact of life. But so too is the US bomb. And none of us should make any easy assumptions about the rationality of the leadership of either country, however.

The writer is an associate professor at the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research. This article has been reprinted from Al-Jazeera.