With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea. It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.
North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons. That should give us all pause.
Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have. However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago. This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM. This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability. Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization. It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.
To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons. Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25. A comforting thought.
This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea. This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure. Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea. It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.
History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population. In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions. He just doesn’t care.
All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger. It does say that the equation changed. As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival. Period. He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed. As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.
Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him. That is not the danger. The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs. The possibility of a miscalculation is high. Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S. It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that. However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish. The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first. Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.
There is one other little discussed element of this problem. The North Koreans are all about being anti-American. A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position. They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons. They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.
When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options. Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them. All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small. Or it should be. As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high. Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus. The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking. If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces. Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate. Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse. They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out. It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons. They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.
The second option is to negotiate. The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today. Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs. This is a non-starter on two levels. The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies. Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations. Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything. If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.
The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.” We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime. He knows this. Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested. They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind. Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems. There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat. It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.
Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous. As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully. We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater. At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out. It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.
Our national security team has its work cut out for it. Let’s hope they make the right choices.